My relationship with Tevye the Dairyman is long and complicated. It is also entirely one-sided. From Tevye’s perspective, I’m bubkes. But trust me, I know him, having first met his acquaintance as a young boy. I entered adulthood with him, and then, as a rabbi, I have lived with him for the past twenty-five years.
One of the trade secrets that they do not tell you when you enter rabbinical school, is that Tevye is going to be a constant companion for the rest of your days. But after you are ordained, you very quickly realize that Sholem Aleichem’s famous literary character and star of stage and screen, will be your life-long friend and foil. For if there is any certainty in a rabbi’s ever-changing life, it is that you will have the pleasure and the pain of watching a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at least once or twice a year over the arc of your career. You will learn that no matter where you end up, whether it be Boston or Brooklyn or Boise, every local community playhouse and high school drama club and dinner theater will stage this play—and when they do, they will always call the local rabbi. You will visit their modest company and lend them a yarmulke and a tallis. They will ask about Anatevka, and why our weddings end with the breaking of a glass, and invariably, they will spray you with saliva as you try to teach them to properly pronounce the “ch” as they do their very well-intentioned best to get it right while singing, “To life, to life, l’chaim.”
And because this consultation invariably makes you a kind of honorary member of that local production company, they will invite you to their opening night, and you will be expected to attend. So you will dutifully show up to watch William Huntingdon Whitworth III or Donhai Li or Jesus Fuentes or even, on occasion, Jeremy Silverstein do his best to “Yaba baba baba bi” like Topol and Zero Mostel.
And one day, as you listen and applaud the always good-hearted effort for the first or tenth or the eighty-fifth time, you will understand that Tevye’s remarkably universal appeal goes well beyond Sholem Aleichem’s charming tales and Joseph Stein’s book and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Jerry Bock’s fabulous music. Sooner or later, you will come to see that Tevye the Dairyman is, in fact, the ultimate Jewish icon, for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Just ask someone to draw a Jew, and odds are, you will get a picture that looks a lot like Tevye. Never mind that the real, flesh and blood Jews that the artist knows are all secular or Reform or Conservative or Modern Orthodox or Renewal or, for that matter, hip young Tel Aviv high-tech engineers. You won’t get sketches of Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud or Sandy Koufax or Adam Sandler or Bob Dylan or Benjamin Netanyahu. Or Barbara Streisand or Gloria Steinem or Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Elizabeth Taylor or Golda Meir.
No, if you invite just about anyone to draw a Jew, what you will get 99% of the time is someone who looks like Tevye, in all of his stereotypical, Eastern European Hasidic glory.
And this is what makes my relationship with Tevye the Dairyman so complicated and ambivalent—for Tevye is not just Tevye. He is, in a very significant sense, the whole world's prototype of a Jew. He is us—all of us. Except—and herein lies the problem—except sometimes he isn’t really us at all.
Let me be clear: there is much about Tevye and his Judaism that I identify with and love. I revel in his earthy humor, his devotion to his family, and his deep roots in a strong and caring community. I savor the way he argues and prays and negotiates so passionately with God, and how he keeps asking to be rich and yet refuses to let his poverty deny him happiness. I thrill at his commitment to Jewish law and learning, and his essential Jewish zest for life, no matter what it brings. And when I hear him sing, “Tradition,” my heart stirs with the blood of my family’s twelve generations of rabbis who preceded me.
But there are also parts of Tevye that are foreign to me and my Judaism, that simply do not speak to my place in today’s Jewish world. My non-Jewish friends and neighbors and family members are not Cossacks and pogromniks. I am a citizen of a global village rather than a shtetl. I embrace both Judaism and modernity. And we, the members of Ahavath Beth Israel, do not mostly look much like Tevye. We are Jews by birth and Jews by choice and non-Jewish partners and parents who are doing more than our share to sustain strong, contemporary Jewish households. We are married and single and gay and straight, with and without children. We are pietists and atheists and doubters and believers. We are Ashkefardi Reconformadox Idaho American Jews.
So when Tevye asserts, "Tradition!" I also cringe a little, because I know that he is not always talking about us. Yes, tradition is Shabbes and matzah ball soup and Talmud and Torah and many things that are very good, indeed--but it can also be a one-word trump card wielded by religious reactionaries to quash progressive change.
Women can't be rabbis and cantors-- TRADITION!
Lesbians and gay men must not be allowed to wed-- TRADITION!
The Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbinate should continue to deny religious rights to Reform and Conservative Jews --TRADITION!
New voices have no place in Jewish liturgy—TRADITION!
These intolerant undercurrents are also part of Tevye's iconography. And they stand in stark opposition to who we are and what we practice as progressive Jews. When Tevye looms—even for us—as the only authentic face of Jewishness, as the gatekeeper and guardian of Jewish tradition, then we diminish ourselves.
Here is the heart of my ambivalence toward Reb Tevye: our infatuation with him as the nostalgic voice of tradition subtly lets us off the hook. He allows us to be idle in our own Jewish lives. For when we make Tevye into an icon, he all too often becomes a vicarious outlet for our Jewishness. We tell ourselves: I can opt out of any and all Jewish obligations, as long as the Tevyes of the world are doing their part to preserve Jewish tradition. As writer and activist Jay Michaelson recently wrote in the Daily Forward:
It’s not that we want to be the shtetl Jews of Anatevka—only that we see them as the real Jews. Thus there persists in the American Jewish imagination an anxiety of inauthenticity—that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it . . . .This is an abdication of personal responsibility. It’s a lot easier to say, “Black-hat Orthodoxy is the only real Jewish path even though I don’t practice it” than to do the hard and holy work of living our own authentic Jewish lives.
But easier is not better or truer. Vicarious Judaism is a lazy lie. It is corrosive to us and to the good and welfare of the Jewish people. The only authentic way to live as a Jew is to engage with Torah and mitzvot, to be an active part of a committed Jewish community. Tevye and his ilk cannot do it for us.
We might draw a lesson from Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. When her mother died, a family friend offered to say Kaddish for her, in keeping with the traditional notion that only a man could fulfill that obligation. In her letter of response, Henrietta Szold thanked him for his offer but concluded: “I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that . . . the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.”
And so it is with us. We are, potentially, every bit as authentic as Tevye. Our calling is to fulfill that potential, to rightfully claim that authenticity by committing to our own path of Jewish learning and living. We should proudly assert our legitimacy—and do our part to earn it. To be an authentic Jew, one does not have to be shomer Shabbes, keeping Shabbat down to the most minute detail of rabbinic law. One need not eat a glatt kosher diet, or study Talmud twelve hours a day, or raise ten children. But if we progressive Jews want to affirm our authenticity, we do need to find meaningful ways, individually and in community, to honor Shabbat, to eat ethically, to study Torah deeply, and to create strong Jewish families. As Jay Michaelson concludes: “Real Jews speak with Southern accents, keep one day of yontiff, hike in the wilderness, do karate, are bisexual, are neoconservative. Real Jews are the ones who make Judaism real for themselves.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism recalled a powerful, true story drawn from his own experience. He said: “I was in midtown Manhattan, and I'm walking down the street and this wonderful friendly warm Chabadnik stops me and says, 'Are you Jewish?' I'm strolling along, I'm wearing a grey suit. I don't know, maybe I have curly Jewish hair. I said, 'Yes, are you?' And he looked at me and started to laugh and he pointed to his and to his beard. I said, 'You know, appearances are not always reality.’ ”
So what is reality? What does a Jew look like? Well, let’s try the exercise I suggested earlier. In just a moment, I’m going to ask each of you to close your eyes and, in your imagination, draw a picture of a Jew. But lest you fall into default mode and conjure up our friend Tevye, please take a moment now and look around you at the people here tonight. Really see them—your friends and acquaintances and also those who may still be strangers to you. Take in this community of Ashkefardi Reconformadox Idaho American Jews. And then, recall the face you saw when you looked into your mirror this morning. See yourself as part of this eclectic holy congregation.
I hope that you just imagined someone who looks a lot like you and your neighbors.
But if you’re still haunted by Tevye, don’t fret. It is very hard to get his image out of your head. That’s understandable—he’s been lurking in there for a long, long time. So let me offer one more alternative portrait of an authentic Jew—a vision that we should celebrate on this Rosh Hashanah morning.
For this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of America’s first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand.
Forty is a number of great Jewish significance. Our ancestors journeyed for forty years from Egypt to the Promised Land. And Talmud teaches: “At forty, wisdom.”
With the ordination of women, beginning with Rabbi Priesand and continuing to this day, when we have over six hundred women rabbis, the Jewish people have been given a gift that is both revolutionary and overdue. Writer Cynthia Ozick reminds us that the absence of women from public Jewish leadership for most of our people’s history has come at a terrible cost: “Since Deborah the Prophet, we have not had a collective Jewish genius. What we have had is a Jewish half-genius. That is not enough for the people who choose to hear the Voice of the God of History. We have been listening with only half an ear, speaking with only half a tongue, and never understanding that we have made ourselves partly deaf and partly dumb.”
Rabbi Priesand and her colleagues are changing all of that. We still have a long way to go and new directions to pursue, but for the last forty years, the Jewish people have been making our way out of the wilderness, led now by the heirs of both Moses and Miriam. At forty, wisdom—the whole wisdom of all the daughters and sons of Israel. The presence of wise women in positions of influence and leadership is helps us re-envision God and Covenant and community, as reflective of both male and female experience. As Cynthia Ozick concludes, this Jewish feminist revolution “is not necessary for the sake of women; it is not even necessary for the sake of the Jewish people. It is necessary for the sake of Torah; to preserve and strengthen Torah itself.”
The journey is not over. We are all still traveling the road to the Promised Land.
One of Rabbi Priesand’s younger colleagues, Leah Berkowitz, is a rabbi in my mother’s home congregation in Durham, North Carolina. She was told, once too often, “You don’t look like a rabbi” while her bearded brother was mistaken for one all the time. So Leah Berkowitz created a line of women’s tee shirts that say, This is what a rabbi looks like.
I like to think that if Reb Tevye were to meet Rabbi Berkowitz sporting her feminist fashion line, he would wink and smile. And if my old friend and foil were to come and visit us here in Boise, I’d riff on Rabbi Berkowitz and offer him a tee shirt that proclaims: This is what a Jew looks like. But before he could puff his iconic Jewish chest up too much, I would introduce him to our entire congregation, to all of you, decked out in that same shirt. This is what a Jew looks like. And I hope and believe that he would smile at that, too—at seeing all of us, in our glorious Jewish diversity, authentic and proud. Female and male. Gay and straight. White and brown. Young and old. Liberal and conservative. Reconformadox pietists and atheists and doubters and believers, all.
This is what a Jew looks like.
Embrace it. Live it, through Torah and spiritual service and acts of lovingkindness.
This is what a Jew looks like.
A Jew looks like you, when you live as a Jew.
Tevye is a character in a book, one Jew among multitudes. Long live Tevye.
Long live Rabbi Sally Priesand, who has led us now, for forty years.
And long live us all, children of both of them, one Jewish community, committed and authentic and proud.