What's Wrong with Fiddler on the Roof

Fifty years on, no work by or about Jews has won American hearts so thoroughly. So what's my problem?

 
Observation
Ruth R. Wisse
June 18 2014 6:00PM

No creative work by or about Jews has ever won the hearts and imaginations of Americans so thoroughly as the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary and next year will have its fifth Broadway revival.

Everyone enjoys this show, whose musical numbers—“Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker,” and others—not only enliven Jewish weddings but are commonly understood to represent something essential about Jews and Jewishness. Jeremy Dauber opens his new biography of Sholem Aleichem with Fiddler because Fiddler is how the beloved Yiddish author is known—if he is known at all—to English readers. “Forget Sholem Aleichem,” writes Dauber, “there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.” And Dauber ends the book by tracing the stages through which Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters were transformed by successive translators and directors into what, by the time the movie version of Fiddler was released in 1971, the New Yorker’s normally severe critic Pauline Kael would call “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

Soon after the stage production opened in 1964 (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, with Zero Mostel in the title role), I was urged to see it by my teacher, the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who had just completed his History of the Yiddish Language. Unlike some purist defenders of Yiddish culture who were expressing mixed feelings about a classic work being hijacked for the American stage—and in contrast to several highbrow Jewish intellectuals, offended by what Irving Howe blisteringly called the play’s “softened and sweetened” nostalgia—Weinreich was delighted that Sholem Aleichem’s masterwork would be accessible to audiences who could never have come to know it in the original. He even defended as legitimate some of the changes that had been introduced in order to appeal to an American audience. I, too, loved the show, not least because Yiddish literature had become my subject of study, and I appreciated the boost.

Even livelier than the stage production was the 1971 movie, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Chaim Topol, which exploited the freedoms of the film medium to veer still further from the original Yiddish conception. By this time, though, my own reservations about the enterprise had begun to mount. In the original series of stories and in all of their many adaptations for the Yiddish stage, whenever Tevye is defied by his daughters and challenged by his potential sons-in-law, he emerges morally intact. This is how we learn to appreciate his resistance to the historical forces that are trying to undo him. Economic hardship, Communism, internationalism, materialism, persecution, expulsion, and, by no means least, romantic love: powerless as he may be to stop their advance, Tevye is not mowed down by any of them.

So thoroughly does Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye command the plot line and its outcome that even Hava, the daughter who converts to Christianity in order to marry her Ukrainian lover Fyedka, does not get the better of him. However persuasive her arguments for a universalist ideal may be—why should God have separated people into Jews and Christians, and isn’t it time we repaired the breach?—Tevye does not sanction love over the integrity of the Jewish people. Nor do his paternal feelings for Hava excuse her defection; instead, he pronounces her dead to the family and observes the traditional seven days of mourning. Only when she repents does he accept her back; only because he has stayed firm is she able to return to a still-Jewish home.

Of course, it was the generous side of Tevye’s nature that made him so readily adaptable for an American audience. An observant Jew who prides himself on being able to quote traditional sources, he is also an accommodating parent who jokes at his own expense and uses prayer as an opportunity to argue with God. He may be conservative in his beliefs, but he is liberal in his instincts. Indeed, much of the humor in Sholem Aleichem’s stories about him pivots on the tension between his faith and his doubts, his tenacity and his lenient heart. But this only makes all the more striking the single point on which he will not yield. His “No!” to Hava is the dramatic and emotional centerpiece of the work.

 

And here the critics were right: the authors of Fiddler took the stuffing out of the derma. In both the Broadway and film versions, Tevye not only makes his peace with his daughter’s conversion and marriage but accepts the justice of her Christian husband’s rebuke of him as the couple departs for Cracow, Poland. (Ultimately, they would go to America.) “Some,” says Fyedka, “are driven away by edicts—others [that is, he himself and Hava] by silence.”

Let’s understand what lies behind this sentence. Fyedka is daring to equate Tevye’s refusal to accept Hava’s conversion to Christianity with the czarist persecution of the Jews of Russia. The accusation is outrageous and brutal—but to it, Fiddler’s Tevye replies meekly: “God bless you.” Charged with bigotry for upholding the integrity of the Jewish people, he ends by endorsing the young couple’s intermarriage as the benign culmination of a leveling ideal. We might be tempted to turn Fyedka’s accusation against the accuser: some drive the Jews out of Russia, others drive Jewishness out of the Jews. But the “others” in this case include the authors of Fiddler, who demolish the dignity of their hero without any apparent awareness of what they have done. 

A similar insouciance characterizes a recent “cultural history” of Fiddler on the Roof. Entitled Wonder of Wonders, after one of the show’s catchiest musical numbers, it is written by Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and teacher of journalism at Columbia. In this abundantly researched study, we can follow the path by which Sholem Aleichem’s drama of Jewish resistance evolved into a classic of assimilation. Although Solomon doesn’t make the connection, the process she describes closely resembles an earlier transmutation of a different Jewish work for the American stage: namely, the replacement in the 1950s of the original dramatization of the Diary of Anne Frank, by the novelist Meyer Levin, with a thoroughly de-Judaized version by the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

As is well known, Levin fought back. He could not abide the suppression of the Diary’s gritty Jewishness in favor of the upbeat, treacly, universalized message voiced by Anne in the Broadway production’s most quoted line: “[In] spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Over the decades, Levin’s pursuit of intellectual and moral restitution became an obsession, which is the one-word title he would give to his story about the American Jewish theater and the Jews. By contrast, Alisa Solomon hails the triumph of all that Levin mourned, writing with cheerful mien about Fiddler’s shift from kosher to “kosher-style.” Her celebratory work has won the plaudits of reviewers and academics alike.

 

I voiced some of my concerns about Tevye’s theatrical fate in my 2001 book The Modern Jewish Canon, and I return to them now with broader questions. Certainly, the authors of Fiddler were not the first to sacrifice Jewish identity to the universalizing ethos. One day, I’d finally sat down to read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 classic German drama Nathan the Wise, a plea for interreligious tolerance I had often seen praised for its positive representation of the Jew who is its title character. Nathan’s wisdom and nobility were known to have been modeled on the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But just as, in real life, Mendelssohn’s offspring left the Jewish fold, so, too, Lessing’s fictional Nathan leaves no Jewish heirs. It struck me that I would much have preferred a lesser Jew at the head of a large and living family to this generous paragon who leads his people to a dead end. It was as though the Jew could be celebrated only at the expense of his tribe’s survival, which is just the sort of happy ending that the team of Bock, Harnick, and Stein provide for their wise Jew, Tevye the Dairyman.

In fairness, I should note that Jews are not the only people whose integrity the authors casually cancel. Fyedka, an aspiring Ukrainian intellectual with his own sense of universal responsibility, leaves with Hava for Poland in generous-hearted protest against the expulsion of the Jews from Anatevka. Poland: really? Here our American authors betray little familiarity with, or patience for, the kind of ethnic-religious-linguistic-national rivalry that claimed—and has continued to claim—the lives and loyalties of Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles.

Liberal fantasy delights in improbable unions, and Fiddler on the Roof approaches the issue of Fyedka, Hava, and the Jews much like Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy Cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, got married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/. . . danced by the light of the moon.” In the same cockeyed spirit, Sholem Aleichem’s adapters, liberating the couple from the complicating features that sustain Tevye and the Jewish people, blithely ignore the likelihood that staying in Cracow would only have embroiled them in new enmities and eventually landed their descendants in Auschwitz.

It was the Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill who, having married a Gentile woman and abandoned his earlier Zionist commitment, supplied Americans with their own enduring image of harmonious amalgamation in his 1908 play The Melting Pot. The happy ending that Zangwill conjures up for David Quixano, a quixotic Jew who seeks refuge in America, takes the form of marriage with the daughter of the pogromist from whom he had managed to escape in Russia. Thus does the American melting pot liquefy the antagonisms and violence of Europe in a bland but warming stew.

Zangwill’s concept of misfortune is associated with threat from without. Sholem Aleichem’s concerns were all about the collapse of Jewish confidence from within: flight from Jewish responsibility, erosion of Jewish language, the snapping of the chain of Jewish transmission. Evidently, by the time we come to mid-century America and Fiddler, Sholem Aleichem’s talented adapters were all too ready to assume that the past was truly past, and that the problems of the Jews, like the “Jewish problem,” had finally been solved.

What is it about America—or about the American theater—that leads to such assumptions? I have often wondered why the team of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein gave up their original idea for West Side Story as a story about Catholics and Jews on New York’s Lower East Side. Could it be that only the substitution of Jets and Sharks as the warring parties allowed them to imagine a truly tragic outcome? To fight and die—albeit unintentionally—as the lovers do in Romeo and Juliet, and as Tony, the white Jet, does in this American adaptation of Shakespeare, is to possess something one is willing to fight for, like family honor or group pride. Puerto Ricans or Poles might go to the mat for such values—but Jews?

I suspect Bernstein and Robbins couldn’t imagine Jews in such a scenario—and certainly not when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was already becoming commonplace. In fact, in every Al Jolson or Benny Goodman story, it is the Jewish parents who must demonstrate their largesse by accepting their son’s marriage to a Christian. Refuse, and they would be labeled bigots, which is precisely the fate visited on Tevye by his American handlers.

 

Guaranteed rights, freedoms, and civic obligations were the great gifts that America offered its Jews, and these, combined with upward mobility, were surely enough to be grateful for even when marred by discrimination. Toleration came somewhat more gradually, but faster to Jews than to “people of color,” and the lure of assimilation was correspondingly stronger among Jews than among many other ethnic and religious groups. Indeed, many liberal Jews became so wedded to the universalist ideal as to become intolerant of fellow Jews who wished to stay identifiably Jewish.

This illiberal form of liberalism, practiced by Jews as well as non-Jews, has always objected to the nexus of religion and peoplehood that has historically defined the Jews and their civilization. Judaism invites in anyone who truly wants to become a Jew, but differs from universalist creeds in not expecting or requiring that everyone do so. Paradoxically, this makes Jewish Jews more tolerant of others than those who cannot abide the idea of a people apart—like Fyedka, who equates Tevye’s stubborn Jewish loyalty with czarist xenophobia. With that in mind, one might venture that if Fiddler on the Roof marks a high point in American Jewish culture, the triumph of American-style Fyedkaism represents its low.

Great art requires a moral seriousness that allows for the possibility of tragedy as well as the relief of comedy. Sholem Aleichem endows Tevye with this potential. His concluding words in Sholem Aleichem’s concluding chapter are: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” The conclusion of Fiddler on the Roof, in Alisa Solomon’s approving summary, shows that Tevye belongs nowhere, which she takes to mean that he belongs everywhere. Meaning, everywhere the “old God of Israel” is not.

________________

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof, Sholom Aleichem, Tevye, Yiddish

 

The Vanished Jews of Oria

Negotiating for a country home, a classical singer and cantor uncovers traces of Italian Jewry’s medieval golden age.

<em>Sign for Oria's Jewish Quarter.</em> Daniel Ventura/Wikimedia.
Sign for Oria's Jewish Quarter. Daniel Ventura/Wikimedia.
 
Observation
July 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Mark Glanville, a bass baritone, has performed with England’s Opera North, Scottish Opera, Lisbon Opera, New Israeli Opera, and on the recital stage, and is the author of The Goldberg Variations, a memoir.


Five years ago, I had never heard of Oria, let alone its Jews—even after a decade of regular sojourns in Puglia (Apulia), the southeastern province that occupies the heel of Italy’s boot. Traces of Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Arabic, French, Norman, Spanish, Turkish, German, and even Gypsy culture: all these I had encountered. But I’d concluded that this remarkable region wasn’t a place where Jews had made much of an impression.

True, I knew the story of San Nicandro, some of whose inhabitants had converted to Judaism at the oddest time imaginable, just as Hitler had begun massacring communities all over Europe. True, too, remnants of an earlier Jewish population could be found at the functioning synagogue of Scolanova at Trani, in Puglia’s north. Descendants of 13th-century forced converts to Christianity under the Angevins, they had continued to practice their faith in secret until free to return openly to Judaism. But these days? Reveal your Jewish provenance to a Pugliese, and he’ll likely smile and say you’re the first Jew he’s ever met.

So when, answering an ad for a 17th-century country mansion (masseria), I parked for the first time outside one of the entrances to Oria’s medieval center and beheld in front of me a giant bronze menorah, I was astonished. But I shouldn’t have been. As a plaque on the wall announced, I was at the entrance to the Rione Giudea (Jewish quarter), and more specifically in the Piazza Shabettai Donnolo.

My real-estate agent enlightened me further: though the town had once hosted a significant community, there had been no Jewish presence in Oria for about a thousand years. Delighted to learn that I was a Jew myself, he drove me down the tiled central street of the old Jewish quarter, whose twisting alleys, blind passageways, and tiny lanes decorated with archways, portals, and steep stairways struck me as reminiscent of the ancient Middle East or North Africa.

As weeks passed, and negotiations for the masseria drew to a close, the agent put me in touch with an Orthodox British Jew named Graham Morris who recently had been visiting Oria on a regular basis, often escorting groups of American Jewish tourists around the town’s Jewish landmarks. In his first email to me, Graham remarked that he was fond of telling “the worthies in Oria that at the holiest hour of the holiest day of the year, several million Jews sing a hymn crafted in Oria a millennium ago!”

This got to me. As the regular High Holy Days cantor at a synagogue in central London, surely I had to be one of those millions. And indeed Graham’s “hymn” turned out to be Ezkerah Elohim, a piyyut (liturgical poem) composed by Amittai ben Shephatiah, who lived in Oria in the 10th century. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the hymn is recited during the final supplications of the Yom Kippur service, and I had been chanting it for twenty years.

I remember, oh God, and lament
When I see every city built on its foundations
And the City of God degraded to the nethermost pit.

The thought that a prayer of such importance had been written in this quiet, forgotten southern Italian town where I had just bought a home made me shiver.

Cantor Tzvi Weiss sings Leib Glantz’s setting of Ezkerah Elohim.

 

What had life actually been like in this beautiful town, set in an agricultural landscape dominated by olive groves and vineyards? Through Graham Morris I came to meet Giuseppe d’Amico, whose short book, La Communità Ebraica Oritana e il suo Rione (“Oria’s Jewish Community and its Quarter”), provides as good an introduction as any to the subject. A septuagenarian teacher of classics who still entertains himself by writing Latin elegiacs and ancient Greek alcaics, d’Amico took me to the site of the Jewish cemetery, its tranquil charm marred only by a telecommunications tower visible for miles around. From here, he was able to point out the perimeter of the much larger medieval town in which the Jewish community once lived. Oria had been a city of considerable importance, and the Jewish cemetery was situated just outside it.

D’Amico reeled off a few salient points of local history. Most notable was the black year of 925, when a Saracen army sacked the city, killing 6,000 of its men and taking 10,000 women and children prisoner. Among the dead were no fewer than ten rabbis, a figure itself suggestive of a sizable Jewish presence. Later, guided by d’Amico’s book, which is infused with the same passion as his speech, I gleaned a fuller portrait not only of the town and its Jews but of the rich Jewish history of Puglia itself.

Greek-speaking Jews had lived in Puglia since Roman times, and it was here that rabbinic scholarship gained its first foothold in Christian Europe. A medieval legend explains how talmudic erudition spread from its older center in Babylonia (Iraq) throughout the Mediterranean. It seems that four rabbis, having set sail from the port of Bari—Puglia’s largest city— were captured en route and sold into slavery at various locales. Ransomed by the local Jews, they proceeded to plant the seeds of Torah study in Tunisia, Egypt, and Spain. Ashkenazi Jews, too, trace their intellectual heritage to Puglia. Jacob ben Meir Tam, the great talmudist of 12th-century France, is said to have declared—playing on Isaiah 2:3—that “the Torah shall come forth from Bari, and the word of the Lord from Otranto.”

In this setting, Oria’s Jews exhibited their own brand of scholarly activity. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, in addition to numerous religious and mystical works, they produced important scientific and medical treatises, plus an important work of history (more on this below). Whether they were equally productive as farmers is uncertain, but an 11th-century manuscript copy of the Mishnah bears marginal annotations in the obscure and colorful dialect of southern Puglia, written in Hebrew script and referring almost entirely to agricultural terminology and procedures. “Mittene litame cannizza i vardezzona” (spread a wattle of dung and grass), says one, citing a technique for protecting trees from harmful insects. “Karmenatu in unu filatu intessutu” (carded, spun, and woven) says another, referring to the preparation of wool.

In Italy’s most fertile zone, were Oria’s Jews no less a people of the land than their neighbors? Oria’s chief product at the time was cloth, especially silk, and Mediterranean Jews, one scholar writes, were in general known “as planters of mulberry trees, breeders of silk-worms, weavers, and dyers of silk and purple fabrics. They carried the art into Sicily and became its chief promoters and artisans there. . . . From Sicily it was easily transmitted to Italy where it was developed with equal skill and enterprise.” It is thus quite possible that this was a trade in which the Jews of Oria also excelled and to which their wealth may be attributed.

 

To return to that work of history: through d’Amico I was introduced to the extraordinary Sefer Yuḥasin (“Book of Genealogies”) a hodgepodge of legend and chronicle written by a certain Aḥimaats ben Paltiel in 1053 and known also as “The Chronicle of Aḥimaats.” I saw a copy in the town’s library: an elegant edition with parallel Hebrew and Italian texts and commentary by Cesare Colafemmina, the subject’s foremost authority.

Sefer Yuḥasin (not to be confused with the later work of that name by Abraham Zacuto, 1452-ca.1515) was the first book to shed light on Jewish history during the period long dismissed as the “Dark Ages.” Surviving in a single manuscript copy, Aḥimaats’s book was rediscovered in 1869 in Toledo in a codex dating from the 14th or 15th century. Colafemmina believes it to be one of the Jewish texts stolen from the long-suffering Jews of the Roman ghetto and carried off on 38 carts one night in April 1753 by agents of the Vatican.

Its significance cannot be underestimated. Sefer Yuḥasin sets the southern Italian Jews of that period, as well as such important figures as Amittai ben Shephatiah, the author of Ezkerah Elohim, in their correct historical context. Basing themselves on Amittai’s mournful output, scholars had once placed him either close to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE or, alternatively, at the end the 11th century (just after the First Crusade). Thanks to Sefer Yuḥasin, we now know that he wrote in the 9th century, in the wake of the brutal persecutions initiated throughout the Byzantine empire by the icon-worshipping emperor Basil I (867-886).

Of course, as a true historical source, Sefer Yuḥasin is unreliable. But it is highly readable and entertaining. Among its accounts of miracles wrought by wonder-working rabbis is the tale of Abu Aaron of Babylon (773-816), who visited Oria in the middle of the 9th century and  found there “tents of study set up by rivers, planted and thriving like trees by the waters, schools established, rooted like cedars growing at the side of flowing streams.” Aḥimaats tells us how Abu Aaron restored to human form a boy who had been turned into a mule by an evil sorceress and bound to a millstone “to make him grind as long as he lived.” Another miracle, wrought by none other than Shephatiah, father of the poet Amittai, relates to the historically verified edicts of Basil I, in which Jews of Puglia who failed to convert were ordered to be crushed in an olive press.

“Basil had a daughter whom he loved as the apple of his eye,” Aḥimaats informs us. “An evil spirit tormented her. He could not find a cure for her. He spoke to Shephatiah in secret and with earnest entreaty said, ‘Help me, Shephatiah, and cure my daughter of her affliction,’ and Shephatiah answered, ‘With the help of the Almighty, I will surely do so.” Shephatiah then exorcised the spirit, stuck it in a leaden chest, and dropped it into the sea. When the delighted emperor invited Shephatiah to request a boon, the latter replied, “in sorrow and bitter weeping, ‘If thou, my lord, wouldst favor Shephatiah, let there be peace for those engaged in the study of the law. Do not force them to abandon the law of God, and do not crush them in sorrow and affliction.’”

Basil, infuriated by this request, which he perceived as spurning his offer, nonetheless issued an edict “commanding that no persecution take place in the city of Oria.” But Oria was to be the exception. For “then the wicked king continued to send emissaries into all the provinces and ordered his agents to fall upon [the Jews], to force them out of their religion and convert them to the errors and folly of his faith. The sun and moon were darkened for 25 years, until the day of his death. Cursed be his end.”

Though we also learn from Sefer Yuḥasin about the later, brutal incursions of the Saracens, responsible for the devastation of 925, it is the Byzantines for whom Aḥimaats reserves his ire—perhaps because, while the Saracens targeted all of the citizens of Oria, irrespective of religion, Basil’s legislation was rooted specifically in anti-Semitism.

The strangest aspect of Sefer Yuḥasin is not what is written in it, but what is left out. The chronicle contains no mention of Oria’s greatest son, Shabbetai Donnolo, whose name graces not only the square where I first became aware of the Jews of Oria but also a street and a hospital in Tel Aviv. Why a hospital?  Donnolo’s milestone work, Sefer ha-Mirkaḥot (“Book of Mixtures”), was the first medical text to be written in Italy after the fall of the Roman empire and the oldest Hebrew medical text in Europe. It also makes generous use of non-Jewish sources. (Could this have struck the ever-proud Aḥimaats as an unforgivable transgression?) Donnolo was also an accomplished poet, the author of an important work on astronomy and astrology, and the coiner of many Hebrew words and phrases still in use today.

While Aḥimaats’s anger is stirred by the Byzantines, Donnolo’s own bitterness was quickened by the Saracens who in 925 destroyed his community and sold him into slavery. It is he, I realized when I came to read Andrew Sharf’s The Universe of Shabbetai Donnolo, who detailed the atrocities committed by the Arabs in that fateful year, not least among them the murder of the ten rabbis.

 

What would Shabbetai Donnolo have thought had he known that Arabs were to return to Oria a thousand years later in rather different circumstances? I had arranged to meet Giuseppe d’Amico just outside the old Jewish quarter where I would be translating his reconstruction of local Jewish history for the benefit of a group of 80 Anglophone Jewish tourists who had come to Puglia to celebrate Passover. D’Amico began by repeating Donnolo’s bitter threnody on the events of 925, and I thought I detected a contemporary overtone in his words.

To an outsider, Oria’s streets may have seemed calm, but its citizens were uneasy. At the town’s corners and cafes, young men from Tunisia—home territory of the Saracens who had ravaged the town a millennium earlier—were congregating every day. They were refugees who, after arriving by boat in the wake of the 2011-12 Arab Spring, had been sent to a holding camp halfway between Oria and Manduria, five miles away. Indeed, our group had been advised to take a detour to our next stop, a tiny 16th-century synagogue, lest we bump into any of these Arab youths as they drifted aimlessly about, warned by notices in their language not to linger at café tables for longer than fifteen minutes.

In Manduria itself, a contingent of military police was on hand to prevent any local outbreak of violence. But this was gratuitous; most of the Tunisians were waiting in the camp, hoping to receive permission to leave an area where they had no prospect of employment and head instead for relatives in France. Quite a few had already done so after a mass breakout from a former World War II U.S. airbase. Meanwhile, some had harmed themselves protesting their internment; one had set himself alight, another was killed on the road. Thus did the latest Arab invasion of Oria and its environs bespeak both tragedy and farce.

As for the Jews, in their old quarter one can see the only freestanding building in the town’s historic center. What looks like a rather unprepossessing, whitewashed, modern family home, d’Amico believes was once a synagogue. “My grandparents used to circle its walls at times of illness in the belief they would be cured,” he told our party. “The Jews of Oria were famous doctors and pharmacists, so it makes sense. They brought light to this town at a time when the rest of Italy was darkened by barbarian invasions.”

Most modern Oritani share d’Amico’s pride in their town’s Jewish heritage. Each September, a festive conference is held in the city and papers are read to mark the ancient Jewish presence there. But it would be naïve to infer from such nostalgic philo-Semitism that the town holds contemporary Jews in equal esteem. Following Israel’s incursion into Gaza last year, I was privy to the following exchange on Facebook between two Oritani, one of whom had “friended” me on the site:

A: What’s the matter with those awful people? You’d think after what happened to them [in the Holocaust], they’d have learned!

B: It’s a shame [the Nazis] didn’t finish the job and wipe that filth off the face of the earth.

I have never met the authors of these words, and I hope I never will. I also firmly believe that none of my own Oritano friends and acquaintances shares these all-too-frequently expressed sentiments of our historical moment. Still, even as I continue to enjoy my own privileged status as the first Jew to return to Oria after a thousand years, I am mindful of a fact that one should never lose sight of: it is as easy to idealize dead Jews as it is to demonize living ones.

More about: History & Ideas, Italian Jewry, Middle Ages, Piyyut

 

Were Reuben and Gad Right to Ask Moses for Land on the Other Side of the Jordan?

Wherever Jews live, God lives within them.

<em>From</em> Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, <em>by Arthur Boyd Houghton.</em> Wikimedia.
From Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
July 16 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


The question at the heart of this week’s double reading of Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13) strikes at the heart of what the Torah as a whole is actually about. At the very beginning of Genesis, Rashi opens his magisterial commentary with this hypothesis:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The Torah didn’t need to start other than with “This month shall be [your first month]” (Exodus 12:1), which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded. Why then does it begin with “In the beginning”? This is because it says in Psalms (111:6): “He declared the power of His works to His people in order to give to them the inheritance of nations.” Thus, should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have taken by force the lands of the Seven Nations [of Canaan],” they shall say to them: “All the earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”

Rashi’s hypothesis would make sense if the conquest of the land of Israel actually took place in the course of the first book of the Torah, or the second, or the third. But it does not take place in any of the five books of the Torah, whose narrative breaks off with the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, leaving the messy business of conquest to the book of Joshua. And even that book, as my teacher Rabbi Hezi Cohen pointed out, contains fewer than 100 verses on the subject of warfare, being much more concerned with the problem of ethics and power once you’re in your own land.

As for the Torah as a whole, it’s concerned with much broader issues. Take, for example, the conversation in this week’s reading between Moses and the livestock-rich sons of Reuben and Gad:

But there were farm animals galore belonging to the sons of Reuben and sons of Gad,
A tremendous number and they saw the land of Etzar and the land of Gilad
And here the place was a place for grazing.
And the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben came
And spoke to Moses and Elazar the priest and the leaders of the community, saying:
“The country the Lord struck before the community of Israel is for livestock
And your servants have livestock.”
And they said, “If we’ve found favor in your eyes,
Let this land be given to your servants as an estate,
Don’t cross us over the Jordan.”

As the attentive reader will recall, this is not the first time in the Torah that livestock have figured at a critical juncture. Abraham and Lot discontinue their travel together because they have too many animals, and Lot, gazing at the rich pastureland in the cities of the plain, heads off in that direction. (To put it mildly, that didn’t turn out so well.) Later, Joseph’s brothers follow him down to Egypt to live in Goshen because of its rich pastureland. (And how did that turn out? A pattern is emerging here.) And now along come these livestock-happy fools. Have they learned nothing from the preceding books? Moses proceeds to slap them down:

But Moses told the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben: “Are your brothers coming to war
And you’ll settle here? Why do you stir the hearts of the children of Israel
From crossing over to the land the Lord gave them?”

So far, Moses seems to have no intention of letting them stay outside the land of Israel. Which must mean that Rashi’s right: the Torah isn’t a book of moral philosophy, it’s a real-estate prospectus. Or is it?

But they went up to him and said, “We’ll build pens for our sheep here
And cities for our children.
And we’ll swiftly trailblaze ahead of the children of Israel
Until we bring them to their places
While our children settle in cities fortified against the dwellers in the land.
We won’t return to our homes until each son of Israel has inherited his inheritance.
But we won’t inherit with them over the Jordan and beyond,
For our inheritance will have come to us on the eastern bank of the Jordan.

And Moses said to them: “If you fulfill this speech,
If you trailblaze before the Lord to the war,
And every trailblazer of you crosses the Jordan before God
Until He lets you inherit His enemies before Him
And when the land is conquered before the Lord
And after that you return—then you’ll be clear of the Lord and of Israel
And this land will be yours as an estate before God.
But if you don’t do so,
Here you’ve sinned before God
And know that your sin will find you out.
Build yourselves cities for your children
And pens for your sheep,
And what comes out of your mouth, follow through.

 

It turns out, then, that the Torah is not about the land of Israel, it’s about morality—anywhere. When the sons of Gad and Reuben ask for the rich land outside of Israel, Moses reacts initially in his role as warlord, not as spiritual leader. But then these tribesmen—who were among the fiercest fighters at his command—take charge of the negotiations and assure him that they will see the campaign through. At that point, Moses switches modes. Rather than insisting that they plan for villas in the Negev, he becomes entirely practical about the realities of building your life outside the land of Israel. Notably, he also reverses the order of their plan of action: where they put building their property and sheep pens first, Moses instructs them first to build cities that can protect their children from the inhabitants of the surrounding land.

The issue is not really what land you’re living on, but how you live on it. That’s why the central actions of the Torah take place in pre-Jewish Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai. The laws of moral reality that govern Jewish life obtain everywhere, and Moses’ job is to pound them into the heads of the Israelites. As he prepares to delegate his duties to Joshua, he also prepares the sons of Gad and Reuben for a life without him, and for that purpose the central question becomes: how will you raise your children? If you want to raise them properly, put their welfare ahead of your livestock’s. They’re your principal herd, and if you’re no longer moving through the desert but proposing to settle down then you’d better make provisions for educating them and keeping them distinct, or—guess what?—they won’t be distinct for long.

But Moses appointed over them Elazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun
And the leaders of the tribes of the children of Israel
And Moses told them, “If the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben cross
With you over the Jordan, each a trailblazer to the war before the Lord,
And the land is conquered before you,
Then give them the land of Gilad as an estate.
But if they don’t cross as trailblazers with you
Then they’ll take hold among you in the land of Canaan.”

If the land of Israel were the only place the Torah envisaged as a possible Jewish habitation, things would have looked different. But at this crucial juncture, with some Jews opting to stay outside the land, Moses postulates a moral hierarchy. It is certainly possible to stay outside the land, but extra effort is required. Over and over again, Moses repeats the word offered by the sons of Gad: ḥalutsim, pioneers or, in my translation, trailblazers—the same word that in our era was adapted to describe the early Zionist pioneers who returned to the land to prepare the way for a mass immigration from Europe (which never came). But “pioneer” doesn’t cover the entire meaning. I’ve opted for “trailblazer” because of its moral connotations: if you want to stay outside the land of Israel, you don’t just have to blaze a trail ahead of the rest of the community while conquering the land, you have to be a perpetual trailblazer: you yourself have to be the force that insulates your children from becoming lost among the surrounding tribes. If you do not keep your word to God, that is the sin that will find you out. And if you aren’t capable of such trailblazing, better to accept the lesser moral challenge of scrabbling to take root in Canaan amid the other tribes.

Not that that’s such a simple challenge, either:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the prairie of Moab, saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and tell them—
You’re crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan
And you’ll disinherit all those settled in the land before you
And you’ll desecrate their mosaics, and all their graven images you’ll desecrate,
And all their platforms you’ll wipe out.
And you’ll dispossess the land and settle it
For to you I gave the land, to inherit it.

. . .

And if you don’t dispossess those settled in the land before you
Then whatever you leave of them
Shall be pokers in your eyes and burrs in your sides
And they’ll tie you in a knot over the land you’re settled in.
And then it shall be that what I thought to do to them, I’ll do to you.

 

The problem of living in and conquering the land of Israel is that it is not unoccupied; it has never been unoccupied. If the moral problem of living in it were simple, then Rashi’s scenario at the beginning of his Torah commentary would work fine: just show up on the other side of the Jordan, wave the first verse of Genesis at the first inhabitants you meet, and they’ll immediately start packing. But it isn’t like that. Even when Joshua conquers the land by force, armed with divine permission to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing, all it takes is for the Gibeonites to pose as a distant tribe and sue for a treaty and the children of Israel strike a deal allowing them to become the “woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly.” Even with divine sanction, dispossession and a clear conscience do not go together.

The upshot is that the land of Israel is another morally lethal environment:

But don’t defile the land you’re in
For blood will defile the land
And the land won’t be expiated for the blood spilled on it
Except by the blood of whoever spilled it.
Don’t contaminate the land you dwell in
That I dwell within
For I the Lord dwell within the children of Israel.

Here finally is the answer to the question posed by Rashi and the question posed to Moses by the ranchers. Real estate matters, but not ultimately: wherever Jews live, God lives within them. If you live in the land of Israel, you have to take care not to desecrate that land because the blood you spill will come back to haunt you. If you don’t live in the land of Israel, God is still within you, and you’d best communicate that fact to your children—because, whether stationary or moving, a herd of farm animals or of children needs to be led; it doesn’t lead itself. And wherever God lives, there are consequences to actions. If you don’t keep your word, your sin will find you out.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Rashi, Religion & Holidays, The Monthly Portion

 

What's so Bad about Paganism?

Even in our increasingly post-religious age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Why?

<em>The winter solstice at Stonehenge.</em> Flickr/brentbat.
The winter solstice at Stonehenge. Flickr/brentbat.
 
Observation
July 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Richard Samuelson writes about my recent column on the Hebrew term avodah zarah, “foreign worship”:

Your discussion [of rabbinic laws concerning paganism] raises a question. What exactly is the proper definition of the term “pagan”? Is paganism only a thing of the past? Peter Gay, the great historian of the Enlightenment, speaks in his books of “modern paganism,” and many elements of modern life in the West seem to be pagan, a repudiation of classic Jewish ethics that goes from the worship of God to the worship of nature. Or am I mistaken?

I don’t think that Mr. Samuelson is mistaken. In general, one of the errors we often make about ancient polytheism, which is what the word “paganism” has traditionally referred to, is to dismiss it as a more primitive stage of religion than monotheism, and therefore as a relic of history. Yet just as monotheism developed in antiquity from its simpler biblical form to the more sophisticated Judaism of the early rabbis, so polytheism evolved, too. The high paganism of Greco-Roman culture and the Roman empire, which reached its acme in the first centuries CE just before being destroyed by Christianity, produced elevated modes of worship, important philosophers, great poets and prose writers. Intellectually, let alone artistically, it was in no way Judaism or Christianity’s inferior.

The roots of this dismissal, of course, go back to the Bible. “Their idols are silver and gold,” typically says the Psalmist of the gods of the peoples among whom the Israelites lived. “They have mouths but they speak not; eyes they have, but they see not.” As perceptive as the biblical authors were about many things, they themselves were blind to the fact that no thinking polytheist ever confused an idol representing a god with the god it represented. Biblical monotheism understood paganism, whose conception of the world was not necessarily simple-minded, no better than paganism understood biblical monotheism.

The Christian scorn for paganism, inherited from Judaism, can be found in the word “pagan” itself. It derives from Latin paganus, which originally meant, in pre-Christian times, “rustic” or “villager,” and also had the derogatory sense of “hick” or “yokel.” Paganus in turn is from pagus, a rural district, whence come words like French pays and Spanish país, “country,” Italian paesano, “fellow countryman,” and English “peasant.” Paganus came to mean “non-Christian” or “polytheist” because Christianity made its first strides in the Roman empire as a largely urban religion and spread more slowly to the countryside, where the old gods continued to be worshiped longer. All of this was reinforced among Christians by the word’s pejorative sense.

A variant form of “pagan,” “paynim,” from old French paienime, was once also common in English but has long been archaic. Interestingly, another now-archaic word, “heathen,” which was in the past used more often than “pagan” as a designation for non-Christians or (in biblical times) non-Israelites, has a similar history. It derives from Old English haethen, “heath dweller,” or from an even earlier Germanic word (compare German Heide, meaning both “heathen” and “heath”) referring to someone like a cowherd or shepherd who lived on uncultivated land. Even when most farmers had been Christianized, paganism held on in outlying areas where farmland yielded to pasturage. The heathen was the bumpkin whom the true faith had not yet reached.

Even today, in our increasingly post-Christian age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Take the case of Hinduism, the one great polytheistic religion of antiquity that has survived and still flourishes. In an essay published a few years ago, Arvind Sharma, an Indian professor of comparative religion at McGill University, wrote:

Is Hinduism a pagan religion? . . . [It] at first blush appears to conform to [definitions of] paganism. It seems to worship many gods and seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as polytheistic and idolatrous and therefore pagan. . . . There is only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of one and the same God.

And yet that the “different gods . . . represent the various forms of one and the same God” is precisely the message that the high paganism of the Roman empire was preaching in the early centuries of the Christian era! Read such pro-pagan works as the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry’s Against the Christians, or the 2nd-century Apuleius’ wonderful novel The Golden Ass, and you’ll see that Sharma’s description of Hinduism applies to them, too. Were he less defensive about it, he would embrace Hinduism’s pagan nature rather than deny it.

Whether one can justifiably speak, as does Peter Gay, of a “modern paganism” that is post-theistic rather than polytheistic is, I think, a largely semantic question. Certainly, there are ways in which contemporary Western culture resembles the paganism of antiquity—for instance, as Mr. Samuelson observes, in its sacramentalization of nature, or in its veneration of physical beauty. Without a doubt these are things that both Judaism and Christianity were traditionally opposed to and that they identified with the paganism of antiquity. But the paganism of our own times, if such it is, also has much to distinguish it from the paganism of old, and the use of a so highly charged a word to characterize it may not contribute to the quality of the discussion.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: History & Ideas, Paganism, Religion & Holidays

 

Diving and Divinity

How a Bible scholar with a yen for scuba diving ended up introducing Judaism to Christians on a remote island in Fiji.

<em>A six-rayed sea star.</em> Wikipedia.
A six-rayed sea star. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
July 9 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Joshua Berman is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel, and a research fellow at the Herzl Institute. He is the author most recently of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.


Sunset on a Friday evening: clouds have descended on the lush mountains surrounding this grassy campus as young people, dressed in their Sabbath best, cross the central lawn to gather in a large common room. In the stillness, I’m transported back to my teenage years and Friday evenings at my Jewish summer camp—until suddenly my reverie is interrupted: “Dr. Joshua! Happy Sabbath, happy Sabbath to you!” The nearest synagogue is over 1,700 miles away, and I’m in Sabeto, a village on the Fijian island of Viti Levu in the South Pacific.

There are two passions in my life. Primary is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—which I have the good fortune to study and teach and write about as a professor of Bible in Israel. Second is scuba diving. Currently on sabbatical, I’d indulged a longstanding dream to travel to a world-class diving destination—and, while there, to teach Tanakh.

As a diver, my sights had long been long set on Fiji, whose underwater mountains of candy-colored coral, teeming with reef sharks, offer some of the best diving in the world. But Fiji is two ten-hour flights from Tel Aviv, and to fulfill the itinerary I had in mind I would have to observe Shabbat in a place with no Jewish community and no Chabad presence. Scouting out venues in Fiji that offer Bible, I’d noticed that one, Fulton College, was associated with the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists, of whom I knew nothing except that in some fashion they observed Saturday as a holy day of rest. Surely, I reasoned, it would be better to spend Shabbat with them than within the walls of my hotel room.

But would they see it the same way? An inquiring e-mail made its way to Steven Currow, the college principal, who graciously invited me to spend Shabbat on the campus and while there give a range of talks on Judaism and the Bible. Contacting a European member of his theology department, I asked about topics that might be of interest. “Well, few of us have ever really met a Jewish person before,” he replied. “Could you offer a lecture about those boxes you wear in the airport?” I happily agreed.

 

There is no church edifice at Fulton College. Instead, communal gatherings are held in an enormous open-air hangar. This allowed me to remain outside during prayer services on Friday evening before entering to present my talk. I was struck by the melodies, which were reminiscent of black American spirituals, and by the fact that all of the hymns were in English. Later I learned the reason why: Fulton students come from all over the Pacific islands, and even on a single island it’s common to hear more than one language being spoken. Hence, instruction and prayer at the college are conducted in the local lingua franca, a heavily accented English.

My first talk, following the ceremony ushering in the Sabbath, went well. “Dr. Joshua,” gushed the college pastor, a native Fijian who had earlier sent me an enthusiastic e-mail, “it is an enormous privilege that you are here with us. And what you said tonight is so important. I have arranged that tomorrow all of the elders from around the region will come to hear your talk and shake your hand.” I was a bit unsettled by the intensity of his response. At home, my lectures and sermons are well enough received—but nothing like this. I was reminded of a Hebrew saying that a friend of mine likes to invoke: eyn navi be-iro, “no one is a prophet in his own hometown,” or: you’re only a star when you’re on the road. I couldn’t remember the prophet who said it, but the name would come back to me soon enough.

For dinner, I was invited to the home of Steven Currow and his wife Nerrisa. Would this feel like a Shabbat dinner, I’d wondered? I needn’t have. There were just the three of us, and, like me, Steven had dressed for the occasion in a white shirt and dark slacks. Intent on serving only what I could eat, my hosts had prepared a meal consisting of a bounteous salad followed by a large platter of local tropical fruits, the whole served on a table set beautifully on a white cloth. To finish off, Nerissa produced fig bars whose wrappers bore the kashrut certification of the Orthodox Union.

Adventists engage in formal Bible study every Sabbath morning, focusing on the same weekly reading worldwide. In order to be able to express themselves in their native tongue, the Fulton students had broken into smaller groups, the Polynesians in one corner, the Melanesians in a second, the Micronesians in a third, and, in a fourth, those students and faculty, remnants of the fall of the Tower of Babel, who spoke in diverse other tongues but also knew English. This was the group I joined.

The morning’s reading, from the Gospel of Luke, was a passage narrating how Jesus’ teachings had developed a following in some parts of the land but not in Nazareth. We read Luke 4:24: “And I tell you all with certainty that no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I had found the voice behind my Hebrew proverb: Jesus of Nazareth.

Over the course of the day I had many conversations with Fulton students about their lives and their communities. One young man approached me with struggle visible on his face. “May I ask you a question about marriage?” he asked. “What does the Bible say about taking several wives?” As I began measuring my response, he continued: “My grandfather is the chief of our tribe in the Solomon Islands. He has four wives, and he says there is nothing in the Bible that forbids this.”

 

“Your grandfather is absolutely correct,” I said to the young man. “In fact, we find in the Bible many stories about families where a man has married several wives. And I can tell you that not a single one of those families is happy. It’s not for me to offer you instruction as a religious authority. But I’ll say this: you can enjoy the pleasure of having several wives available to you, or you can enjoy the intimacy and the bond that comes with monogamous union. You can’t have both. The choice is yours.”

As Saturday ended and the sun sank over the open-air hangar, the students again sang hymns, and again I was struck by the melodies, by the loveliness of their voices, and by the frequently exquisite harmonic effects they achieved. It had been a more beautiful Shabbat than I could possibly have imagined.

At the same time, though, I felt within me a certain tension that runs through rabbinic literature: how to regard the observance by non-Jews of commandments that Judaism traditionally considers a particular inheritance of the Jewish people? A prime example is the laws of kashrut, which aren’t universal moral teachings but, to the contrary, precepts by which Jews are deliberately separated from other human beings. The observance of Shabbat is often cited as a second example—but, for me, the power of this community’s Sabbath observance had challenged the notion.

Some guardians of Jewish law, fiercely protective of the commandments as a trust given to the Jewish people alone, maintain that no meaning whatsoever inheres in the attempted observance by non-Jews of Shabbat and kashrut. But Maimonides in the Middle Ages and many contemporary authorities on Jewish law maintain otherwise. To them, non-Jews who recognize the Torah as the word of God and wish to observe the commandments may receive divine reward, and are to be regarded positively.

Was my time among the Adventists of Fiji shedding further light on this question? Part of me felt as if someone had gone into my closet and come out wearing my best suit—and looking pretty good in it.

 

The diving portion of the trip began the next morning at Rakiraki on the island’s northern coast. If my trip had already brought me experiences far from my usual comfort zone, the diving part would be no different. Back-flipping off the boat into a spinning swirl of bubbles in an azure sea, I was propelled into an incredibly thrilling universe entirely disconnected from normal existence. Moments later, in the total silence of the undersea world, I was alongside a 50-foot cliff of lavender and yellow polyps of coral. From the left, a school of small red fish made its way in my direction; from the right, another school of glass-colored fish. As the two converged around me, a five-foot reef shark swam quickly by. Looking up at the columns of light streaming down into the water I couldn’t help wondering: if there were no one to behold all this, would it still be as ravishing?

No less eye-opening than the dive itself had been the long boat ride to the site. Our pilot, Choelly, or “Joe” as he introduced himself to the English speakers, was listening to a discourse on a Fijian-language radio station. Hearing words like “Solomonolulu,” “Moabitelula,” and “Sidonitalula,” I recognized the context: passages in the biblical book of Kings about Solomon’s lapse of virtue in his dalliance with foreign wives. “Joe,” I asked, “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, sir, Adventist!,” he beamed, and his eyes lit up when I proceeded to tell him about my Sabbath at Fulton College. “Joe, while I’m here, would you like me to come to your village and speak about the Bible?” Certain that the village elders would be pleased, he made a date with me for that same evening.

Nakorokula was established some 80 years ago when rival tribes in another part of the island chased out some inhabitants. The population, drawn from two clans, numbers some 70 souls. No one owns a car, and inside the village there are no roads at all. Electricity arrived in 2012.

In pitch-black darkness, our taxi wound its way down a dirt path. At the first structure in the village—a small thatched hut—a man was pounding loudly and (to me) rather forebodingly on bongo drums. My hosts allayed my anxiety: “This is our call to all of the village members to gather together for a significant occasion.”

Escorted by two elders, I entered the common room to find the entire village—men, women, and children—seated on mats on the floor, with some of the youngest children already sleeping on pillows or in their parents’ laps. The villagers sang a hymn in my honor, this time in Fijian, and once more I was struck by the resonance and richness of the voices and how naturally the singers broke into harmonies.

I began my talk by telling them how privileged I felt to be with them, and expressing gratitude on behalf of the Jewish people for the Fijian men in arms who participate in UN peacekeeping operations on Israel’s northern and southern borders. After I spoke for a while, we opened the floor and the questions came in earnest:

“Could you tell us please the history of your people?”

Who is the man who led your people back to the holy land?”

“What tribe are you from?”

“Does your wife wear the hijab?”

It was no surprise that, as Adventists, they were most interested to hear about Jewish Sabbath observance. Here I note that the Adventist church discourages a lengthy code of official rules for Sabbath conduct. Rather, each community institutes its own norms for instilling the special Sabbath spirit—although a common recommendation is that cooking for the day be concluded before sunset on Friday. “Like you,” I therefore opened confidently, “we do all of our cooking on Friday”—only to notice that the villagers were exchanging uncomfortable glances. Sensing that there must be some debate and perhaps contention over the issue, I backtracked. “Before I tell you about my Sabbath, let me tell you about my Friday.” I then described what a typical Orthodox home looks like in the hours preceding Shabbat, concluding that, in our experience, the greater the effort on Friday to get everything done in the kitchen, the greater the rest and peace in the house on the next day. Every woman in the room smiled and nodded in approval.

An especially fascinating moment came when a woman asked if we separated tithes on the Sabbath. Adventists dedicate a tenth of their earnings to the church, and evidently bring the money to worship services on the Sabbath itself. I said that we don’t touch money at all on the Sabbath, not even to give charity, and no beggar would think to extend his hand on that day. This really struck home. On the taxi ride back, one of the two elders, after conversing with the other in Fijian, announced a decision: henceforth, tithing in Nakorokula would no longer be done on the Sabbath. “You are absolutely right about money,” he said to me. “When your hand is in your pocket, your mind is in your pocket.”

 

But if the villagers gleaned something useful from me, I benefited even more from them. During the course of the evening in Nakorokula, one man had asked if I knew the origin of the name “Fiji.” As I struggled to remember what I had read on the subject, he proudly interjected: “‘Fiji’ means First Israelite Jews’ Island.” Stunned, I looked around the room, but no one was laughing at his invented acronym. Fearing to embarrass the man in front of his village, I also feared offending the whole village by correcting him. I decided to play it safe and register polite interest in this newfound insight.

As it turned out, no else dared correct him publicly, either, at least not in my presence as the honored guest. But as we returned to the waiting taxi, one of the two elders—they had been speaking to each other in Fijian—broke into English. “Mbale,” he began, addressing his colleague, “that was the first time I ever heard that explanation for the name ‘Fiji.’ Have you heard it before?” “No,” said Mbale,” that was also the first time I heard that explanation.” I was blown away. By staging this innocent dialogue, they had managed to make clear to me that, lest I think them a community of kooks, they knew their etymology perfectly well and that “Fiji” did not remotely mean the Promised Island—a feat they had accomplished with such delicacy as simultaneously to avoid shaming or disparaging one of their own.

Back in Israel, when first conceiving the idea of combining the word of God with an undersea adventure, I’d facetiously dubbed my plan the Jonah Project. In the biblical book named for that notoriously reluctant prophet, Jonah flees God’s summons by putting to sea on a boat manned by supposedly heathen sailors. When the sea begins to storm violently, he is content to let all aboard perish rather than acknowledge his identity. But the sailors spare no effort to save his life, thereby offering a living lesson in the divine attribute of compassion.

To achieve insight into God’s ways, Jonah had to remove himself from home and seek the society of strangers, only then to find himself undersea, alone and terrified, in the belly of a great fish. Sometimes a rabbi and professor must depart his comfort zone and dive into worlds, on land and beneath the waves, entirely disparate from his own, there to apprehend the fullness of the Almighty’s blessings.

More about: 7th Day Adventists, Arts & Culture, Asia, Religion & Holidays, Scuba diving