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 Himself a secularist, Sholem Aleichem was ridiculing what he saw as the backward and outdated traditions of Judaism.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.