It was Christmas Day at 12:30 PM, and we were in the parking lot behind West Seattle Junction about to search for a place to eat lunch. My phone vibrated and I pulled it out to reveal a text message from my brother with a photograph.
“A friend of mine at Christmas,” he wrote.
“Holy shit!” I responded.
A sea of memories and aspirations from the last year washed through my brain as my eyes widened at the image that represented the Genesis for what felt like a more enigmatically personal addition to this blog.
In early January of last year, my mother was visiting me in Dallas from South Carolina, and while she was there we went to see a documentary at the Inwood Theater about Sholem Aleichem titled Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. The film detailed Aleichem’s upbringing in Eastern Europe and how he became a spokesperson for a culture on the cusp of unprecedented changes through uprooting, a transition that brought my mother’s and father’s sides of the family to the United States generations ago. One of the few writers to use the Yiddish language as a vehicle for artistic expression, I could hear echoes of my maternal grandmother’s exclamations in various moments throughout the movie. It was his work that inspired my favorite musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
Fiddler on the Roof has resonated so closely with me ever since the first time I saw one of my mother’s best students play Tevye the Milkman (inspired by an Aleichem character) in a high school production. I later performed in the play as Avrahm the bookseller in my junior year of high school. Its themes of struggling to preserve tradition while seeking wisdom that must evolve seem so close to me every day. There is a song in the earlier part of the production that rings true to me in this stage of establishing my early adult life, but also has struck a chord for many generations:
It was while watching the documentary on Aleichem that I learned of the inspiration for this song, a monologue by Aleichem titled “When I’m a Rothschild.” Ever since pursuing sommelier certification, the name “Rothschild” represented both an unavoidably important piece of history and also a symbol of status. The Rothschilds first entered the world of wine in 1853 when Baron Nathaniel, a member of the English branch of the family, bought Brane Mouton and renamed it Mouton-Rothschild. Years later, another family member Baron Philippe took it over and achieved the only elevation of Bordeaux classification status for any chateaux, a status that precedes it today as one of the more coveted bottles of wine available each year.
On the French side of the Rothschild family, Baron James bought Lafite in 1868 and died a few months later, but his son Edmond sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Israeli wine industry through his Zionist interests and purchases of land that later became Israel.
I had begun to see my studies in a different light. The family of European bankers had a closer connection to me than I had noticed, as their roots stemmed from the same Semitic tribes of Ashkenazi Jews where my religious traditions began and continue to survive.
I finally read the Aleichem monologue last night, after coming up with the idea for this entry shortly after seeing the film over a year ago. The monologue begins with familiar themes covered in “If I Were a Rich Man,” dreams of financial independence: “Oy, when I’m a Rothschild!…Guess what I’ll do! In the first place, it’ll be guaranteed that a wife always has a three-ruble note with her so she doesn’t have to bother a man when Thursday rolls around…One won’t have to worry about where to find money to make Shabbos – what a delight to the soul that will be!” But then Aleichem remarks “so that covers my needs – so then what? I’ll get started…I’ll create…societies in Kasrilevke [his fictional Russian village], one after another. But what makes us here in Kasrilevke so special?! I’ll set up…societies everywhere the Children of Israel are found, everywhere in the whole world!” I was struck by such a broad Utopian vision he seemed to be laying out, “and since we’re talking about ‘contribution,’ to whom do folks come for a loan? To me, to Rothschild that is. Here, take it…And when you pay me back, there won’t be a lot of interest to pay, because we shouldn’t become rich off others…Now do you understand? I make a little business deal – and…the whole world will have an entirely different face…”
What kind of a businessman thinks “we shouldn’t become rich off others?” I was incredulous at the sight of such a genuinely altruistic world view, something that has all but disappeared in our unapologetically capitalistic society. Aleichem, a marginally known writer best remembered for his light-hearted, humorous depictions of everyday life in Eastern Europe, harbored a vision for the Rothschild family that I would have never imagined. He imagined them as his own extended family sharing his same values, businesspeople not for the sake of personal profit, but for eternal philanthropy…And what kind of wine would he make?
Well, if I were a Rothschild, let me tell you, I would stop selling my wine. Because wine should not be a status symbol; it should be a gift of hospitality. That’s right, the only way you would be able to drink my wine would be if you came to visit me, or asked me to visit you. And I would welcome everyone over to taste from my cellar. If I were a Rothschild, there would be no “experts” in my wine, and no novices either, but only guests who can all learn from and appreciate the gift of a carefully-made bottle of wine. Just as we ask Eliyahu to enter our home with a glass of wine on Pesach, so should we do the same with the rest of our brethren. And since I’d be a Rothschild, I would have all the means to keep making wine, and everyone would want to feed me and keep me company, because I would just want to share all my hard work with them.
How would my wine taste, you wonder? It would taste like something that makes you wonder and be curious about this big world where we live. It would taste like I am trying to preserve all the traditions and joy that we do our best to bottle up and share with each other, but it would also taste unique, like I made that one bottle you’d be drinking just for your visit. Because wine is special, and each bottle is like our own Children of Israel, a people that will always grow into something new but still be who we are…