I am reading Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem, and it is breaking my heart. The book - turned into a hit Broadway musical turned into a hit (well, it is a hit with me) movie - centers on a pious Jewish man named Tevye who lives in Czarist Russia and has seven daughters. Each story is written as if Tevye dictated it to Sholem Aleichem (he even greets Mr. Aleichem in each story), which clearly inspired Jonathan Safran Foer when he wrote Everything Is Illuminated. What tears me up is the chapters on his daughters. In the book as in the musical, the eldest daughter breaks with tradition when she arranges her own marriage rather than use a matchmaker, although her bridegroom still seeks Tevye's permission to wed his daughter. Hodl, the second daughter, tells Tevye that she is marrying a man and then follows him across Russia as he plots revolution. The third daughter, Chava, converts and marries a Christian, and her family sit shiva for her as if she has died. The movie doesn't deal with the fourth and fifth daughters, but each brings new challenges to Tevye's traditional ways and forces him to deal with his emotions and new heartbreaks. These are some of the most wrenching passages I've ever read, as he loves his daughters and his God and tries to make sense of the terrible things and losses that he is dealt.
The other part that makes me cry is how Tevye's outlook on life explains the passivity in which Jews treated the advent of the Holocaust. The book was written in the early 1900s, and in hindsight, a warning of sorts. Early on in the story, Tevye interprets a prayer said on Yom Kippur, noting that, "A Jew must hope, must keep on hoping. So what if he goes under in the meantime? What better reason is there for being a Jew?" Many times he says that if something bad happens, it is God's plan and who is Tevye to question what God desires. He says, "But feh, God doesn't ask for advice, and a Jew in particular has to accept everything on faith and say, 'That too is for the best. God probably wants it that way.'" Another example:
An intelligent man must not allow things to touch his heart and must understand that the way it is, is the way it is supposed to be, because if it had to be otherwise, it wouldn't be the way it is. Don't we say in the Pslams, Put your trust in God? Trust in God, and He will make it so that you lie nine cubits deep in the earth baking bagels in the netherworld, and still you must say, this too is for the best!
And that's also what makes the book so good and so touching. Tevye's quotes and explanations of scripture are constant and hilarious. But of course, it is also this ultimate trust in God - that what happens is God's will - that rooted people to the spot and caused so little resistance as the Nazis eradicated them from earth.