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The Shtetl Jew: Relic or Role Model?

The Shtetl Jew: Relic or Role Model?



I thought of you last week as I watched Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye’s beard and black coat reminded me a little of you. I have to say, it did make me feel that religious Jews are like walking antiques, out of touch with modern reality. If Tevye’s Judaism is anything to go by, don’t you think it’s time for an updated version?


Imagine if two hundred years from now, your great-great-great-great-grandchildren are researching what life was like in the early 21st century. Looking through the family archives, they excitedly discover a relic from that era—an old episode of The Simpsons. They eagerly watch it, confident that they will learn what a typical family looked like at the beginning of the 21st century.

What do you think? Will they get an accurate picture of you based on The Simpsons?

Of course not. The Simpsons is a satire, not a documentary. It is comedy, not history. We who live today can appreciate its humor, its exaggerated characters with inverted roles, its know-it-all kids and fumblingly stupid adults. But a century or two from now, life will have changed and humor will have changed; the irony may be lost on future generations who watch The Simpsons. They may take it seriously, as a historical account of family life of its time. This would of course be ridiculous—a comedy will have become history, and jokes will have become facts.

But that’s exactly what has happened with Fiddler on the Roof. This musical is based on a series of short stories called Tevye the Milkman, written by the 19th-century Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem. Himself a secularist, Sholem Aleichem was ridiculing what he saw as the backward and outdated traditions of Judaism. He depicts Jewish life as a dusty museum of archaic rituals and stubborn traditions without rationale. Tevye is presented as a sincere but uncultured man, stubborn in his views and blind in his faith, whose values and beliefs can’t compete in the modern world.

Fiddler on the Roof is quaint and entertaining. But it is satire, not history. Tevye the milkman is no more a representation of a typical observant Jew than Homer Simpson is of a typical modern father. Yet for many people today, both Jewish and not, Fiddler is their only exposure to observant Jews, and they take it as an accurate depiction of Jewish religious life.

The truth is very different than the caricature presented in Fiddler. Judaism has survived because of its ability to speak to each generation in its own language, to present powerful answers to the questions faced by every new era, and to reinvent itself in every time and place without watering down its original content. What Sholem Aleichem would never have dreamed is that while his Yiddish secular culture is all but gone, the traditions of Judaism are alive and well. More and more Jews today are recognizing that the ancient wisdom and spiritual practices of Judaism are more relevant now than ever.

We are Jewish today because our great-grandparents had the unswerving faith of Tevye. Our great-grandchildren will be Jewish if we have the vision to communicate that faith to ourselves and our children in a dynamic and modern voice. Even The Simpsons will one day be relegated to history, but our tradition will live on.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to
Image by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms. Brombacher’s art, click here.
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Feigele Boca Raton FL January 8, 2013

Traditions are forever! . It is an “aberration” to dismiss our past, present and future Jewish culture and traditions. Reply

Feigele BR FL January 8, 2013

Let’s talk about costumes, uniforms and other attires in different cultures. To start with, Rome, where all cardinals and clergy personnel wear robes, the men in Africa, and the aborigenes of Australia barely cover their manhood and women don’t cover their upper bodies, monks and Hindu wear robes and turbans, the dhoti also known as pancha, panche or veshti is a traditional men's garment worn in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is a rectangular piece of unstitched cloth wrapped around the waist and the legs and knotted at the waist, resembling a long skirt. In Iran most women wear mostly BLACK (very scary too) sari or saree which is a strip of unstitched cloth, worn by females, ranging from four to nine yards in length that is draped over the body. You get my drift? Yes Chassidic identify by wearing long black coats and large black hats the same as every other countries identify with their costumes and traditions. Reply

Anonymous January 7, 2013

Feigele - well said. Many look at those days of poverty as something to escape, as did Tevye and as anyone would, but it seems with prosperity, we lose sight of the important things, like our Creator and our family and then you have the single mothers and divorced fathers; not to mention the emotionally damaged children who result from those divorces. Today we, as so many have said, are ravaged by a holocaust of assimilation. This is a cultural war just as in the days of the Macabees, only MUCH MORE SUBTLE AND DECEPTIVE. Their weapons are TV, internet, movies, magazines, as well as those who pretend to be Jews and manage to manipulate from within. THEY are winning this war for our hearts and minds and we need some spirital Macabees to rise up and rescue us from our march to oblivion. Reply

Irving Anellis Indianapolis January 6, 2013

Reality, revisited: History and/versus literature Anonymous in Wisconsin seems to have entirely missed my point. There was no implication in my distinction between literature and history that literature does not reflect reality. Indeed, petit histoire is a useful tool in aiding the historian to vicariously experience the temper of the times in understanding grand histoire. My point was that literature provides the author with a means of portraying his or her experiences of a time and place, whereas the historian, as Jewish philosopher of religion Emil Fackenheim noted, the goal is to both describe and explain, that reality. To comprehend the differnce in the roles of literature and history, as well as the relation between them, one might compare Gogol's portrait of "Zhid Yankel" with Dostoevsky's; and then compare Dostoevsky's fictional "Zhid Yankel" with his journalistic correspondence with Avraham Kovner on the "Jewish issue" in late 19th-century Russia. David Goldstein's book Dostoevsky and the Jews shows the complexity of the differences and similarities between the literary and the journalistic attitudes. And then compare the literary accounts with strictly historical accounts, such as found in Simon Dubnow's book History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times Until the Present Day. Compare Dubnow's book with Cheryl Silverman's 1989 Columbia University doctoral dissertation, Jewish Emigres and Popular Images of Jews in Japan, which examines the primarily literary influences (e.g. portraits of Shylock in Japanese translations of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice", and propagandistic reports, by imperial Russian refuges in Manchuria railing against Jewish Bolsheviks, and World War II German reports, on the shaping of attitudes, and hence of "reality").

Leopold Ranke, the nineteenth-century founder of historicism, which wants to permit the documents to "speak for themselves" without interpretation, in the attempt of the historian to learn "how it really was", nevertheless insisted that as many documents as can possibly be located be closely examined and critically analyzed, since even first-hand, putatively unbiased, records cannot help but reflect the way in which the writer experienced and understood the events being recounted. It is a matter of epistemology, that no two people will experience the same reality in exactly identical ways. So Anonymous in Wisconsin's appeal to the grandparents who remarked that that's the way it really was, simply tells us that that is how that grandparent experienced it. It does not falsify the experience. My grandfather's cousin, who tried to fight off pogromists with a pitchfork had the same reality as the the neighbor who got caught unawares; but that is not to claim that the reality of the pogrom as an historical even is undermined, only that the immediate experience, and the remembered reflection of the reality is personal. Likewise, my Galitzianer grandparents, who were living in a tiny shtetl, had a somewhat different reality than did my Litvak grandparents who were living in a major city. The goal of literature is to universalize and objectify personal, subjective experience of reality; the goal of history is to understand and objectively explain that same reality. Back in the mid-1960s, as an undergrad history major taking a course on methods in history, the one point that the instructor kept driving home was to be critical and analytical in studying both first-hand and second-hand accounts, and to compare and evaluate as many documents as can be found, before accepting as factual any historical event or reality or interpretation.

The point is: the same reality is underlying both the literary and the historical presentations, but the literary is mediated through personal experience, while the historical is, indeed, to use Anonymous in Wisconsin's term, "intellectualized". Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL January 4, 2013

...Continuation How can you even contemplate erasing the past so hastily? Go back thousand years and see where you come from and where you belong! Like you and me, Tevye was dreaming of a better future for his family and for all the Jews in the village who all came from all over the world persecuted and forced against their will to live in these conditions, not by choice, but smart enough to make a living the best a Jewish heart, mind and soul is able to with the Mameles warming up your heart with comfort food and Tateles coming home from work and cheering up the whole house—It was family all together vs. today’s single mothers and divorced fathers… Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL January 4, 2013

It’s not only about one Person! Tevye represented the Jews from the Shtetl with all their struggles and fears. He never claimed to be a role model rather he was a communicator between them and G-d. He was what we call today, a (Jewish) “street smart” using his faith as a comfort in his daily challenges. He was no fool, nor silly, far from it. Those were the times of poverty not only in the Shtetl where a group of people lived but all over the world as well. See the times of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in France or England, how about the Sephardic Jews living in tents in the middle of the desert as merchants vs. Ashkenases living as milkman, butcher, taylor or pejoratively called “peasants” instead of farmers… Put yourself in their shoes if you were born then and there…
To be Cont'd... Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin December 27, 2012

Reality You can intellectualize all you want, but earlier in the comments a grandfather comes out from watching the movie and is very sober and says to his children/grandchildren, "that's the way it was". Apparently S.A. produced more than a stylized version of history. He hit the nail on the head. Reply

Irving Anellis Indianapolis December 27, 2012

history and/versus literature Literature, all literature, is a stylized portrait of the writer's perception of reality in the environment in which s/he exists. As such, it is not reality, but a simulation of the author's conception of reality. We read fiction to get a feel for the context of the reality of the author within the author's physical and emotional and mental or psychological environment. The intent of history, on the other hand, is to explain the reality of a particular time, within the context and complexity of the environment. History and literature, in that sense, reenforce one another, and while literature can give a glimpse of a feeling of a certain time, history and literature cannot and should not be too readily confused with one another without doing violence to both. Reply

Judy Olam Hazeh December 25, 2012

To Kamiel- Life in Eastern Europe fits your description for everyone- Jew and Gentile- at that time. The majority were rural and poor. Few had decent medicine or quality of life. Read your history. The main point made by S. A.'s stories is how the Jewish peasants weathered the Russian revolt coming at them. And believe me, it was huge. I am a grand daughter of those very peasants- I owe my existence and my Jewish consciousness to their tenacity to the little blue threads of Judaism they were able to keep alive and pass down. My grandparents died soon after coming to the US. But they planted in this soil 4 children who held onto their TRADITION in the best way they knew how- they watched their mother baking the challah and heard their father saying the brachas and praying before going to the tailor shop. My uneducated, poor, sickly, peasant G'parents gave us kids our most precious possession- our Jewishness. This gift is ours to explore, to understand, make holy and pass to our own children the essence of that holiness. Reply

Jack Katz December 24, 2012

"People were ignorant in those times, and this is part of our history. We have to accept it."

To the contrary, it is we, modern diaspora Jewry that are ignorant of the real lifestyle, values, and perhaps most sadly the customs of Eastern European Jewry, of which Shtetl life was made a caricature by writer Sholem Alachem in his "Tevye the Milkman." To conclude that his fictionalized view of "life" in Galicia was the reality is like believing that Disneyland is Americana. In fact Alechem spent most of his life in Lemberg, a city of over 100,000 Jews who were neither backward, socially awkward, or unenlightened. It is very sad to read some of these unenlightened posts and worse to see American Jewry (especially) trying to imitate what they do not, nor ever will understand to be the customs of the ancestors who they never knew -- or even took the time to ask the simple questions of their elders even as to where or how they lived. Reply

wamae December 24, 2012

Sincere cultural work I doubt if the movie mocks Judaism. it is rather a fine ethnography and reason-detre for everything Jewish. There is nothing 'uncultured' about it .Rather ,sincerity shines through and through. insincere culture of lies in the name of 'modernity' or political/religious correctness is what the movie forever mocks. Reply

Ronald Faulk Leesburg, Fl. December 23, 2012

fiddler's truth I love the movie. Tevye remind's me that devotion in the face of trials, and the threats of assimilation is better than giving in to temptation. Perchik from Kiev sounds like a Washington politician of today. Didn't we just learn this from Chanukah?? Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem December 23, 2012

Conforming leads to assimilation and to spiritual annihilation. Long Jewish history has proven again and again that conforming leads to assimilation and to spiritual annihilation. Reply

Kamiel USA December 22, 2012

Shtetl Actually, the shtetl was an aberration. It seems unwise to perpetuate this sad, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, persecuted, insular, ignorant time and place as a paradigm or role model for anything! Otoh, the views of life in "der heim" being painted by contemporary Rabbis is distorted in an idealized-fable direction - also unwise to follow myth. Why not see Jewish history realistically, and then select that which is true, and noble? Of course, that makes some - who would direct others - very nervous, but that is the true path of wisdom. It's not about "Tevye" - it's about not aping outdated and unhealthy role-models which have long outlived whatever slim positives they may have possessed.
Torah Blessings... Reply

Judy December 21, 2012

Let's remember something important about the shtetl Traditional Jewish communities are created around the shul. They must be in walking distance of the shul for shabbos and other holy days where they must walk to it. There is an imaginary line , the eruv, drawn around the community to designate where one can carry or not carry on holy days in order to observe the laws. Why are the laws observed? Because if they are not, the concepts of Jewish thinking become diluted, distorted and misunderstood. The knowledge is retained because of . . . tradition! In exile, subsequent generations may have lost the knowledge, but the traditions have kept alive our facility to question - (i.e. why do we do this tradition or that?) And in the questioning, is the beauty of the revival of knowledge and spiritual awakening from generation to generation. Tevye, the peasant, embodied that. Reply

Kasriel Gaddi Kingston, New York December 21, 2012

Your Answer was very to the point, but.. As I sit here with both Torah and Tanya layed out on my study table, I must disagree with you on one point. Yiddish culture is not gone. In point of fact here in the Kingston area we just had a complete night of Sholom Aleichem's works performed in both readings and poetry for the entire night. So many yids, young and old. most of us thought it wondrous to have such done here. We live a Kosher existence and study with joy through Torah and Tefillah. Note here that I speak also of the younger people coming up to their ages. They love to be Traditional as it was stated. I see pleasure and happiness with Torah within them. It makes this person happy. Reply

Leah Cohen December 21, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof I have seen the film "Fiddler on the Roof" many times and I have read the stories of Tevye The Milkman, also many times over. I think that Shalom Alechem was writing how he felt that the Jews of the Shtetl were like in those times, as in fact my grandparents were, as they emerged from the back of beyond in Russia and Poland to the enlightened worlds of Great Britain. The only thing that seems to have continued is "Faith". People were ignorant in those times, and this is part of our history. We have to accept it. Reply

Morton December 21, 2012

To Leonard Although others may not know it, hassidic dress also evolves. The point is not to mimic the past, but to dress in a uniquely Jewish manner. And in their societies, that is the Jewish manner of dress. Reply

Gutman Michael December 20, 2012

Absolut Tuvia the Milk man I grew up with Tuvia the Milk man and Shalom Aleihem. We cannot forget for ever. We never let to change let stay history of Russian Jews. Reply

Louie December 20, 2012

Torah - Eternal Relevance Seven years ago I started seriously studying Torah. Over this time I have come to believe that everything in the Torah is still relevant. Things that seem old and outdated only seem so because of our inability to understand the deeper spiritual depth of a passage. Hashem, our G_d, is so amazing that He has enacted commandments that span forever. I encourage everyone to keep searching and ask Hashem. He will explain the relevance to you if you truly desire to know. Reply

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