B’chol dor vador

Originally published on

B’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu hatza mimitzrayim. In every generation, each person must consider himself as if he had come forth from Egypt.

I spent the last night of Passover not in shul, but taking part in a Jewish communal ritual nonetheless. I was in the audience at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, seeing a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Topol as Tevye This production is being billed as Topol’s “Farewell Tour” with the show, in the role he’s been playing for over 40 years on stage and screen. And frankly, that nearly kept me away from the show – Tevye should be in his early 40s, not his early 70s. But I had never seen Fiddler on stage, so I couldn’t resist.

During the performance, I kept thinking about how the show felt like a seder to me. We were retelling – in some sense, reliving – a story that most of us already knew. The audience was a palpable part of the storytelling, from the massive entrance applause that greeted Topol when he first appeared from behind Tevye’s house, to the clapping that made us a part of “Tradition,” to the roars of approval the first time a trademark niggun or chasidische dance move appeared.

There was a generational shift going on, with Topol passing on his show to a new generation, and with parents and grandparents passing on the show to their children and grandchildren. My mother told me about the first time she saw Fiddler, on a trip to Broadway when she was in college. I told her about the time I went to “Sing-a-Long Fiddler on the Roof” at the Somerville Theater.

Topol in Fiddler on the RoofBut just as the seder seems to take on new meaning for every generation, I found myself seeing new things in Fiddler on the Roof that I had never noticed before. For one, I’m pretty sure this is the first time I found myself most identifying with Perchik, the activist. And perhaps related to that, I was taken with how much of the show is about enlarging the traditional definition of marriage. (I also wondered if everyone else in my age bracket has permanently associated the song “Anatevka” with the series finale of Newhart. Despite reminding me of the departure of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, the song still managed to break my heart.)

Most strikingly, I can’t believe how moved I was by a show that, despite never having seen it on stage before, I still know inside and out. I laughed far more than I expected to, and I cried at every moment I’m supposed to. I even found myself moved at times I would have never predicted, like the moment Perchik crosses the mechitza to introduce mixed dancing to Anatevka. The themes of triumph and loss, progress and prejudice all resonated as strongly with me tonight as I imagine they did for the original Broadway audiences in the 1960s and for Sholom Aleichem’s readers at the turn of the century.

And I wonder. What will the next generation to receive this “Tradition” make of it? Will the struggles with tradition faced in the mythologized shtetl feel relevant to kids who’ve grown up in a Jewish community more open, diverse, and fluid than the one I’ve grown up with? On the one hand, I hope that these struggles seem quaint and distant to my children and theirs. But on the other hand, the march of progress ever continues, and just as I see new things in Fiddler today that I never saw before, I’m sure the next generation will find new meaning as well. We are always leaving Egypt. We are always leaving Anatevka.

PS – To restate the obvious, this production is better than I expected it to be, or really than any aged-star-recreates-the-role-that-made-him-famous-40-years-ago production has any right to be. The tour continues through the end of August. Go see it! You won’t regret it. Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School, or Why 613 is a Meaningless Number

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Dear Readers,

Jews, as you may have gathered, often have opinions. And it is my opinion that certain ideas in circulation have gotten so warped through vapid repetition that they have entered the domain of lies. Yes, you heard me. LIES.

We, as a people, value education and text. So, in the coming weeks, I am embarking on an occasional series here at Jewschool entitled Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School. I will be attacking, head-on, the sorts of alleged truisms that get repeated and repeated so often that they have become utterly divorced from anything resembling truth. It is my hope that by debunking some of these commonly-propagated myths, we can elevate our discussions with knowledge, rather than resort to pithy aphorisms.

“What,” you may be asking, “is he talking about?” Well, dear readers, I’ll give you some examples. The first post in this series is entitled 613 is a Meaningless Number. Bold? Absolutely. An overstatement? Perhaps. But are you intrigued? Read on.

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JP Shabbat: D’var Torah on the occasion of a new minyan in Jamaica Plain

Originally delivered at the inaugural meeting of JP Shabbat, a monthly independent minyan that started in my living room in April 2009, and as of this writing is still going strong four and a half years later, in the hands of a new generation of organizers.

I closed on my condo in Jamaica Plain just over two years ago.  When I decided to move to JP, I knew I’d be entering a community where neighbors talked to each other, where acres of green space awaited just down the street, and where I’d be just a quick T ride from downtown and a quick car ride to my office.  I also knew that I’d be entering a community with a lot of Jewish people, but not a lot of Jewish activity.  As someone who works for the Jewish community, I have to admit I found the idea of JP as an island away from the Jews of my work week to hold more than a little appeal for me.

Of course, I don’t really want to live in an island away from Judaism… to paraphrase a rabbi I work with, I don’t hate Judaism, I just have a problem with Jews.  Luckily, JP’s lack of a major synagogue presence means that the Jews who move here tend to be like-minded.  It didn’t take long before many of us were murmuring to each other about starting some kind of Friday night… something.  A minyan, a dinner group, an occasional Kiddush club?  The common theme was “I don’t care what we start as long as I don’t have to be in charge.”

Well, God bless Jess Gould and Efraim Yudewitz for stepping forward and actually getting us all into a room together.  About two weeks ago, nine people assembled in Jess and Efraim’s living room and decided to start whatever this is that we’re doing now. Continue reading