Anatevka or Zion…writes Michael Kuttner

September 4, 2015 by Michael Kuttner
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Almost everyone is familiar with the stage production or movie of Fiddler on the Roof.

Michael Kuttner

Michael Kuttner

This adaptation of life in the Shtetl from the stories of Shalom Aleichem conveyed in a most powerful and moving way the challenges faced by generations of Jews living under the oppressive and violently Jew-hating Czarist regime. The daily struggle to make a living and maintain Jewish traditions in the midst of a population which saw the murder of Jews as a holy duty is vividly brought to life.

Apart from the conflicts caused by tradition meeting modernity you have the poignant struggle to reconcile a life in a familiar place which has sustained families over many generations with the unthinkable possibility of having to be uprooted and wandering to a place unknown and far away. This is in other words an encapsulation of the Jewish experience in Europe over the last two thousand years or so.

In reality the story of Anatevka and its inhabitants mirrors the actual experiences of Jews in the 1800’s who fleeing genocide and hate plus economic discrimination made their way across Europe towards the “goldene medina” (USA) or failing that the UK and even Australia and New Zealand. The possibility of going to Palestine was not an option for the masses not only because of geographic and political obstacles but also because the country itself was poverty-stricken.

The ones who made it to the new world were lucky because they did after much struggle manage to make a better life for themselves and their descendants. Those who settled in Western Europe unwittingly condemned themselves to a bleak future as Judeophobia eventually caught up with them again and they were once more at the mercy of the same evil forces from which they had originally fled.

Why am I mentioning this?

A few days ago I read a news item which reported that a new village is being built not far from the Ukrainian capital to house Jewish refugees from the war-torn eastern part of the country from which they have had to flee. What caught my attention was the fact that it was going to be named Anatevka and that the houses would be constructed of timber and more or less be a recreated shtetl along the lines of Fiddler on the Roof. At first I thought this was some sort of a hoax but delving further I discovered that in fact it is true. The project manager is an American Yeshiva University graduate who now needs to fundraise six million dollars.

Anything that can be done to alleviate the plight of homeless Jewish refugees should be applauded but one cannot but feel doubtful if this venture is either financially, politically or socially sound. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews which already invests huge amounts of money in providing food, clothing, accommodation and medicine to displaced Jewish refugees feels it is a waste of money. Constructing wooden houses in order to recreate the feel of a pre-war shtetl sounds more like a gimmick given the harsh Ukrainian winter conditions. How will it be sustained economically? Will busloads of tourists be entertained by fiddlers and Tevya lookalikes? Beyond the “Hollywood” feel of this venture I can see reasons why its future is doomed to failure. Instead of a long-term safe haven this latter-day Anatevka is more than likely to end up the same way as its fictional predecessor.

Recreating this shtetl in the midst of a population and in a country soaked with the blood of countless Jewish victims of Ukrainian Jew hatred is a recipe for future disasters. In the original Anatevka of Shalom Aleichem, the Jewish inhabitants were portrayed as trying to avoid the harsh realities of their precarious existence. Yes, they like their real fellow Jews in countless shtetl communities throughout Russia and its empire, endeavored to survive and hoped and prayed for better times. Regular pogroms and restrictive laws were somehow endured. Only a few adventuresome individuals left for better pastures. The rest stayed and hoped it would all blow over. Those who left survived. Those who stayed perished. It is as simple as that.

Given this historical record, why on earth would one want to spend six million dollars repeating something which is destined to meet the same fate?

Back then, there was no Jewish homeland and sanctuary. Today we have Israel.

Many argue that those beyond a certain age could never acclimatise to Israel. Did that stop those fleeing to the west in Czarist times? Now, those like the displaced Ukrainians can be airlifted free of charge to safety and resettled amongst others who speak Yiddish, Russian or Ukrainian. They can receive old age pensions, medical care of the highest quality and other assistance. Yes, life will not be easy but compared to the precarious and indeed disastrous conditions in the Ukraine today, it will be a hundred times better and safer.

The tragedy of the Holocaust years should have taught us not to delay in saving lives. Back then Jews did not leave Europe because they believed it would all blow over. Today we should know better. At that time no country wanted Jews. Today there is a country which welcomes them with open arms.

The Anatevka developers should remember some of the lyrics from the show.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
A pot, a pan, a broom, a hat.
Someone should have set a match to this place years ago.
A bench, a tree.
So, what’s a stove? Or a house?
People who pass through Anatevka don’t even know they’ve been here.
A stick of wood. A piece of cloth.

What do we leave? Nothing much.
Only Anatevka.

What it all boils down to is whether staying in the Ukraine is better than joining fellow Jews in Zion.

There are those who have already made a decision and in increasing numbers. When we arrived in Israel in 1991 Russian was the dominant foreign language heard on the street. In fact one could almost imagine being in the middle of Moscow rather than Jerusalem.

Today, French has replaced Russian. Everywhere, we hear French spoken by the newly arrived immigrants arriving from France. Large numbers of French Jews are recognising the writing on the wall and are making the move to the Jewish State.

They are the clever ones. How long will it take for the rest to wake up?

Michael Kuttner is a Jewish New Zealander who for many years was actively involved with various communal organisations connected to Judaism and Israel. He now lives in Israel and is J-Wire’s correspondent in the region.


2 Responses to “Anatevka or Zion…writes Michael Kuttner”
  1. Gabrielle Gouch says:

    I agree that this is a strange solution.

    However while Israel might be the land of milk and honey when you are an ole from Australia (or from France) but not if you go there without any worldly possessions,Israel is a punishment.

    When we emigrated to Israel from Transylvania-Romania, my father was 61 years old. He was a civil engineer with a degree from Vienna (he graduated before the war)but we left the country with nothing (as most Romanian Jews did during communism.)

    In Israel he worked like a slave + travelled 5 hrs/day. He did that for 11 years.

    He died in poverty.

    I am amazed how few people have experienced the real Israel. How few people know that more than a quarter of Israelis live in poverty.

    Especially the old.

  2. Rabbi Chaim Ingram says:

    We are indeed an am kshei oref, a stiffnecked and a strange people. 800 years ago Rabbi Yehuda haLevi undetook a perilous journey which ultimately killed him just to caress the soil of the Holy Land. And we for whom Israel is so easly accessible prefer to re-connect with European soil saturated with Jewish blood. Do we learn nothing from our past?

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