My daughter Sadie is 5. “Five and a half plus two months,” she’ll tell you. Before starting at a public school for pre-k last year, she went to Jewish nursery school for two years and it really took. While I wouldn’t say Judaism is more important to her than it is to her father and me, she is certainly the key motivator of lighting Shabbat candles on Fridays and celebrating even the more obscure Jewish holidays in our home. “I am the Jewish one,” she said last year when asked why she was singing the Hanukkah songs in Hebrew while the rest of her class did them in English.
She’s always been into music, so I played some of the “Fiddler on the Roof” songs for her on YouTube with clips from the movie. “Matchmaker, matchmaker, you know that I’m… still very young… please, take your time,” she’d mournfully sing. She’d sing the songs non-stop and beg to watch the whole movie. Eventually, I gave in.
It’s a three-hour movie, let’s start right there. It took us about five hours total to watch it because twice Sadie wanted to restart from the beginning so she could follow the plot and laugh at the jokes she understood (“He thought Lazar Wolf wanted to buy his cow, not marry his daughter!”)
I didn’t think this would be a complicated movie for my daughter. A man has a bunch of daughters and finds the traditions with which he was raised are changing. The end. The reality was somewhat different.
For one thing, I had forgotten all about the pogroms and eventual exile of the Jews from the fictional town of Anatevka. “But why do they not like the Jews?” I had no answer. “Why would they make them leave? They’re not doing anything bad.” I don’t know. The additional twist in our family story is that I was born in Russia, the great-grandchild of people who were chased from shtetls just like Anatevka. When the “bad guys” in the movie are “the Russians,” it opens a giant box of questions like, “Aren’t you Russian?” No, not really, kid. Though my family lived in Russia and Ukraine for generations, we were never considered Russian or Ukrainian, just Jewish. “But am I American?” Yes, you are fully American and Jewish. Silence as “the Jewish one” thinks it all over. She has heard that things are hard for Jews all over the world and that our history is a difficult one. But it doesn’t seem so bad for us in Brooklyn, New York in 2015 and, so far, she’s right.
We had covered gender roles in history before. In August, I tweeted about my daughter telling my 2-year-old son: “Many, many years ago, boys were the boss. Now, not.” She knows things have come a long way for women, and that she can be anything she wants to be. It was still startling to her that fathers in the film decide whom their daughters will marry. It helped, somewhat, that the decision was also made for their sons. There’s a line in one of the songs where the boys sing, “At 3 I started Hebrew school, at 10 I learned a trade. I hear they picked a bride for me, I hope she’s pretty.”
The most difficult part of the film for us was Tevye disowning his third daughter Chava for marrying a non-Jew. Sadie sits up very straight and says, “I think he thinks she died. Maybe he just doesn’t know she’s alive,” trying to rationalize it when Tevye screams, “She’s dead to us.”
I explain that no, he knows she’s alive, but he doesn’t want to talk to her because she married someone non-Jewish. I can see my daughter mentally going through her shortlist of boys she might want to marry (yes she has such a shortlist) and wondering if they’re Jewish.
There’s a lot I want to tell her about that. What I want to admit is yes, I would prefer if you marry someone Jewish. It will be easier for you, for your spouse, for both families. But I also want to tell her to love who you want to love, and we will always accept and love you.
But she’s only 5.5 (and two months), too young to understand any of that. So I just say, “No matter what you do, we’ll never do what Tevye did.”
She settles into my arms, humming “a blessing on your head, mazel tov, mazel tov,” ensuring the song stays stuck in my head for a week. Then she rewinds to the part about the mix-up with the daughter and the milk cow and laughs and laughs.