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A Plea for a More Comparative, Inclusive Approach to Gen Ed Ethnic Studies Requirements

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Take-aways from an extraordinary study of Jews, modernity, and modernism.

Those who only know the story of Tevye, the pious Jewish milkman, through the “bittersweet,” “life-affirming” 1964 Tony award-winning musical Fiddler on the Roof or its screen adaptation tend to think of this classic as a celebration “of the timeless traditions that define faith and family.”

But as the Russian-born University of California Berkeley Soviet historian Yuri Slezkine points out, the Sholem Aleichem stories that the musical is based on offer pointed insights into the paths that the children of those who had grown up in the in the shtetls, ghettos, or as itinerant peddlers of the Pale of Settlement pursued into modernity.

Tevye’s five named daughters each pursue a distinct path. One weds a Russian revolutionary, and Jews did make up a disproportionate share of those who became employees of the Soviet state. Another, abandoned by her husband, drowns herself, and many married Jewish women who immigrated to the United States (as many as a tenth in New York City), did find themselves discarded. A third assimilated, marrying a non-Jew. Yet another weds a tailor, and Jews did make up an outsized share of those who became shopkeepers or entrepreneurs.

In the […]

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