At Large


By Published On: December 1st, 2023

Ah, it’s December! It’s time to roll out the traditional holiday favorites:  Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, Polar Express, It’s a Wonderful Life, and that all-time classic, Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof?

True, the musical based on Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem, is not a Christmas story. Far from it. Set during the time of the Jewish pogroms in Russia, it begins with Tevye, the poor milkman of Anatevka, telling the audience that the lives of his people are as precarious as a fiddler perched on a roof. And what allows them to keep their fragile balance?  


So, as we mentioned with a profound flair for the obvious, it is December. If ever there was a time of year when tradition takes center stage in our lives, it is now. Both Christian and Jewish traditions fill this month with moments of celebration and remembrance – resurrecting rituals that keep heritage and identity alive.

It is true. As children and grandchildren age and become both wiser and more cynical, the dragging out implements of mass celebration are often met with lightly veiled disdain. “That old thing?” “Are we going to do that again?”

Yes, we are.

We are going to bring out an Advent Calendar and mark the days until Christmas with rewards for each day. We are going to bring the menorah out of the closet in the extra bedroom, set in a fresh set of candles, and mark the miracle when one day of sacred oil in the temple lamp lasted for eight days and the Maccabean Revolt led to the re-dedication of the Second Temple.  

We’ll set a Christmas (or, call it holiday) tree in the living room; string it with lights that always get tangled, causing a traditional fit of frustration; hang ornaments on the branches; struggle to buy presents in person and online and get them wrapped in festive paper; and spin the dreidel on the dining room table and watch our stock of chocolate “Hannukah gelt” rise and fall with each spin. This is that time of year, and we gingerly reach out to embrace it.

Despite what big-box retailers wanted us to believe by bringing the artificial trees and blow-up Santa Clauses onto the sales floor in late September, the holidays really begin with a gentle, candy-laced flourish at Halloween, ramp up to a family food frenzy at Thanksgiving, and then roar through December with delirious intensity.

A new intensity

That intensity has found a roar of competition this year, unlike anything we’ve experienced in decades. Memories of life during the horrible, tragedy-strewn days of World War II have faded. It would seem, however, that this year has brought us close to the emotional struggles and human tragedies experienced by other generations. We are torn. We are conflicted. We are almost fearful of turning on the news – in whichever medium is our choice – to hear about what catastrophe has found its way to the top. War, disastrous weather, mass shootings, homelessness, ugly politics. It is a full-time job to simply maintain our emotional balance, which is why this month becomes so important. This is the month of regaining a bit of equilibrium, of getting our balance back with the considerable aid and support of the very things that make teenagers roll their eyes. Traditions.

Life and art have a very strange way of intersecting at times. The story of Fiddler on the Roof is set in a mythical town in Russia – Anatevka. When the invasion of Ukraine was perpetrated in 2014, families were uprooted and became refugees, much the same as Tevya and his family at the conclusion of Fiddler. We are in the midst of our own refugee crisis in many places around the world. One way in which authorities in Ukraine attempted to provide a modest solution to the crisis of their own was, in 2015, to create a town in open land outside of the capital, Kyiv. The name of this created sanctuary city? Anatevka.

Now more than ever…

We are not viewing the calendar through “rose-colored glasses.” The turmoil is real, the insecurity we feel is very much a part of our days. These are moments, however, when reaching back to remember St. Nicholas tossing bags of gold into a poor man’s stockings, which has led us these many centuries later to hanging stockings by the mantle and filling them with small presents, or lighting the candles of the menorah each night and taking a moment to reflect on the importance of our traditions can provide something we all need very much during these challenging times.

Balance. •