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 Silver Spoon in My Mouth

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but today I began my day with one. And I like it. Why not begin every day like this, I asked myself as I loaded the dishwasher after breakfast.

I can thank my now retired hard working career woman of a mother for enabling me with this delightful early morning experience of luxury; both enjoying my oatmeal on a regular weekday with a silver spoon, and then the freedom to put it in the dishwasher. It’s not that she bequeathed me a trust fund from her earnings, nor did she suggest I never work a day for the rest of my life, as the idiom might suggest; if anything, it is from her that I have learned the value of structure, discipline and persistent effort in all of life’s undertakings, whether great or small, intimate or public. Not to mention the importance of a resilient attitude through all the requisite ups and downs.

But she (as well as my dad) did lead by example and say with so many words: Life is short, enjoy it and all you have while you can. Use your beautiful, luxurious silverware every day, and why fret and make more housework for yourself than necessary: run it in the dishwasher. While it’s being washed, go out for a walk in the park instead, smell the roses. Write your blog.

One of our few family heirlooms, my grandmother’s pure sterling silver ware has intricate curlicue carved handles inspired by the traditional rosemaling or rose painting pattern of the Telemark region in Norway (as seen below). To give an idea of its preciousness today, one table spoon is about $150; a dinner knife, $200. So for a wedding gift, you might get one knife. I inherited place settings for 8 people, including many serving pieces. Lucky me.

It was around the time of my parents’ divorce when my mom was moving to a smaller apartment and was about to retire, that I noticed her silver ware had also moved from the “special” drawer in the dining room breakfront where it had been wrapped in plastic bags and felt pouches to prevent tarnishing, to being casually placed and exposed to oxygen in her kitchen drawer. While in Oslo for a visit, she served me dinner on my day of arrival, a weekday meal of fishcakes, carrots and potatoes, using her silver. “Wow, mamma, what’s the occasion?” I asked with a wink, thinking my visit, as marked by the Norwegian flag waving form her 3rd floor balcony, might be the catalyst for the fancy cutlery. “Oh that. I’ve decided, why not enjoy it every day?” Bringing a glistening carrot neatly pierced on the tines of the Telemark silver fork to her mouth, she gave a slight shrug with her upper body suggesting she felt justified and had mostly come to terms with her own “transgression,” as if she was responding to the ghosts of generations of raised eyebrows questioning her on this and her other radical indiscretions when it comes to tradition. She might have said “Every day is a celebration! I am letting go!” but this exuberance was left for me to write later. However, it came from her. My mother.

If you are of Norwegian stock, you may have groaned in disapproval (or heard your mother in the recesses of your mind) at the mention of the silverware in the dishwasher. This is one of the great cultural taboos, suggesting perhaps my utter lack of respect for safeguarding the traditional handling of the family jewels by hand washing them. Alas, as the VikingJewess of perpetual cultural and traditional in-betweenness that I am, it is possible I have lost some of my touch with, or reverence for, one tradition as I have been hard at work learning about and safeguarding the other. While both my born Norwegian heritage and my adopted Jewish one deeply move and inspire me, I have also come to realize that life is too short to do anything to perfection. And what is that anyway, perfection? Imperfection summons curiosity and inquiry; the story is found in the flaws, lodged in there like a gift to be unwrapped and enjoyed.

Telemark rosemaling blue

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.

Image

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!