Tevye and the Pogrom
A reflection on a classic movie, the history, today's rise in hate, division, extremism, and antisemitism; and a perspective from psychology and neuroscience about Tevye's and society's challenges.
Tevye" is a 1939 American Yiddish film based on Tevye the Dairyman from Sholem Aleichem's famous stories and his struggles to survive the antisemitism and the pogroms of Western Ukraine.1 The movie was a forerunner of the popular musical and the movie "Fiddler on the Roof."
The film centers on Tevye, a milkman in the village, and his wife and daughters, Chava and Hodel. Chava falls in love with a local Christian boy named Fyedka, while her sister Hodel begins a romance with Perchik, a revolutionary young Jewish student. Unlike the original Sholem Aleichem's stories, the film provides a more intimate portrait of the times.
Initially, the "Tevye" 1939 film was lost, but it was rediscovered in 1978 and recognized for its cultural significance, becoming the first non-English language film preserved by the National Film Registry. Tevye, a masterwork within the little-known U.S. Yiddish-language cinema, re-created the nineteenth-century life and meager subsistence of Jews as a beleaguered minority in a rural Ukrainian village.2
The antisemitic climate of the time was in the film's background, poignantly showing the challenges faced by the Jews in those harsh times in a community with marked prejudice. Tevye, a devout and resilient man, is confronted with the hardships of his life, pogroms, and the discrimination his family endures and eventual eviction from the village with the tyrannical Russian politics, antisemitism, and pogroms. Despite the turmoil, Tevye maintains his faith, stands firm in adversity, and shows resilience and determination in preserving his traditions and spiritual ways. The central figure of Tevye in the movie resembles, in some respects, the biblical Job. This righteous family person suffers horrible losses but is able, with his despair, to remain devout to his beliefs and faith.
Pogroms and Antisemitism
Pogrom3 is a Russian-derived word meaning "wreak havoc, to demolish violently." Historically, the term refers to violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire. As a descriptive term, "pogrom" came into common usage with extensive anti-Jewish riots that swept the southern and western provinces of the Russian Empire in the early 1880s following the assassination of the Tsar.
The perpetrators of the pogroms included the people in the region, the government, and the police. The murderous gangs assaulted their Jewish victims and looted their property. During the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Ukrainian nationalists, Polish officials, and Red Army soldiers all engaged in pogrom-like violence in western provinces in what is now Ukraine, killing tens of thousands of Jews between 1918 and 1920.
In Germany and Eastern Europe during the era of the Holocaust, as in Tsarist Russia, economic, social, and political resentment and perpetuated false narratives about Jews reinforced traditional religious antisemitism. All these elements served as a pretext for the murderous pogroms.4 The events and storyline of the movie "Tevye" foreshadowed the horrific murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust and the Nazi reign of terror.5 With current conflicts in the Middle East, extreme political polarization, and hate propaganda on social platforms, antisemitism is resurgent in the U.S. and around the world. Again, many of the same elements raise their ugly head, allowing the hate to proliferate as in the past.6
The balance of faith, tradition, and openness for spirituality, realization, and illumination
Tevye always centers his life on his faith and the traditions of his Judaism. His concept of God resonates with other religions, perspectives, and modern psychology. The similarities were in reaching for a definition of the undefinable power and source beyond our limited self-knowing that accounted for all the unexplainable. A sense of purpose, meaning, and security comes from believing in an all-powerful and benevolent force.
Adaptability depends on our flexibility, awareness, open-mindedness, and learning. The reality is that we do not exclusively control our existence and that there is always a more significant reality or answer to what we believe or accept. Tevye, in his faith and spirituality, seems to recognize that he was not an insular individual who could control himself or others to any great extent. He accepts he can only do what he can and strives to do the best. When called upon, he can respect the forces and nature of the immediate world and strive to do his work for himself, his family, and others.
His religious idea of a greater power or unknowable source of creations that abounds around and impacts him, to which he is subservient, is accepted with reverence and awe. In his tradition, he understands God, embraced by his tradition as the creator and orchestrator of all life. Tevye has the sense that he has the power to make ethical choices and carry out what he needs to do in the best way he can.
In the harrowing time, Tevye falls back on his faith and tradition for purpose and the meaning of his continued existence and strives to meet the challenges confronting him. Accepting what exists and what he can and can't change or control becomes essential. A clearer perspective and acceptance of the changing, painful reality engulfing him is aided by the support he derives from his spirituality and religious beliefs. The new reality included his family situation, inability to direct and control their lives and children, the antisemitic actions of the community people, the adverse political action of the dictatorial government, and the powerful influence of the church and politics of the time.
Jews were targeted and scapegoated while the dominant population, its leaders, and the church ignored their prejudices and the growing dangers of antisemitism. Tevye's clinging to his Jewish tradition finds solace in times of significant loss, threatening circumstances, and challenges to his faith and beliefs. The hope persisted that his adherence to his faith and spirituality would bring him an ethical and rewarding life. Having a balance in his orientation to all that was happening, the spiritual and practical, allowed him to accept the new drastic changes. He gathered his family and meager possessions and moved on to the next felt safer place.
Spiritual openness allows one to experience joy, revelation, and expansive connections beyond one's normative, limited grasp of wisdom and knowledge. It then is the challenge to integrate more informed perspectives beyond our previously embraced ideas and beliefs and move forward and adapt with a new direction to meet the demands of crises of the changing circumstances.
Neuroscience and psychology contemplate the interface of the spiritual and secular
My interpretation of Tevye, his traditions, and his spirituality have some representation in science as understood through psychology and the neuroscience of the brain and its mental functioning. Spiritual processes such as meditation, prayer, awareness, and mindfulness allow us to be in touch with our limitations and keep perspective about things we routinely abstract or contrive. There are always possibilities beyond our usual focused perceptions, biases, and understandings (and perhaps misunderstandings).
A mind open to the benefits of being better informed by spiritual and secular experience and activity parallels current psychology and neuroscience ideas about the optimal work and performance of our brains and mental functioning. Optimization occurs when all specialized areas work harmoniously. Problems arise when there is chronic dominance by certain brain areas that inhibit the openness, spiritual awareness, and more astute context and perspective-taking needed for growth and comprehension.
The optimal coordination of specialized brain areas and mental performance allows for wiser, more open-mindedness and broader perceptive awareness to adapt to changing circumstances and cooperate with others and our environment.
The neuroscience of more specialized functioning of our left-brain operations narrows our focus and attention to bringing things or activities to a meaningful or sought-after accomplishment, reward, or success.
Faith or belief, though often beneficial, can sometimes be restrictive and limiting when embracing tribal or group ideology for support, cohesiveness, safety, and survival. Left brain processing can become more exclusive and narrowed down, limiting choices or alternatives, such as in binary or dualistic thinking, leading to narrowly focused preoccupation and reasoning. Examples would be extreme right or left-polarized thinking seen in politics, driven by rigid ideas, beliefs, and hatred of others cast as threatening or dangerously on the opposing side.
It has been found in neuroscience that the right and left hemispheres, or specific areas of the brain, have distinct functions that play a crucial role in mental health and optimal functioning. The left brain is associated with logic, language, analytical thinking, and sequential processing, while the right brain handles creativity, intuition, holistic thinking, and emotional processing.
Optimal functioning occurs when both hemispheres or the specialized areas of the brain work together in harmony. However, problems can arise when there is overdominance in left brain activity and a lack of right brain engagement, such as
I. Imbalanced thinking: Overreliance on left-brain thinking may cause a narrow, rigid perspective that disregards emotional and intuitive aspects of decision-making. This imbalance can hinder problem-solving and creativity.
II. Emotional difficulties: Left brain dominance may inhibit emotional processing, leading to problems in understanding and expressing emotions and contributing to emotional imbalances, such as increased stress, indecision, anxiety, and depression.
III. Lack of creativity: The right brain is crucial for creativity and innovation. Overemphasis on left-brain thinking can stifle creative thinking, limiting the ability to generate new ideas and solutions; there can be a loss of awareness of being caught in false logic or not grasping the bigger picture.
IV. Reduced empathy: The right brain plays a significant role in empathy and understanding others' emotions. When left-brain dominance occurs, empathy and social skills may be impaired, affecting interpersonal relationships.
The left and right sides of the brain have been associated with different functions and control other processes in the body and mental functioning. While specific brain areas may dominate certain mental tasks, there is typically no dominant side. The left brain is associated with logic, analytical thinking, and language processing, while the right brain is associated with creativity, intuition, and holistic thinking.
Both hemispheres cooperate in most activities, and language-processing regions are often on the left side of the brain. The right brain is more visual, intuitive, creative, and less organized in its thinking.
Balancing both hemispheres' activities is essential for optimal mental health and functioning. Engaging in activities stimulating the right brain, such as art, music, meditation, and mindfulness, can help restore balance and promote overall well-being.
Tips and Points to Ponder
Prevention is needed to avoid the recurrent horrific cycle of division along ideological and political extremism. A part of these cycles is the rise in authoritarian and destructive leaders and the proliferation of age-old animosities towards minorities and targeted groups. Wise and enlightened leaders need to rise to the top to foster peace, cooperation, and well-being for the populace.
It is possible with strategic alliance at the highest levels, the positive use of educational programs, and the wise use of artificial intelligence and social media for the return of peaceful coexistence. Dedicated world organizations need to thrive and grow to combat destructive tribalism and selfish interests with the recognition that to exist, we all must co-exist and cooperate for everyone’s mutual interest, security, health, and safety.
A deeper understanding of our thinking and behavior through neuroscience and psychology might be vital to promoting peaceful coexistence. When an imbalance of the specialized areas, especially the left brain, persists, difficulties and even catastrophes can arise in the efforts for achievement, gratification, and accomplishment. Destructive occurrences happen when the imbalance of personal brain operations projects onto the world stage of groups and societal behavior. The presentation might occur as strife, conflict, division, or brutal acting toward the less powerful and vulnerable. Discovering beneficial ways to balance the individual’s brain’s specialized functioning areas may be critical in breaking the individual and societal dysfunctional cycles in favor of peaceful coexistence, health, and well-being.
The right brain area brings complementary functions such as empathy and perception of beauty, music, love, and all new perceptions that are experienced or sensed. When in balance or equilibrium with other areas, it allows a sense of serenity, harmony, and integration of all the specialized mental and brain functioning areas. Perhaps the search for completion, harmony, serenity, and being in a peaceful, spiritual place will guide us on a path to peace, mutual respect, and cooperation among the people and communities of the world.
A better understanding of the psychology and neuroscience of fear, unexpressed emotions, and deeply held beliefs could lead to solutions to reduce the coalescing of individual mental health challenges into collective and societal hatred and violence against minorities and vulnerable populations. Gaining clarity about the impact of misinformation and propaganda influence on large population segments in our digital age of social media would make possible the tools to foster a more just, safe, and peaceful coexisting society.
For the central characters in the movie, “Tevye,” and later in “Fiddler on the Roof,” I would imagine a prayer as:
May all become enlightened, understanding, forgiving, peaceful, compassionate, accepting, and respectful of the differences and diversity amongst us all; may there be the cessation and the burial of hatred, greed, festering division, and the tyrant's malicious thirst for power; may there be a future of unity and cooperation; may there be a union of the fiery passion of youth with the wisdom of age and the ages.
I appreciate your interest. Your ideas and comments are welcome. Please share with others. Subscribe to my Substack newsletter and podcast at www.inmindwise.com.
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Pogroms from the Encyclopedia. ushmm.org https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/gallery/pogroms?parent=en%2F3487
From information on pogroms from the online Encyclopedia.ushmm.org https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/pogroms;
Remembering the Holocaust https://www.inmindwise.com/p/remembering-the-holocaust
An excellent article published in The New York Times, Opinion section, “Antisemitism: A Guide for the Perplexed,” 12/13/23. You may need to subscribe to read it if you are not already a subscriber. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/12/opinion/antisemitism-jewish-israel-war.html?smid=nytcore-android-share