The Fiddler on My Roof, or My Crush on Tevye

This day being Father’s Day and all, it got me thinking about some of the father figures I’ve had in my life aside from the beloved biological one. Aside from him, most of them have been Jewish, and it started with Tevye the Dairyman from the 1971 movie adaptation of Shalom Aleichem’s story, first published in 1894. Not only did I have a crush on Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who played Tevye in the original movie, but I was deeply, completely and fatefully swept away by the desire to belong to that. I wanted to live under the same roof as his Jewish family, feel the Jewish identity the way he did, and dream the Jewish dreams that he did. I wanted Goldie, Tevye’s spirited wife, to light shabbos candles with me.

Sure, I could do without the bloody Russian pogroms, the poverty, the muddy country roads and lack of sanitation. But how about that strong, unwavering feeling of identity, wrapped up in a warm, passionate fatherly type who despite his simple and often difficult life, stuck to it; that’s what I wanted! That’s what spoke to my guts. Watching the movie again and again from the VHS tape on my second-hand TV-set, oblivious to my neighbors while cranking up the volume as Tevye belted out “Tradition!” I sang, danced and wept in the same rhythms as my crush; Judaism as impersonated by Tevye.

Tevye

To me, it was obvious he wasn’t just addressing the camera in all those close-up scenes where he inquires philosophically about life, purpose, and the various dilemmas the Jews faced in a rapidly changing world. He spoke to me. He was telling me a story that he said could also be mine. Come in, he seemed to say, I can’t promise it will be easy but I can promise there will be love, commitment, continuity and TRADITION!  

And I went in under his roof. In fact, I lept. I can still hear his deep, warm voice and want to bury myself in his arms when the going gets tough. Farm stench and all. Out of curiosity, I googled Topol the other day to see how the man had evolved from the 1970’s, and found that the now 80 year old still made my heart flutter with fond memories.

Topol

When I got married in 1988, as a brand spanking new-Jew, I had chosen, yes chosen, a violinist from the University of Hartford Music School to play “Sunrise, Sunset” as my oddly obliging yarmulke-wearing Norwegian father escorted me down the isle of the synagogue. Probably a bit overwhelmed by all the “ethnic” and religious details surrounding him, this otherwise agnostic and conservative man who had taught me all about relativity, clutched my arm tightly while whispering “you can always convert back if you don’t like it.”

Little did he know, once a Jew, always a Jew.

Of course, despite my early crush on Tevye, when it comes to men, it is my dad who played the greatest role in enabling me to imagine a future and a life as “other,” far away from him and my mom, singing different songs and celebrating different holidays. He is the one who gave me the wings to fly.

Although I have become accustomed to state my Jewish name Naomi bat Avraham ve-Sarah, Naomi, the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, there is no doubt about my parentage; for I’d say once a daughter, always a daughter. The fatherly figure of Tevye exuding commitment, warmth and love was likely just a Jewish representation of what I already knew: that first crush we girls experience with our dads, and which I got to experience again in some way once I embarked on a new journey as a Jewess.

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A Prologue to Memoir

Working title: Tribal Matters: Diaries of The Viking Jewess

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman asks me as she had learned of my recent divorce. We stand in line at the local Starbucks and she says it just loudly enough for the man in front of us to hear. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? Holding a stainless steel coffee mug, with a Bluetooth blinking from his left ear as if he heard what I was thinking, the man turns and glances at me in a way that probably feels discreet to him, but the added attention makes me just feel more flustered. A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flush through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of twenty-three, I immersed in a mikvah[1] just a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend in an Orthodox ceremony. Somehow, the timing and formulation of this woman’s question made a seemingly mundane instance in the Sunday morning line at the coffee shop feel like I was hurled into the epicenter of the sudden impact of all the moments –the good, the bad and the beautiful – of my Jewish life thus far, and that it was up to me to justify it all. And she wasn’t even my own conscience. Or God. She was an acquaintance whom I knew from various synagogue events and run-ins at the kosher market. Before I respond, with as much patience and compassion as I can muster, I take a deep breath. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t cry. “Sure,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage an optimistic smile, but it was probably a smile that I couldn’t help lace with a slight air of surprise, hoping maybe my interlocutor would notice; my eyebrows raised just so. She smiled back at me the way you might see a person labor to beam sympathetically at a handicapped participant at the Special Olympics who bravely battles through an event only to win the consolation prize. As if she were thinking, “Poor soul, after everything she’s been through.”

But the truth is, the journey had been extraordinary so far, and was only just beginning.

Journey

[1] A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath or pool consisting of part rainwater and part tap water, used for immersion in conversions, for monthly use by women after menstruation, before the Sabbath and holidays by some orthodox men, and by some to immerse new household kitchen utensils, in order to render them “kosher” and fit for use in a Jewish home. The main idea is ritual and spiritual purification.

On Foundations in the Norwegian ‘Diaspora’

Hooray for May 17th! Tomorrow is Norway’s Constitution Day – a much anticipated day celebrated with pomp and circumstance in both Norway and most Norwegian ex-pat communities. Some of the latter mark the day in more or less formal ways than others, of course, and in my neck of the woods it has gotten to be quite relaxed. This year it will involve skinny dipping and martinis, gravlaks, Indian takeout, and for dessert, my friend’s irresistible Chat Noir cake, following her family’s secret recipe handed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of generations. Well, maybe not hundreds, but you catch my drift. Tradition.

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What impressed my boys the most about May 17th the year we lived in Norway, was that on this day, they learned that children are allowed to eat as much ice cream as they want. This is not a national dictum, and I’m pretty sure something my parents and their partying friends invented back in the 60s and 70s so we , the young’uns, would have our own experience of that era’s hedonistic values. At least for one day.

On a more serious note, since I did invoke the term “diaspora,” normally associated with the Jewish diaspora – although the term is also applied to the dispersion of any people form their homeland – the history of Jews in Norway has its own touchy significance in 2014. As this year marks the 200th anniversary of the creation of the constitution in 1814, it should not be forgotten that at that time, it also included a paragraph with a general ban against Jews (and Jesuits) entering the “kingdom” (you know, those dangerous undesirable folks), a ban which was lifted in 1851 with the determined effort of Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland. (Incidentally, he died in 1845 before the ban was lifted, and so did not live to see the fruits of his labor). Of course, his views were considered quite controversial back then, and his literary style was variously denounced as subversive. Imagine that! 

To express gratitude for Wergeland’s efforts on behalf of the Jews, the Jewish community in Oslo have an annual wreath ceremony at his grave on May 17th.

My sons appreciate the foundations of their Norwegian heritage, such as I have transmitted it to them to best of my ability during my own “diaspora” for the past, yikes, 30 years. They speak the language, are citizens of Norway, will break out in rap in Norwegian, tote viking necklaces interlaced with their Stars of David, yearn to go back every year, to see family and their own friends, eat skolebrød (sticky buns), drink Solo, play in the pool at Frongerbadet, the outdoor municipal pool in Oslo where their mom challenged them to jump form the 10 meter high diving board, and just feel how good it is to belong in more place than one. And such a privileged place to boot. Most importantly, they have their own memories of every day life there, which will remain ingrained in their fibers throughout their lifetimes, and perhaps one day kindle in them the desire to pass it on to their children.

This morning when I again flipped over the gravlaks that has been curing in my fridge for the last 48 hours, in preparations for my culinary contribution to the laid back May 17th celebration, I could not help but crack a smile as I removed the two bricks on top of the fish, functioning as the requisite weight for optimal curing results. The bricks, you see, are from the foundation of my old house down the street where I raised my boys; the house that I moved from when their dad and I divorced. I smiled because, optimally, that’s what we do in life, we move on and take the good stuff with us, and leave the rest behind. And those two old bricks have come to represent just that: a piece of the foundation of not only my children’s life but also of my own identity and memory.

For it’s never really just one memory and one identity. The trick is perhaps to recognize and appreciate the multiple foundations that are the base for who we are becoming. And then celebrate.

Hooray!

It’s All in the Name

Reading the “About Me” part of my blog, my youngest son asked, “Aren’t you going to give them your name?” He has a point.

Whats-my-name-81444320611_xlarge

I know that I like to know the name of people I engage with, especially because even if I don’t know them personally I like to envision them, and for some reason, when I know their name, it helps me somehow have an idea about them, at least in my imagination. Which is of course kind of absurd, since Bubba does not have to be a big, jolly fella, nor Hildegard necessarily a rosy cheeked blond farm frau from Germany. But let’s be real, a name helps create a connection of sorts.

The story of how we get our names, or how we choose or change them, should we so be inclined, or lucky, or both, can add a layer to the complexity (read: interesting narrative) of who we are, and allow us to imagine or understand others in a more “contextual” way. For everyone has many layers of (con)texts embedded in their identity; a multitude of fibers, threads and colors contributing to the unique fabric of their being. In the end, a name tells a story of its own. When I have a new group of students, I usually give them an assignment the first day of class to post a short paragraph about their first name on our course blog. This is actually just a trick to help me remember 38 new names and faces with greater ease, since I tend to build stories around most things and humans I encounter. And if the student doesn’t know about how or why they were given their unique name (most are bearers of fascinating small tales about how names are bestowed in their families, and happy for the opportunity to share this piece of family tidbit with their new peers), I invite them to share anything they may have on their mind, about their name. This too, can be quite telling and entertaining, and it creates a connection.

So my name is Nina Boug Lichtenstein, née Boug Kristiansen.

When I grew up I used to dislike my common first name, and fantasized about a more exotic name like Anastasia or Isabelle. There were four Ninas in my school alone and it was definitely a popular name in the 1960s Oslo. Had I known then what I know now about my first name, I might have felt differently. Some of the meanings for Nina in various cultures are: “God was gracious or God has shown favor”(Hebrew), “nice” (Persian), “beautiful eyes”(Hindi), “mother” (Swahili), “strong or mighty”(Native American), “friend” (Arabic), “flower” (Old Greek) and “fire” (Quechua – the people and culture of the Central Andes in South America). Wow. I never knew that until recently.

And I feel better already. Talk about a name with good vibes! I wonder if my parents knew these meanings for my name when they chose it for me. Had they intended these strong attributes for me, as they gave me that first “selective” piece of personal identity? I really do believe in the power of intentions…

In the middle of my identity nomenclature there is Boug (my mother’s maiden name) which I decided to keep when I got married. Boug apparently is a derivative of the French bourg meaning “town” – you may recognize a term such as “bourgmeister” which is German for the mayor of the town. If my parentage hailed from a venerable mayoral family or were just simply “townsfolk” vs. farmers I have yet to find out, but what is clear here, is that the pure blood viking-idea is not in my gene pool (not that there ever was one, or that it was important). Explorers! Travelers and boarder crossers going way back and in all ways. Yup; that’s the genetics I’m carrying. That sounds more like it.

Then there is my maiden name Kristiansen, which I have thought about taking back now that I am divorced, to honor my father who recently died. Kristiansen. I’m The Viking Jewess. I hope you see the irony here. That is Kristiansen as in “son of Kristian” or rather, “of the Christian” (as opposed to “the heathen,” I suppose) according to the Scandinavian tradition of naming. While I did not undergo gender-reassignment surgery (as it is now called) and was never anybody’s son, I did shed my initially State imposed Christian religious belonging. My father, a self-proclaimed agnostic who had withdrawn his membership from the Norwegian State Church (and who took care of the paperwork for me when I decided to do the same) was born into this very common last name, and my grandmother once told me she had wanted to change it, but found the bureaucratic paper-mill overwhelming and so resigned her dreams of a more distinctive last name.

I have now carried the last name Lichtenstein for over 25 years, and I must say it has until recently been a pleasure. I did not mind changing my last name when I married at 23, since just before exchanging vows I had made another significant commitment: to be a Jew and live a life according to Jewish traditions. Somehow, that didn’t seem to fit so well with the last name I imported from Norway. This was engraved in my experience every time I met a new Jewish person and introduced myself – hyper-sensitive as I was about my difference –  culminating on the very day of my conversion, when three stern faced orthodox rabbis sat facing me and my Christian name came up, again and again, like lashes in an inquisition. Morbid exaggeration and reversed imagery aside, it just felt so humiliating, and I somehow imagine it would have been different if my maiden name had been Hansen or Arnesen.

I came to know and love the long-winded Lichtenstein name along with my ever evolving new identity. Spelling it out in almost a melodic manner for every clerk, salesperson or professor who looked like a question mark when I said my name, I adapted quickly. And how many times have perfect strangers not loudly associated my married last name with an entire country, or tiny principality if they are savvy enough to know the difference, and how many times have I answered “No, not quite like the country” or “Yes, like the country” depending on my mood and energy. At times it felt regal, especially in Norway, where it’s pronounced in a way that on a good day can give it an aura of lost grandeur and princely mystique. Not to mention the occasional association with the artist Roy Lichtenstein here in the States. People actually would ask me if we were related. I wish.

Deconstructing Lich

Deconstructing Nina Lichtenstein

About 20 years into my marriage, the Mr. and Mrs. Lichtenstein that we were became Mr. and Dr. Lichtenstein. Joining the two other doctors in the family, my father in law, a DDS specializing in oral surgery, and a sister in law with a PH.D in anthropology, this new, tiny, appendage to my name was hard earned. Eventually came my divorce, and swiftly enter from stage left a new Mrs. Lichtenstein, and here we are.

While enjoying a hike in the woods of Norway with my three sons last summer, I again brought up the topic of me thinking about changing my last name, something they had not been too receptive to last time I tried to air the possibility, and so I had just dropped it. “But why, mamma? You are a Lichtenstein!” they seemed to exclaim in emphatic unison. Yes, I said, it’s true I’ve been a Lichtenstein since the day I married your pappa and decided to take his name for that reason, but now we are not married anymore, and there is a new Mrs. Lichtenstein. Silence. Until the oldest, about to be a freshman in college reasonably offered: “That’s a good point” and the other two mumbled their acquiescence.

As much as divorce can be about loss and things ending, it is also about new beginnings. So, rather than answering the question, “what’s my name?” I sip my coffee and ponder: “what will my name be?” Or even more deeply: “What can my story become?” Being and becoming. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze posited (as he, in turn was elaborating on Nietzsche’s philosophy), human reality is more about a constant becoming, not a static being. Being in a process, then, seems to at once welcome the idea of “I am” (“I exist” – a concept I like to admit and enjoy for now) to include the more open ended notion of “I am becoming.”

Perhaps all the empty spaces don’t have to filled in right away…

Hello Name