Jews are leaving Russia again.
It is ironic that scenes from Fiddler on the Roof, which will reopen in Yiddish off Broadway in November, are being played out in Russia and in Ukraine — where Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories that turned into the musical, was born.
It’s not exactly the same, of course. There are no Cossacks in high boots, either dancing theatrically, as they do in our imaginations, or killing Jews, as they did in real life. There are no Bolsheviks facing off against the Cossacks. There’s just grim gray Vladimir Putin, dreaming of being enthroned as czar of a Technicolor empire but inextricably linked to the soul-dead blandness of the Soviet Union that gave him shape, although no color.
But, as Alexander Smukler tells us, the short-lived golden age for Jews in the newly reconstituted Russia lasted for less than 30 years, and it’s over now.
Leaving is different now. There’s no trudging behind old horses, walking over fields, scrambling across borders, hiding under carts, finally getting on a ship, vomiting across the ocean in steerage, and then, finally, confronting an inexplicable new life in an undeniaby ungolden new world.
It seems like it’s a little easier now. Technology helps. When people fled the old country, they had to say goodbye to their families with the understanding that it might be goodbye forever. How parents and children managed such partings is too painful to imagine. Now, even if you don’t know if you will ever get to hug again, at least there’s Facetime. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing.
Watching the last scene in Fiddler is wrenching. But it’s also hopeful, and it’s inspirational, and it’s provocative, and it’s deeply human. It’s about relationships, and love, and danger. It’s about the impossibility of knowing what’s going to happen, of foretelling the future, and the necessity of going forward to confront that future anyway, because if you don’t go to meet it, it’ll come for you anyway.
It’s awful that Fiddler on the Roof feels like current events, but there it is.