Tonight I had an unusual experience. I went to the theatre to watch Fiddler on the Roof. For me going to the theatre is not unusual. I have been to the theatre before. I have been OTD for over 7 years now – going to the West End and enjoying a night out is not a new experience for me as it was for others in the group.
Tonight however, was different. Seeing actors who performed and spoke (ok they should have said good shabbos not good Shabbat – seriously!) and dressed in a way which was all too familiar to me, felt like a collision of two worlds.
Tonight in a secular theatre I saw unfolding in front of me the world of my childhood; the sounds and songs of shabbos and yom tov, shabbos candles, the chuppah and I began to feel nostalgic and homesick. This is a world I have left and I miss it!
It was after all my whole world and the only world I knew for the first 30 years of my life.
But – it’s a world which like Hodel and Chavelle I also rebelled against. It then became a world I had could not live in any longer. It became a world which persecuted me and eventually spat me out into the wilderness of the unknown, leaving me completely alone to my own devices, lacking the skills or knowledge to navigate a whole new world where my family and community are viewed as living in the 19th century!
And they are! From Tevya shouting ‘I am the man of this house’, and Golda who is overworked, cooking, cleaning and child rearing and Yenta the matchmaker finding husbands for Tevya’s ‘girls’; Anatevka like Stamford Hill is certainly miles away from twenty first century modern life. It may be a world steeped in tradition, but it is one which is certainly stuck in a century and a world which is long gone.
And that is why despite it being the only world I knew and loved, I had to leave. It wasn’t a choice; it was a necessity. As powerful as tradition is, and as much as it provides a sense of comfort and familiarity in a fast changing world, it is also a world which keeps you trapped. Staying in this community means you are going nowhere. You might feel comfortable and life is relatively predictable but it is a world in which you cannot grow, you cannot get to know yourself as an individual. It is a world which can keep you chained forever.
You see change is inevitable. Indeed the sun does rise and the sun does set. We can’t hold back time and the changes it brings. I realised how as I grew older and saw a world moving into the 21st century, and watched my young children growing up with these same traditions being imposed upon them, I also saw a path which seemed to end in ignorance and darkness.
Yes! Living with traditions can be comforting in a world of uncertainty. I would always know what food I would be eating, which clothes I would be wearing, which places I would be visiting and what I would be doing for the rest of my life- it was all mapped out – exactly. No compromises no variations. It’s TRADITION after all!
But that is the problem. The past is valuable only in as much as it guides you to a better future. Tevye and Golda would never have voluntarily left Anatevka – yet they were still forced to leave. They were forced to confront the changes that were happening in the ‘outside’ world. I have no doubt they will try and hold onto everything they know and love in the name of TRADITION but the reality is their lives will never be the same as it was in Anatevka.
So yes – there is a part of me that longs for the Friday night zemiros and the lighting of the shabbos candles and the singing of lecho dodi. I do miss the songs, the food and music which are so familiar to me from my past and from a world that I miss and that is still so much a part of who I am.
But there’s also the very same traditions which kept me chained to a miserable marriage for 10 years and brainwashed me into having lots of children and sacrifice my dreams of a career to stay home as a simple housewife and mother. It’s a world which would make sure I would always remain a second class citizen, powerless and answerable to men only. And it’s a world which would inevitably continue to trap my children.
And that is why like Hodel and Chavale who leave against Tevye’s wishes, I too, despite my own parents begging me not to break our ‘mesorah’ I also left. I can still hear my father’s voice breaking on the phone asking me if he should sit shiva for me. And it hurts each time. But still I left. I left an oppressive life which would keep me stuck in the past and stifle me and one which I know would eventually do the same to my own children.
Goodbyes can be hard but they don’t have to be a bad thing. It can often be the doorway to a better future. Tonight’s performance was my goodbye to the chareidi world which I do miss and which a part of me loves as well. But… it’s a world which I am also happy to put behind me.