Seders during my childhood in Great Neck invariably began with the same unintentional ritual. My father knocked over his brimming glass of wine, sending crimson rivulets speeding across the starched white tablecloth, like the Israelites scurrying across the desert. We spent most of the first half of the seder mopping up the mess; by the time we got to the description of the cascade of blood that was visited on the Egyptians, we were just about ready, like Pharaoh, to throw in the towel.
There is an old story, a kind of midrash, in which the wanderings of the Jewish people are compared to the journey of a stone. Brought back to life by the mysterious modern commentator known as the Draschba, this story begins with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which we read during Rosh HaShanah. In the Draschba’s telling, the rock on which Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac was split open when the ram was substituted for the man. Those flints, impregnated with the joy of life affirmed, floated downstream into human history, distributed randomly in every direction, bubbling to the surface every time a text is split open, and its holy power ignited and revealed.
Registering minority voters, campaigning for stricter environmental laws, performing agit-prop theater against economic inequality — much of my free time in graduate school in New York in the 1990s was spent working with activist Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). When I moved to Central Pennsylvania a decade and a half ago, I assumed that the Jewish community here would be similar, in its political orientation, to the one that I had left behind on the Upper West Side.
A biography of literary dissembler Vladimir Nabokov might be a strange book to reach for during these past weeks, with Israel at war with Hamas, and the moral questions at stake murderously clear. But as often happens with writers, the book that must appear often does appear, at just the right time, even if it seems to come from left field.
For their jubilant “Celebration of Learning” last month at their Jewish day school in Harrisburg, Pa., my two younger daughters, Sarah and Leah, performed selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.” My children have done a lot of adorable things over the years, but nothing beats a 9-year-old dressed in a kerchief singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” or a 5-year-old shaking her arms and belting out “Tradition.” Little wonder that the most moving number in this month’s 50th anniversary of “Fiddler” gala by the Folksbiene was a parade of New York City schoolchildren, many of whom were not Jewish, doing a tribute to “Fiddler” in Yiddish.
Two years ago, on erev Shavuot, my grandmother, Bea Papo, died at 98. In a column I wrote about her just afterwards I focused on the arc of her last journey, the 40 days between Passover and Shavuot. At the seder she announced that she was about to make her final trip, explaining that “In the last few days I have been trying to imagine how an old woman might feel and act when forced to leave behind her roots and her whole life.”
At her bat mitzvah last month at Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Pa., my daughter Hannah spoke about the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the aesthetic enhancement of Jewish customs. Bathed in the light of the synagogue’s new stained-glass windows depicting Jewish holidays and allegorical representations of biblical figures, Hannah eloquently linked the Torah portion, which dealt with the ancient Israelites’ building of the tabernacle in the desert, with the creation of Jewish art and artifacts in our own day.
I’ve never been known to recall details with great precision, something which, at 45, has become increasingly apparent as my kids have to remind me where we parked, or what time to pick them up from school, or even, on some days, that they have school.
Gratitude, scientists tell us, is one of the healthiest of emotions. Jewish liturgy is replete with prayers of thankfulness; the reason why many observant Jews attend morning minyan, they say, is to start each day with an “attitude of gratitude.” The Torah suggests that God created humanity, in part, because He needed applause for his sublime authorship. And not just people — the Rabbis believed that every living thing acclaimed God with the song of its own species; these lyrics are contained in the ancient text, “Perek Shirah” (“Chapter of Song”).
What is it about “Fiddler on the Roof” that has such a hold on us, half a century on?
The adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his family for the Great White Way not only broke all Broadway records in 1964, but created a frame of reference for American Jews to discuss who they were, where they were going, and what Judaism meant. Attending the play, watching the movie, putting on school productions or singing the songs at home became part of an elaborate communal ritual for over half a century.