Hanukah 5780 – A Message from Rabbi Ethan Linden
“Fiddler on the Roof” is, in many ways, a very American show. It was based (very loosely) on a series of stories by the great Sholem Aleichem, but everything about the show beyond the source material is of American origin, so much so that when it was originally produced in 1964 there was some debate as to whether the show was, in Philip Roth’s terms, merely “shtetl kitsch.” Part of the appeal of the show, at least in its first iteration, was that it represented a certain kind of nostalgia for the portion of American Jews who traced their origins to the Pale of Settlement. Mid-Century American Jews were grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust—a legacy which burst into the open with the trial of Adolph Eichmann trial in 1961—while simultaneously finding that the doors to the inner sanctum of American life and power and influence were increasingly open to them. By the middle of the 1960s, Jews could look back to Europe to see the ruinous effects of anti-Semitism run amuck, or they could look forward at an American future that seemed to be discontinuous with that history. “Fiddler on the Roof” chooses to do both.
That “Fiddler on the Roof” is very much a product of that moment of American Jewish life that can be seen in the way the show’s most famous song—and theme—“Tradition” plays itself out in the production. There are traditions that the show’s creators, using Tevye as their mouthpiece, are more than happy to cast off, primarily those which interfere with the individual choice that American audiences would have desired. The pairings of Tzeitel and Motl, as well as Hodel and Perchik are ultimately blessed by both Tevye and the show, although of course the marriage between Chava and the Russian Fyedka is not met with acceptance by either Tevye or the larger structure of the show. (This too is very much of a piece with the way mid-century American Jews viewed the prospect of intermarriage.) Rules against mixed dancing are flouted, but no one argues that Jews should just assimilate to protect their homes and families. That, in miniature, is the deal the Jews who saw the original show in the 1960s thought they were making with the American home they had found. Here we could proudly be Jewish, determinedly modern, and fully American. And it worked for a long time.
And then, on Sunday, when I went to see the Yiddish revival of “Fidder”, there were two security guards at the door checking packages and waving wands across our bodies. I know this isn’t standard practice at most Broadway shows, and I’d imagine there was no security when “Fiddler” made its earlier runs on the Great White Way. But here I was, revisiting the show in Yiddish and finding myself subject to a security check because I wished to attend a show with overtly Jewish themes in 2019. In such moments it can feel as though the world inhabited by the people who made “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the people who through their embrace of the show elevated it into the American Jewish canon, is passing before our eyes.
A Tablet Magazine article published after the attacks in Jersey City called what is happening in America, “a slow motion pogrom.” Though that assertion may be too much—pogroms, after all, were often coordinated or at least tacitly approved by the authorities, and we have not seen evidence of that sort of collusion in America—we also must be honest with ourselves about the very real evidence that violence against Jewish people and places has been on the rise. Anti-Semitism is far too protean an enemy to ever really disappear (any approach to the world that can blame an entire group of people for both the advent of Communism and piloting the controls of global capitalism is designed for maximum survivability) but we could be forgiven for imagining that, in America at least, the tide of that lethal history was finally ebbing outwards.
But on this Hanukah of 5780, we cannot be so sure, which makes this moment of lighting fire in the face of darkness all the more important, and all the more poignant. The main point of the lights, after all, according the rabbinic tradition, is to publicize the miracle–to externalize this Jewish practice as much as possible. Find a window to display the daily increasing light of the chanukiah, say Hallel with full voice, fry those latkes so that the smell of oil wafts into every nook and cranny of the neighborhood. To be proudly, openly, even defiantly Jewish in the face of those who would wish us gone; that is the Hanukah of 5780. Hanukah is a holiday whose meaning has changed with the times, but this year, surely, we must celebrate this season with a new sense of resolve, a new spirit of resilience.
As our holidays shift and change, so too does the meaning and the mission of Camp Ramah. Launched in 1947 as a response to destruction of Europe and the hope of a new reality for American Jews, Ramah has always been a place that strives to serve the American Jewish community in ways that are both deeply rooted in our traditions and texts, and contemporary in their applications. Though it would have seemed odd to the audiences of the first “Fiddler” in 1964—and indeed might have seemed odd to us only a short time ago—Camp Ramah must now find a way to respond to, and educate for, the fact of a resurgent anti-Semitism. That cannot be all we do, of course, and Camp must remain Camp with all the fun and joy and excitement that implies, but we would be remiss as educators if we did not confront the reality that our campers and staff must now themselves confront.
We have begun thinking about how to do that, but Hanukah—this year’s Hanukah—reminds us that so much of what we hope to teach at Camp is already part of that response. To be proudly Jewish, to have knowledge of our history, our culture, our traditions and our texts. To feel the connection with the State of Israel and with Jews around the world. To see the world with a Jewish lens but not allow that lens to blind us to the world beyond our communities. To live a joyous, committed, educated Jewish life. To help our staff and our campers experience all of these ingredients through the medium of an integrated, passionate, vibrant Jewish community. If we succeed at this, we will not end anti-Semitism, we will not render our enemies powerless or voiceless, but we can help to produce a generation of Jews who will chart a course through this present moment—and whatever the present will bring them in ten years and in twenty—and help our people continue to grow and to thrive.
Camp Ramah has always been an incubator for the Jewish future and, having spent three summers in that incubator, I can tell you this with full confidence: the future belongs to our young people, not to the forces who despise us, gathering strength though they may be. Our campers and staff simply cast too much light to live in darkness, and, for the small part that Camp plays in the tending and strengthening of that light, I am thankful. And I thank you, every member of our community, for helping us in this enduring and unchanging mission.