Posts Tagged ‘Fiddler on the Roof’


The film begins with the screen black. A man’s voice declares, “I believe in America!” His Italian accent tells us he’s an immigrant. The camera then reveals him in closeup—mustache and suit as black as the background in which he seems suspended. A humble if successful undertaker, he pleads with someone we cannot see: His daughter has been dishonored. He seeks justice. But it will not be in the American way. Or will it?

The Godfather presents America as the land of opportunity. For many millions born on foreign shores and their first-generation American children, it has been just that. But the irony of the undertaker’s speech soon hits home. The Godfathermakes clear that in America, hard work and risk-taking offer great rewards. These values may be applied to a great many enterprises. Not all need be legal.

Those who saw opportunities by breaking the law are duly noted in downtown Las Vegas’s Mob Museum. I was there last week, since I did a small portion of the research for my next novel on their website. Moreover, I admit to a fascination with the Mob—particularly Jewish gangsters of the first half of the 20th century. They were legion. Money guys like Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky? Sure. But many more were stone-cold killers like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Dutch Schultz, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. (FYI, Lansky and Siegel appear in the novel.)

The Mob Museum details the rise—and fall—of the Sicilian Mafia and its affiliates, including the Jewish gangs, which provided murder—and lots of it—for hire. (Protestant and Irish gangs terrorized New York and Boston before them). For many young immigrants lacking education and living in slum conditions, crime paid. Death often came early; success comes with a price.

Ultimately, the FBI squeezed and put away the classic Mob bosses. Vegas cleaned up its act. Other ethnic groups stepped in. Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians and Vietnamese, as well as groups native to the Heartland, carved out their own American opportunities.

This nation will always face the Mob in some form. But ordinary criminals—even the drug cartels—will not destroy our democracy. We’ll rot at the hands of corporations and the super-rich. They buy politicians and virtually write our laws to eliminate regulations protecting ordinary citizens and reduce their taxes and liabilities, society be damned. In the process, they brush crumbs to the floor. Some people lap them up.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman advises, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either.” I support ambition. I succeeded financially because I risked working for myself and pushed to meet my goals—honestly and ethically.

I also support a sense of balance. The Christian Bible tells us that not money but theloveof it is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The Mishnah offers wisdom through a Jewish lens: “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has…” (Avot 4:1).

I believe in America. I also believe that keeping the pursuit of wealth from devouring ethics requires making wise choices. November will reveal whether greed outweighs goodness and lemming-like, this nation marches off a cliff.

For you who are celebrating Yom Kippur starting Tuesday night, may you have a meaningful holiday and be sealed for good in the New Year.

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Yesterday, Carolyn, Seth and I (Yosi is in Virginia) celebrated Thanksgiving at Aaron and Jeremy’s house. Food? The usual plenty. Although forgive me for using the word usual. I’m grateful for my good fortune, which happens to include lots of “little” things. Here are three.

Thank you cable TV and content providers like Netflix and Amazon for entertaining, challenging shows. We recently concluded Narcos (Netflix) about the Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar—violent but riveting with a great performance by the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. We’re about to see Show Me a Hero (HBO) and The Man in the High Castle (Amazon). Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair (Dominic West lives out all my author fantasies) are winding down, but House of Cards (Netflix), Game of Thrones (HBO), Grace and Frankie (Netflix) and Silicon Valley (HBO) wait in the wings.

Thank you books and their authors. I feel unsettled when I’m not into a book even though I’m now reading the December Atlantic magazine with the next Foreign Affairs coming soon. I just finished Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. It took me 30 years to get to it, although I read the second novel in his Frank Bascombe trilogy, Independence Day, some time ago. I just started Andy Weir’s The Martian—science as fiction. After that it’s non-fiction—Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I’m not morbid. Just, well, mortal. Then I’ll check my nightstand for more titles. (Tip: Read Chris Cleave’s novel Incendiary, written five years after 9/11, for a British take on Islamist terrorism’s effect on Western society.)

Finally, thank you Shabbat. The late Dean Martin had a great line about people who don’t drink: “You wake up in the morning and that’s as good as you’re gonna feel all day.” I don’t equate Shabbat to alcohol but to something far more soul enriching. The Sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown and ends at sundown on Saturday, restores me weekly.

Sure, I live a low-key life—TV, movies (we have tickets to the new Star Wars), theater and books. That’s in addition to writing fiction and this blog. Plus reading Torah each morning. And getting together with friends. But we all face challenges, disappointments and the occasional inner torment. Shabbat suspends all that. It’s the day, never far off, on which every person can “get off the wheel”—turn aside from the ordinary and celebrate the extraordinary: creation (i.e. the universe) and our connection to that which is greater than ourselves. I worship at my synagogue on Friday night. After, Carolyn and I have a special dinner at home. And watch TV! I go to Torah Study on Saturday morning then out to coffee with friends. In the afternoon, I free myself from humdrum obligations in favor of a walk, reading and an occasional nap.

Admittedly, my pleasures—add ice cream, daily walks and any opportunity to laugh—are simple. Still, I try to be thankful each day—and on Shabbat particularly—for those things that truly nourish us yet often go overlooked. That’s why today I adhere to a mantra echoing the Rabbi’s blessing in Fiddler on the Roof: May God bless and keep Black Friday… far away from me.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at

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Last Saturday morning I saw a man and a woman lying face down on the sidewalk. My first thought was, “Are they dead?” But I saw no blood. Moreover, they had a pad beneath them. A sleeping bag covered the woman. The man’s leg twitched. Homeless, they perhaps preferred the sidewalk to the damp of nearby Mountain Lake Park. What—if anything—was I supposed to do?

I called the police is what. Not to report a crime but rather to seek help I couldn’t provide. I hoped that the officer(s) who came by after I headed onward would see if the couple needed medical attention and, regardless, direct them to city services.

Ideally, I would have taken the couple home, fed them and given them money. I might have offered them my guestroom for the next month, meals provided. But in the real world, people on the street are unknown quantities. Such acts of charity can at best be challenging, at worst dangerous.

Does this trouble me? Of course. When Abraham, in pain on the third day after his circumcision, sees three “men” approaching his tent, he runs off to greet them and offer hospitality (Genesis 18:2ff). Exodus 22:20–22 commands us—for the first but not last time—to care for the stranger, widow and orphan. The verse also poses a dire penalty if we fail to do so. But Abraham commanded a small army of retainers to safeguard him. And while travelers passed through Israelite dwelling places, local widows and orphans were known.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof offers an interesting perspective. In the opening scene, the orchestra vamps the song “Tradition” as Tevye introduces the key characters in his shtetl town of Anatevka. One is Nachum the beggar. Tevye offers Nachum one kopek. “Last week you gave me two,” says Nachum. “I had a bad week,” Tevye explains. In a brilliant piece of Jewish logic, Nachum responds, “You had a bad week. So why should I suffer?”

Nachum is a known factor, a familiar face. He lives in a society that recognizes him and is thus comfortable assisting him even if it does not do what Maimonides proposes is best—set him up to make a living. (Frankly, not everyone can make a living.) For the people of Anatevka, he is “our” beggar. When a Jewish stranger comes by, he is a known quantity.

Some people do take strangers off the street. Yet sometimes, those offered assistance turn on their hosts. So while it’s easy to love the stranger from a distance, most of us hesitate to deal close up with people we don’t know. That’s why we empower public and private agencies to provide professional assistance.

Obviously, we haven’t solved the problem of homelessness. Some people, like those recently rousted from San Jose’s “Jungle,” prefer living in an encampment or on the street. This enables them to live on their own terms—which may not be ours.

Deuteronomy 15:11 informs us, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…” Yet the commandment to assist the stranger endures. Conflicted, we struggle to make sense of it all.

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In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman in Anatevka declares, “It’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor, either.” In America, however, poverty often is viewed as shameful. And poor or rich, so is growing older. The old—however you define them/us—are made irrelevant. Popular culture offers many examples. Of late, three caught my eye.

— In a TV commercial for Captain Morgan Rum set in a 17th-century Caribbean palace, a beautiful twenty-something woman dances at a formal reception with an older, bewigged and obviously lecherous man. Her face expresses disgust. His age definitely is a factor. He’s way too old—and way not cool. A dashing young Captain Morgan rescues her and takes her down to the basement and a hip party.

— A Samsung TV spot features young adults lined up for an Apple iPhone 5. One young man, a Samsung user, holds a spot in line. His parents show up to claim it. Dismay and revulsion sweep across the young people’s faces. How can an iPhone have any real worth if people fifty or older use it?

— In the last episode of the first TV season of Louie, the Emmy-winning comedian Louis C.K. hangs out with younger Black comics, who easily pick up three beautiful women. The women learn that Louis is forty—forty-two, he confesses. Their faces express horror. Louis has no shot. Wonderfully, the episode ends with Louis and his two young daughters enjoying a pancake breakfast at four in the morning. Yes, it’s late. Or early. But Louis has his priorities straight.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I too believed that my parents thought and acted old. They couldn’t possibly know what really mattered because I was in the process of discovering just what was and wasn’t important as defined by my generation. They’d lost touch—if they’d ever been in touch. In my thirties and a parent myself, I saw my parents as much more human. Wherever I was going in terms of the basic aspects of life—making a living, caring for a family, finding a place in society—I realized they’d blazed a trail before me.

I love the energy of youth. I had it once. But growing older generally means transitioning to a more settled life. I can’t stay out until three in the morning. I’m beat the next day if I’m up until midnight. Yet age often brings more wisdom and self-awareness. Not to mention humility. Having gone around the block a few times, we have fewer answers and more questions.

I was a much happier, more grounded person at fifty than at twenty. I’ve even made more progress towards becoming a reasonable human being in the eighteen years since I hit the half-century mark. No question, I still retain many weaknesses. Some I’ll never overcome. To a degree, I’ve learned how to cope. But I don’t delude myself that I’ll ever become a model for humanity. And I don’t worry about it. That’s the gift of growing older.

I certainly don’t encourage the young to embrace old age. There will be time for that. But I do encourage them to embrace their elders. And there’s no time like now.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at Which, by the way, received a great review and a coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and