For many Latter-day Saints, the United States has played a special role in Providential history as the location primed and prepared for the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ after it had lapsed into apostasy through the disappearance of priesthood authority sometime after the death of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.
Last night, we stumbled across The Fiddler on the Roof (1971) on a public television station and greatly enjoyed watching it for the first time in many years. The musical effectively captures the spirit of its artistic inspiration in the fiddler on the roof depicted in Marc Chagall’s The Dead Man (1908).
However, during the wedding of Tevye and Golde’s daughter Tzeitel to Motel the tailor, I felt like getting up and leaving. The subject matter is so disturbing. Soldiers attack the wedding party, destroying Tevye’s property and particularly the gifts for the newly weds. From this point on, the tension escalates and there is no sign of a happy end in sight; indeed, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history knows there is no happy end for the inhabitants of this obscure shtetl called Anatevka in the Pale of Settlement in Tzarist Russia.
We watch the Jews of Anatevka and the other shtetls in the region suffer a progrom of destruction and expulsion based on their religion. In the end, they file out of their shtetl dragging their belongings, having been given only three days to settle their affairs, pack up, and leave the town they have lived in for generations. We learn that Tevye’s daughter Chava, who has married a Gentile, will be going to Krakow as a result of the expulsion, and we cringe, thinking with dread of the treatment of Jews in the shtetls of Poland and of 1939, and the invasion of the Nazis. We also cringe when hearing of other places within the Pale of Settlement where people who are leaving Anatevka are going.
The only beacon of hope shining at the end of this haunting musical is when we learn that Lazar Wolf, the rich butcher, and Tevye and Golde and their two youngest, unmarried daughters will be going to America as a result of the expulsion. To be sure, things were not completely rosy for Jewish immigrants in New York City around the turn of the century, but the news of Tevye’s destination does not convey a sense of dread as does Kiev or Krakow as a post-pogrom destination for migration. To the contrary, it is with great relief that we learn that Tevye and his family are going to America. We know they will be safe there from the future atrocities that they cannot yet even imagine (to wit, the almost entire eradication of Yiddish as a language and culture through the genocide of its speakers) that are still to engulf their homeland, at the hands of Tzarist Russians, Nazi invaders, and Communist oppressors alike.
Watching The Fiddler on the Roof and reflecting on the history and plight of Europe and Russia’s Yiddish-speaking Jews brought to mind another way in which America plays a special role in Providential history: it has been and continues to be a safe haven for Jews in modern history. (To be fair, when speaking of the last two hundred years, England and its other daughter nations have probably also been a safe haven for Jews.) America can and should be proud that it provides refuge for Jews in a world sadly eager to destroy them and deny them peace in their religion and heritage.
[UPDATE: This post has been edited to reflect Ronan’s points.]