Of life in the shtetl; Tevye had a point

A fiddler on the roof…
it sounds crazy.
But here,
in our little village of Anatevka,
you might say every one of us…
is a fiddler on the roof.

Before I lived here in Israel, I lived in a tight-knit Jewish shtetl called New York.

Trying to scratch out
a pleasant, simple tune
without breaking his neck.

To narrow that down, I was part of a small Jewish community within a small section of a small New York City borough. Maybe this would all be different if I had actually grown up in Brooklyn.

We were a mish mash of lost and found souls – who has never been lost, who doesn’t desire to be found? – and one thing we all had in common was, I suppose, a sense of Jewish tradition. It’s how we got there and it’s why most of us stayed as long as we did.

And how do we keep our balance?
That I can tell you in one word:
Tradition.

A friend randomly sent me the Fiddler on the Roof clip today; I suppose you’ve guessed which one by now. It must be a decade and a half since I last watched the movie or heard the soundtrack, but while I was a kid, my family was kind of obsessed with it. For a family growing into some new traditions of its own, I guess it really spoke to us. Or maybe that’s looking at it too deeply; maybe it was just another exciting part of being a minority finding pop culture that fit so perfectly.

Maybe it was because we also totally had the butcher; the mikvah; the Judaica shop.

But after I watched the Tradition scene today, I felt something I haven’t felt in nearly nine years of living here, in Israel, in a paradise Tevye only dreamed about, if he could dream past becoming a wealthy man.

I felt nostalgia and longing for Diaspora. A sense of loss, a sense of missing out.

The strong sense that living as an outsider is the ultimate way to stay true on your inside.

Halacha and tradition came easier there, in the shtetl, surrounded by the majority. Ok, we’re talking about New York, not pre (or post) World War Russia here, and I haven’t forgotten the end of the play.

But… still. In our kind of modern, safe shtetl, explaining holiday schedules to your boss was a pain; declining edible treats from college classmates was awkward; never quite understanding Christmas while watching TV was odd.

We don’t bother them,
and they don’t bother us.

But it made everything else so much more… inclusive. We belonged, to ourselves.

Yes, of course, there were major downsides to the ‘shtetl mentality’ – why do you think I left?

However, Israel is the biggest shtetl there is, surrounded by the largest majority that could be. Together, all seven-something million of us, we certainly have moments when we laugh, we cry, we bicker, we build, we live.

As intimate as it can get here, it’s not as intimate as the shtetl I knew, the outsider’s shtetl, based on local traditions, based on the narrowed-down group of insiders you cast your lot with.

Traditions, traditions.
Without our traditions,
Our lives would be as shaky as…
as…
as…
as a fiddler on the roof!

Simply put, I kind of miss it.