Just before World War I, when he was still a child, my grandfather Abe moved to this country from Bessarabia, Romania. According to the Julian calendar used in his province, his birthday landed sometime in early February, but his parents weren’t certain of the corresponding Gregorian date. Family lore spins the tale that as he left the ship to enter America, a friendly clerk recorded that the little boy’s birthday was February 12 to match that of another great American named Abe. Papa Abe was always so proud to share his first name and his birthday with President Lincoln, who freed the slaves and unified this nation at a pivotal moment in history.
My grandfather was a happy and deeply grateful person. He used to tell his four children, “I never want to go back to Europe, not even for a visit. Why would I ever step foot out of America now that I’ve arrived?” How he loved this country, its opportunity for little guys to succeed, its freedom, its diversity, and its baseball games. Just five years prior to his birth, the Kishinev Pogroms had erupted in his hometown. In the days following Easter of 1903, his own countrymen murdered and injured hundreds of Jews and destroyed almost a thousand homes. As a child, he experienced dread when gazing at the looming Carpathian Mountains. In Seattle Washington, where he settled and raised a family, Mount Rainier symbolized freedom.
My three children never had the chance to meet my Papa. He passed away just a few months before my bat mitzvah. In honor of what would have been his 109th birthday this year, I decided to rent the 1971 movie classic “Fiddler on the Roof” and watch it with my children.
My daughter needed to study for a math test and pleaded that she was too busy to watch the old musical. My 13-year-old claimed he needed to walk the dog, and only returned to the couch after three of Tevye’s five daughters married and Golde swept out her empty home in Anatevka. My 11-year-old, Ben, however, stuck with me for three hours over two days, as we watched the long suffering Jews sing, dance, cry, marry, farm, and pray before they moved on to new lives across the world.
We live in a school district with a great reputation for teaching world history. My children attend a Reform temple with a caring staff of teachers and top-flight administrators constantly tweaking the curriculum. So I was not prepared for my son to have been so completely unaware of this part of his own Jewish history.
“Did this really happen?” Ben kept asking when we averted our gaze during the “disturbances” following Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding celebration. “Why did their neighbors hate them so much?” He looked at me with shock and in synchrony with Tevye as he shook his head toward the silent heavens. “Were these Nazis?” he asked me, conflating the pogroms in the Pale of Settlement with my mother-in-law’s experience in Germany as an 8-year-old whose house was invaded, her father arrested, and her dog shot on Kristellnacht.
When I was a child, I was embarrassed by my old fashioned middle name of Golda. Named for one of my great-grandmothers, I had always felt so detached from this Old World moniker. Cuddled up with my son, clinging to one another and giggling as we watched the Fruma Sarah and Cousin Rachel zombies running amok in Tevye’s dream sequence, I was overwhelmed with emotion.
The last time I watched “Fiddler on the Roof” decades ago, I identified with the daughters. Now at 50 years old, I viewed Golde with new eyes. Sharing a name with a character like hers, my life is owed to matriarchs represented by her, who cleaned, sewed, cooked, and persevered from dawn to dusk to make a good life for their families in harsh, inhospitable lands. When she lights the Sabbath candles and gazes lovingly at her family gathered around her table, she conveyed the sense of peace that I pray my ancestors experienced and that I hope to bring to my 21st century home.
At the end of the movie, when the expelled citizens of Anatevka trudge along to their new lives, Ben turned to me. “Is it true? Was it true?” I held his hand firmly in mine.
“This is why we love this country. It is a place where you are free to pray and be and dress and live and think for yourself. Our ancestors were like Tevye and Golde. This is why we aren’t just willing to make room for new Americans, but are also excited to help new immigrants move here. Yes, this movie is fictional, but it is so true,” I responded, my voice trembling.
“Yeah, Mom, but there was no fiddler on a roof there. Was there?” Ben scrunched up his eyes at me in the same way as when he asked about the veracity of the Tooth Fairy. “I think there might have been. If you listen very hard, Ben, you can still hear the fiddler’s music. I think he’s playing Happy Birthday to my Papa today.”