Arts & Culture


An outsider might not mistake the Upper West Side of Manhattan for Anatevka, the small shtetl made famous in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but step into my world on West 90th Street , and you could well spy a metaphorical … Read More

By / September 10, 2008

An outsider might not mistake the Upper West Side of Manhattan for Anatevka, the small shtetl made famous in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but step into my world on West 90th Street , and you could well spy a metaphorical fiddler on our collective rooftops, one foot fully immersed in “Tradition!” with the other foot shod in Prada or perhaps Birkenstock. It’s not Anatevka. It’s my world, Ang-etevka. Here, you should only live and be well. And may the czar and the parking police stay away. Last week the fiddler showed up full force at a bar mitzvah party. There was my husband, hora-ing around, and then the bar mitzvah child, then his mother, then his father who, holding his young daughter, took turns being lifted up onto the traditional chair, which listed back and forth precariously. A fiddler moment. My friend Bob came up to me and commented on my husband’s frenzied dancing. “He seems to be transformed,” he shook his head. Bob’s wife Sarah, also was holding hands in the hora circle, and stepping sideways and back, sideways and back, as is the tradition. Bob said, “There’s no Jewish tradition Sarah won’t enter into” then asked me if I thought it possible to convince her that certain sexual acts had great religious meaning. Another friend, Jonathan, joining our voyeuristic, non-participatory unit, noted that so many of these traditions are of an obscure origin, for example, baking the key in the challah on the Shabbat after Passover. “What?” I demanded. “What does the key signify? Keys are always about opening some kind of door, but which one?” Jonathan shrugged that ever-so-Jewish shrug and said, “I don’t know.” The next day, working on my computer, one of the wonders of the twenty-first century and one that reminds me how grateful I am not to return to traditional quill and scroll days, I typed “key in challah” into an internet search engine and within seconds, the mystery was not exactly solved but rather, typically Jewishly, any number of possible explanations were suggested. "Open up, my darling” from the Song of Songs, necessitates a key to open one’s heart to God. Or, according to Jewish mysticism, on Passover the gates to heaven are open but following Passover, the lower gates are shut. So we must open them up again, with said key. A few days later, at a benefit dinner in the Pierre hotel, in the outlying, goyishe section of Anatevka, I was startled to hear the speaker at the podium thank a Mr. Nebuch, or at least it sounded like Mr. Nebuch to my ears. I looked around the table for the same tribal twinkle in our collective Jewish eyes, but my table mates did not Get It. I joked with the guy sitting next to me, “Nebuch! That’s so funny!” He didn’t see the humor. I tried to explain that nebuch was, well, a nebuch. Not exactly a nebbish, not really a schmendrick, but a nebuch. Nebuch can also be tossed, willy-nilly in the middle of a sentence, “I left for the airport on time but, nebuch, I missed my flight!” in which case it means “unfortunately, wouldn’t you know, my bad luck.” Like the origins of the tradition of placing a key in the challah, I continued to fret over the nebuch dilemma and to wonder how it is that people don’t know why they say or do the things they do, and does that extend to believing the things you believe without ever questioning them and truly making them your own? The following evening at my synagogue Sisterhood meeting, I asked my Sisterhood ladies if they knew the origin of “nebuch.” Rochelle, who grew up in Germany, survived the camps, and wears bright purple with great panache, like a defiant flower in the middle of winter, shrugged and said, “Nebuch! Some poor guy! Nebbish, maybe.” The next day, another Sisterhood lady e-mailed me: “Okay. I looked it up. Under nebuch, it says: ‘adverb connoting pity.’ That pretty much sums it up, don’t you think?” For some, it’s not important to question from whence the word, from whence the tradition, but simply to continue the tradition. For others, following tradition requires effort and energy and if you can’t find a suitable explanation, then why not indulge in the pleasure pots of the Pierre? Here on West 90th Street, in Ang-etevka, the fiddler remains on his perch, precariously balancing a cheeseburger in one hand with a prayer book in another, with the key to opening the door to our understanding of ourselves, our traditions and of God baked somewhere within.