Watching “Fiddler on the Roof” with my children for the first time recently was illuminating in ways I had not considered. I knew my daughters would be taken in by the music, which remains as joyful, vibrant, and moving as ever. I knew they would appreciate seeing some of the traditions we carry on in our own home. And, I knew they would get wrapped up in all of the on-screen relationships, the matchmaking, the comedy of errors, the breaking of tradition, and declarations of love. The humor and hope expressed in the film are contagious.
And then suddenly I found myself concerned as I watched my daughters taking in the end of the wedding scene when Russians break up the celebration, destroy gifts, and attack the village.
I paused the film.
The truth is that it is painful to have to talk to our children about such things. I think we would all prefer to teach them to be proud of their heritage, to enjoy our traditions and holidays, and to have only positive feelings about who they are. Of course, as Jews, even some of our holidays demand a discussion of painful things: enslavement, oppression, Jew hatred. Yet, discussing slavery in Egypt, or defeating Haman, or the Macabees’ victory, seems safe because it is so distant.
In the present moment, my mind is drawn to “the talk” so many Black parents have had with their children for generations. A talk that is more necessary than ever given the rate at which Black men and boys are killed in this country. Indeed, a new video seems to surface every minute, a new protest every week. The names begin to blend into each other just as the names of murdered Jews over the millennia might.
I am reminded that I’ve already been forced to discuss hatred and violence against Jews with my children when I cancelled my family’s vacation to Israel during the latest war in Gaza. My eldest daughter was only 4 at that time and so I kept it simple. “There are bad guys who want to hurt us over there right now and so we can’t go,” I told her. “Jewish soldiers are fighting them,” I added. But, just the facts that we could not go and that our people were fighting in a war must have impacted her.
I dread the talks I will have to have with my children when they go out in the world, especially to college. There, they will likely be subject to hate if they associate with Jewish organizations, if they wear items that identify them as Jews, if they speak out for Israel. They may see swastikas scrawled on campus, rallies that become violent, professors that teach myths and not fact about Israel and Jews.
More broadly, we live in a time when all children may be subjected to irrational hate and acts of violence and terrorism—from Israel to France to Syria, and even here in the United States. What sort of talk could possibly prepare our children or us for these realities? There is nothing we can say that will guarantee their safety. No change in behavior can ensure that Black boys will be safe on America’s streets, or that Jews will be safe on college campuses or elsewhere, or that people around the world can rest easy. It does not help to teach children that if only they behave a certain way, racism or anti-Semitism will cease to exist. We don’t have to change or apologize; those who hate do.
So, the Jewish people—and so many others—remain perched in a precarious position.
Turning to my kids, remote in my hand, I found myself wanting to discuss all of Jewish history. “Different people have hated the Jewish people in many different countries,” I instructed. “In Russia, it was the Tsar; In Egypt, it was the Pharaoh. Even when we lived in Israel thousands of years ago, people called the Romans attacked us and took over the land. Ever since, we have traveled around the world.” I could give no reasons for this hatred. I presented it just as the way things are.
I paused the film again when we reached the end, which shows the Jews of Anatevka forced out of their longtime home by the Tsar, dispersed to America and Ottoman Palestine. This provided me with an answer. “This is why Israel is so important,” I told my children. “In our own country we don’t have to run. We can protect ourselves from enemies.” But, even Israel often seems as if it is balanced on a roof “trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune” without toppling over.
Why then do we remain there, and why do we perpetuate Jewish identities, traditions, communities, and narratives? As Tevye tells us in the film, we stay because it is our home, and we continue our Jewish ways because without them our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof.