A Dream Come True

By Rifke Feinstein

As a young child in a Yiddish-speaking home in the Bronx, New York, my mother took me to a few Yiddish plays. I understood every word and I loved the experience. I am no longer a young child, and I live in Cleveland, OH, but my dream to see another Yiddish play came true recently … and what a play it was!

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Three months ago, in the Arts section of the New York Times, I read that there would be a Yiddish version of Fiddler On The Roof. I was overwhelmed, but recovered and bought two tickets that day! I then asked my cousin Helaine, who lives in New York City and could put me up for a weekend (and who understands Yiddish) if she'd like to go as my guest. Her "Yes!" was immediate, and I made flight reservations.

The reviews in the New York Times and the Jerusalem Times were outstanding. The play was being performed by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (Folksbiene = People's Stage), which is housed in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, New York. The Folksbiene presents both English and Yiddish shows, but this was the first time in 50 years (!!!) that the Yiddish version of Fiddler was being shown in New York for a wider audience.

My cousin and I sat in great anticipation before the play began, and as soon as the young woman, who played the "fiddler", began to play "Tradition", Helaine and I began to cry, and looking around, I saw we were definitely not alone!

The play was true to its original form and the translation was very good. For example, the title was a perfect translation..."fidler oyfn dakh". Tevye was performed by an outstanding actor who also was a singer and a dancer. His joy, his sadness and his love were portrayed beautifully. The dancers in the cast, portraying, either khasidim or Russian peasants, were thrilling.

There were supertitles in both English and Russian, but I think the majority of the audience understood Yiddish, as the frequent laughter came before the translations were fully displayed!

I was home...amongst my people...and I loved every moment of this outstanding performance. And we heard a rumor that there is talk of taking this Yiddish play on the road! Be on the lookout for it...you won't be disappointed!!!

Postscript

The day after I saw "fidler oyfn dakh", cuzzy Helaine and I were out walking. As it was very hot, we went into the 42nd St. Marriott Hotel to cool off. I sat in a chair opposite a young woman wearing a "Beautiful" T-shirt. Carole King was singing in the background and I mentioned to the young woman how nice it was to hear Carole King's voice and look at her Beautiful" shirt which was the name of the Carole King musical. We chatted and she asked me if I had been to the theater yet this visit. When I said I had, she asked me for the name of the play. I only got as far as..."The Yiddish" when she stopped me and said..."Fiddler"!?!?!? "Yes", I said. Excitedly, she then told me that her best friend was the fiddle player who symbolized the "fidler oyfn dakh" in the show!!! Nine million people in NYC, and I met the friend of the woman (fiddler) who made me cry while she played the day before! I love serendipitous happenings and again, I wasn't disappointed!!!

 

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice

When you are a minority in the country you call home, it is easy to get a sense of feeling lost. When you travel some place and you realize in some small area you are no longer a minority, you change. You feel more comfortable, confident in your walk and talk. You no longer wonder about your place in the world.

I recently planned and traveled to Europe, visiting five cities with my niece to celebrate her completion of her Bat Mitzvah. As I watched the news for the last year and saw all the things happening in the world to the Jewish people, I became nervous. However, along the way, we had the pleasure of going to Venice, Italy, where there is a thriving Jewish community. There are over 270,000 permanent residents in Venice. Of those residents, 500 of them are Jewish. In Venice's Jewish neighborhood, you have that sense of belonging and do not have the constant awareness of being in the minority. There is a Jewish school, a Talmud Torah, kindergarten and an old age Home.

In planning the trip, I booked us a room at Giardino Dei Melgorani, Kosher House. When I saw this, I knew it was the place we should stay. We happened to be there over Shabbos, so we had to climb our stairs instead of using the elevator and needed to ensure everything was taken care of before Shabbos approached. Unknown to us was that this hotel was in the Campo Ghetto Nuovo, the New Jewish Ghetto. We passed many Jewish shops and restaurants on our way to the hotel. We saw the children with kippahs and tzitzit, the mothers preparing for Shabbos and every tourist stopping and staring at all the action taking place. We also saw a Jewish museum that explained the history of the area.

Upon checking in to the hotel, we sat and talked with the person helping us. He offered to have us attend Shabbos services in the community, something we unfortunately declined as we lacked appropriate clothes to be respectful to those in the community. He did go on to tell us the story of the community. In Venice today, there are five active synagogues: a Spanish, Levantin, Italian, Canton and German Synagogue. He told us how Venice was the first location to make Ghetto a place on the map, and not just where the Jewish people where within a town, but to make it its own town to the world. This blew my mind.

The history lesson continued with telling us that on March 29, 1516, the government issued special laws to establish the first Ghetto of Europe. While this may seem like a positive, it also came with rules that the Jewish people were forced to follow. The Jewish people could not live anywhere else except in the Ghetto and were locked in from sunset to dawn. He then showed us the two areas in which the doors were located and how open they are now. The Jewish people were also only allowed to work certain professions: doctors, money-lenders, merchants and strazzarioli (rag sellers). This Ghetto existed for more than two and a half centuries.

The next part of the story was something I had never heard before, and my niece and I were both surprised. In 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice, he broke down the doors and gates to the Ghetto, freeing the Jewish people and giving them the opportunity to roam the city with no limitations and making them a part of the community at large, not just their small section.

As we walked around after this story, we were so much more aware of our surroundings. Seeing all the street signs took on a new meaning for both of us. When we walked up the stairs leaving the Ghetto that was previously locked off, there was this sense of freedom that even I felt. It reminded me of the same feeling of pride I felt when leaving concentration camps when I was in Poland. This was sense of "even though they tried to destroy us, we are proof that they could not."

After this experience, I would love to go back and spend more time in Venice. I want to experience the things I was unable to do and see because of my limited time.

A Visit to Cuba's Jewish Community

By Terry Waslow

I recently returned from a very brief visit to the Jewish Community in Havana, Cuba. It is impossible to learn a lot through a short tour, but what I did learn will stay with me for a very long time. The effort and commitment of the community to live a Jewish life and stay connected is inspiring. The true sense of community was so evident.

There were two of us visiting, and a young woman, Anaya, was our tour guide. She told us many things about the community and took us to a number of places. Aproximately 1,000 Jews reside in Havana and another 200 or so are scattered around the island. Anaya says that even though they are small in number, they are like a large family and all are connected to each other.

We started at the Jewish Community Center, Patronato de la casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba. This is where Anaya works full time. She also teaches Sunday school. She was very proud of her role as teacher of the youngest children and this sense of pride radiated as she showed us her classroom. The community center provides many services, including a youth center. By U.S. standards, it is very small and sparse, but Anaya explained that it is the only place that young people can come to watch television and work on the computer. These items are rarely found in homes. The community center also sponsors teams to particpate in the Maccabi games and Anaya had the opportunity to go with them to Israel to compete. The community center houses an awesome library with 14,000 titles in Hebrew, Ladino, Spanish and English. They were able to get funding and have begun to digitize the collection, which has a number of rare books.

From the community center we moved on to the three active synagogues in Havana. Next door to the community center is Temple Beth Shalom. It is the largest of the three synagogues, with a steady showing of about 60 or more congregants attending Shabbos services every Friday night and Saturday morning. We also went to the Sephardic synagogue and the Orthodox shul, which is the smallest of the three. A member of the Orthodox community was sent to Israel to learn to be a shoykhet (kosher butcher). He butchers animals once a month and then the meat is distributed to all the Jews in Havana. They receive 3-4 pounds of meet per month. This is a good amount of meat by Cuban standards and more than most Cubans are able to get. We happened to be there the day of the butchering and it was an unforgettable sight to see. It takes place right inside the kitchen of the synagogue. As the shoykhet is butchering, other community members are packing up the meat in plastic bags and others are loading a van for distribution. There was no modern equipment, no airtight ziplock bags and no refrigerated trucks. This was truly an effort to provide sustenance with the major resource being commitment to community.

Every place we went, that commitment was evident. There were classes going on for adults, activities for seniors and there was a pharmacy housed in one of the synagogues that provided medication to the Jewish community, which was also open and available to the larger non-Jewish community. While healthcare is free and available to everyone in Cuba, there are not enough resources on the island to stock adequate supplies of pharmacueticals. The Jewish community gets donations from other Jewish communities around the world and makes the medicines available to all.

There is no rabbi in Cuba. They have an ongoing relationship with a rabbi in Argentina. He visits periodically and conducts conversions and weddings. Anaya explained that the non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages often want to convert to Judaism. Also, they have requests to go through the conversion process from adult children whose fathers are Jewish, but their mothers are not Jewish. They have been raised in the Jewish community, but want an official conversion. While couples have a civil wedding, many of them also want a Jewish ceremony. Since the rabbi only comes periodically, they have group weddings. The largest ceremony consisted of 28 couples.

Anaya showed us many photographs of events that they have been held and important people that have visited. She seemed especially proud of the photos of Steven Spielberg, and pointed out the photos of both Fidel and Raul Castro visiting and meeting with their community's president. Anaya showed us a small park with a large menorah in the center and explained that it was given to the Jewish Community as a gift from the government.

What we saw over and over was the lack of resources that impacts the entire population and how the Jewish community is impacted. They receive support from other Jewish communities, but, due to the United States embargo, it is impossible for U.S. Jews to offer substantial assistance.

I ended my visit with both asense of sadness and awe. I was sad knowing that I would leave and not be able to help in any way other than what I was able to give that day. I was also greatly inspired by the awesome commitment and sense of pride that Anaya and the other members of her community have in maintaining their Jewish identity.