Archive | September, 2019

Strangers in a Strange New Place

30 Sep

The exodus from Anatevka, Fiddler on the Roof film, 1971

Strangers in a Strange New Place

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home… And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition!” (Sing “Tradition!”) 

Fiddler on the Roof is my favorite musical. It is so overtly Jewish and at the same time universal, so much so that when the show debuted in Japan, the Japanese could not understand how the show was successful anywhere else because they thought only they dealt with the tension between tradition and modernity. A recently released documentary film “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” explores the legacy of the musical and how it has thrived for generations across cultures throughout the world.

In exploring the universal appeal of Fiddler, the film shows that not only does every culture face the tension between tradition and modernity, but that the ultimate upheaval of leaving a familiar home for the strange unknown is powerfully resonant. At the end of the show, the Jewish villagers of Anatevka are refugees. They are forced to leave behind everything they know and find a new home. Here’s the central part of the song: (sing) 

What do we leave? Nothing much.

Only Anatevka.

Anatevka, Anatevka.

Underfed, overworked Anatevka.

Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?

Anatevka, Anatevka.

Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,

Where I know everyone I meet.

Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,

Searching for an old familiar face

From Anatevka.

I belong in Anatevka,

Tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka.

Dear little village, little town of mine

Songwriters: Jerry Bock / Sheldon Harnick

Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,

Searching for an old familiar face.

These words send chills up my spine. I think about my ancestors who fled Russian pogroms in the late 1800s/early 1900s under similar circumstances. They were refugees. And yet, as horrible as they had it, they were lucky. America not only saved their lives but embraced them and allowed them to contribute to the dream and promise of America. 

A generation later, however, Jews trying to escape Nazi Europe were not as fortunate. 

This year marked the 80th anniversary of the Voyage of the St. Louis, popularly known as the “Voyage of the Damned” ,” thanks to the acclaimed book and film by that title.

In May 1939, 937 passengers, mostly Jewish refugees, left Hamburg, Germany, en route to Cuba. Most of them planned eventually to emigrate to the United States and were on the waiting list for admission. All passengers held landing certificates permitting them entry to Cuba, but when the St. Louis reached the port of Havana, the President of Cuba refused to honor the documents.

After the ship left the Havana harbor, it sailed so close to the Florida coast that the passengers could see the lights of Miami. The captain appealed for help, but in vain. US Coast Guard ships patrolled the waters to make sure that no one jumped to freedom and did not allow the ship to dock in the US. The St. Louis turned back to Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and France admitted the passengers. But within months, the Germans overran western Europe. It’s estimated that 254 passengers were murdered by the Nazis. 

President Roosevelt is generally praised for his leadership and resolve in leading our nation through World War II and the defeat of the Nazis. However, he had blind spots. Antisemitic members of his administration prevailed upon him to close the borders to Jews when they could have been saved before the War. Later, Roosevelt could have bombed the railroad tracks to Auschwitz and other concentration camps but declined in the name of preserving the larger military objective to defeat Hitler. History condemns Roosevelt for not acting more assertively to save Jewish lives. His inaction not only cost the lives of untold numbers of Jews who might have been saved, it harmed the image of America. 

Eighty years ago, when America banished Jewish refugees from our shores, this nation banished an aspect of its ethos, its very being. What America did 80 years ago is happening again today.

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah also teaches that when we banish the other we banish part of ourselves. Let’s meet once again the main characters. We have Abraham and Sarah. God has promised them that they will produce a great nation, yet they are quite elderly and have no children. Sarah makes available to Abraham her handmaiden Hagar so that at least Abraham could sire offspring. Their son Yishmael is the product of this union. A few years later, miraculously, Sarah conceives and bears a child who is named Yitzchak. 

As Isaac grows up with his half-brother Ishmael, something bothers Sarah. We don’t know exactly what. All we are told is that Sarah saw the son of Hagar metzahek – playing or laughing or doing something related to Yizhak, whose name is derived from the same root, lezahek, which means to laugh.  Rabbinic commentaries explain this verb mezahek in deeply negative terms suggesting Ishamel was involved in sexual abuse, shooting arrows at Isaac, killing or idolatry. These commentaries seek to justify the eventual expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and it’s easier to do so if Ishmael is criminal or dangerous. 

Rabbi Jill Borodin, a Conservative rabbinic colleague of mine, writes in a recent commentary a much more basic interpretation: the word mezahek suggests Ishmael being Yitzhaq-like, or copying Isaac.

Sarah feels threatened by Ishmael doing something too familiar to her son, something which might indicate him as equal.  Sarah’s solution is to demand גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ   —Expel this slave woman and her son!

Her omission of their names is itself dehumanizing. Note also the verb, garesh. It’s usage in the Torah refers to a permanent expulsion. It’s a deportation. In banishing them, Sarah proclaims that the son of that slave woman will not inherit his father’s resources alongside his half-brother Isaac.   Another familiar trope – there are not enough resources to go around.  Sarah will ensure Ishmael does not take from Isaac what she believes is HIS inheritance, what belongs to HIM and him alone.

Sarah is a fascinating and ultimately tragic character. After the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, we never hear Sarah’s voice again. Yes, we do learn of her death after the Binding of Isaac, the reading for the second day of Rosh HaShanah. The Midrash imagines Sarah learning about the near sacrifice of her son and dying in utter shock. However, as an active character in the narrative, Sarah effectively dies when she banishes Hagar and Ishmael. In banishing them, Sarah also banishes herself. 

We become who we are because of relationships with people who are similar to us or think similarly. We also become who we are because of relationships with people who are different from us or think differently. If we shut out everyone in our lives who are different from us or with whom we disagree and we are only with people exactly the same as we are, it becomes boring. Furthermore, Sara does something immoral—she banishes two people out into the desert whom she had dehumanized and made “other”—and she never recovers from it. 

The Torah is teaching us that when we engage in banishment , we cannot pretend it didn’t happen. Rather, we become the type of person who banishes people. When Sara becomes such a person, she disappears from the story. 

It’s worth noting that Hagar’s name has the same Hebrew spelling as the word ha-ger, the stranger, the foreigner, the Other. Hagar is also from Egypt. Rabbi Borodin suggests that Hagar’s banishment foreshadows the Israelite experience of being a foreigner—the Other—in Egypt.  The Torah frequently tells us to remember our experience of being gerim in Egypt and to learn from that experience how we must treat others:

וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And you must lovingly treat the ger for you were gerim, you were strangers, in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19).


The beauty of the Torah is that we meet the heroes in their full humanity. We learn from them as much what not to do as what to do. When Sarah expels Hagar and Ishmael into the desert it is a model of what not to do. When the Torah later reminds us to love and respect the ger, the stranger, it is telling us not to be like Sarah. Our own dignity and self-worth depends on how we treat the stranger. The Torah teaches that when we cause harm to another human being created in the image of God we harm ourselves. When we banish someone from our midst, we banish an aspect of our very being. Sarah is never heard from again.

We, the Jewish people, are charged by the Torah with a sacred duty to protect the stranger. We have our own fraught history as strangers whether as slaves in Egypt or as refugees on a ship refused entry to America. 

This summer, I attempted in a small way to bear witness to the Hagar and Yishmael in our midst. In July, I drove to Homestead, near the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. I wanted to see as best as I could the atrocity of a child detention center in our own backyard where our government sends migrant children and raise my voice in protest. The Homestead Temporary Influx Care Facility (“Homestead”) is located on the grounds of Homestead Air Reserve Base. There, I saw at Homestead was a secure facility surrounded by an 8’ chain link fence with a privacy covering. Officially, children ages 13 – 17 were sent to Homestead directly from the border once Customs and Border Patrol processed them, yet children as young as eight years old have been held there. In early August, the site was effectively shut down and the children transferred to other facilities around the country. It is not clear yet if it will resume its previous function. Activists protesting Homestead demanded from the authorities a hurricane plan. None was produced but the relocation of the children out of a hurricane zone was seen as a minor victory. 

Still, the damage done to these children in the name of our country is shocking.  In the spring of 2018, the Administration’s family separation policy went into effect. After much public outcry the Administration officially said they would back off from the practice, even though it’s been found to have continued—some 900 children have been separated from their parents in the past year. Furthermore, this summer revealed the horrific conditions in the detention centers at our border and around the country, which are unsanitary, unsafe and cruel. We have read stories of families torn apart, of imprisoned children denied toothpaste, and soap and diapers and medical treatment. In these detention centers there are reports of physical abuse and sexual violence towards adults and children. We’ve heard about the deprivation of food and drink. Some held in detention centers have been forced to drink toilet water to stay alive. Most appalling of all at least seven children in these centers have died since last year. 

We have failed as a nation in allowing this crisis to occur. We should know—Jews in the 20th century had two different refugee experiences in this country. We had the Fiddler on the Roof experience as strangers in a strange new place that ultimately embraced us and helped this nation thrive. Then we had the Voyage of the Damned—America slammed the door in the face of  the next generation of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives. Part of America died in 1939 when the St. Louis was sent away from these shores. Yet, our nation valiantly led the Allies to victory, liberated the concentration camps and welcomed refugees to this land. Our nation showed the capacity to learn from past mistakes. 

We as Jews have a special role to play in this country and around the world. We can—we must—draw from the well springs of our experience to restore the dignity of this nation. Our history of oppression has inspired many Jews to  pave the way for greater justice in the world for all. When we act like Sarah did and banish the stranger, we suffer. When we fulfill the Torah’s ideal to love the stranger and safeguard justice for all, the Jewish people thrive along with our neighbors. In this new year, let us rise to what this moment demands for us. Adonai oz l’amo yitein. Adonai yevarech et amo vashalom. May God grant us strength and bless us with peace. Amen.