During a recent Lions Club lunch meeting, I mentioned to my friends that the recent presentation of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" could well have been my family's story. I ended up making a presentation to the club on this history several weeks later. They thought it was a good yarn, and I was asked to share it with Hays Daily News readers in this column.
How we got to Europe
When the Jews of Judea rebelled against Rome in 670 A.D., the rebellion was crushed and the Temple at Jerusalem destroyed. A huge proportion of the Jewish population was killed, and most of the survivors were sold into slavery. I guess the Romans didn't want the Jews even in the same region of the Middle East as most of the Jews were sold into what is now Europe. And that is how my ancestors arrived in Europe.
The Jews quickly emerged from slavery and began to build a life in Western Europe. As the centuries passed, Christianity prevailed as the predominant religion in Europe. Over the centuries, the Jews became bankers because the early church had outlawed usury (for Christians), leaving a vital gap in the economic structure as Western Europe moved toward a moneyed economy.
However, in time, Christians discovered the advantages of engaging in capitalism themselves, they began to isolate or exile the Jewish populations. In fact, almost two-thirds of Europe's Jews ended up living in what in 1900 was the Russian Empire, which included Poland. They had been driven east by the growth of capitalism and the growth of anti-semitism.
Parech -- the little village in Poland
The Jews in Poland in 1900 were mostly in what we would call the peasant population. They were poor, they held little land, they lived hand-to-mouth. When the Russian Empire needed to divert the anger and frustration of its subjects, it developed the tactic of encouraging the local population to carry out pogroms, including burning Jewish villages.
In short, the local population burned the village where my grandfather's family lived. My grandfather was a rabbi, the spiritual leader of his village. After the Jews were told by the government to leave that region of Poland and with the burning of other villages, my grandfather had had enough. He told his homeless congregation to pack up what little they had left and go to America.
South Philadelphia, the melting pot
My grandfather, Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Safranski, sent his eldest son, Joseph, to Philadelphia ahead of the rest of the family. Joe secured a loan, bought a building in a German working-class neighborhood and prepared to open a men's clothing store.
The real estate agent warned him that the Germans didn't care for the Poles (old animosities, of at least 800 years duration) and that with a name like Safranski, his store might not thrive in that neighborhood.
With Joe worried, the agent suggested he change his name to "Shaffer," a quite "German-sounding" name. Thus, the family left Poland as Safranskis and landed at Ellis Island as Shaffers.
And just what is a melting pot of immigration?
The reference to a "fiddler on a roof" pertains to an essential truth of Jewish identity. If you lived in a Jewish village in Poland in 1900, almost every aspect of life would be embedded in Judaism. There were few personal contacts or relationships with Christians. Not to live this way and not to have the comfort of tradition, ritual and custom was as ridiculous as a "fiddler on the roof." In south Philadelphia, there wasn't just a fiddler on the roof, there was an entire orchestra.
Masses of new immigrants and old immigrant -- Irish, Germans, Ukranians, Russians, Jews, Italians and others -- were our neighbors. I could curse fluently in Gaelic when I was 4. In short, good-bye tradition, good-bye ritual, good-bye custom.
Immigration and assimilation might be akin to a tidal wave overtaking each of the different generations: grandfather, father and son, each having a very different view of reality.
My grandfather felt immense grief and confusion as he watched the Jews leave the bounds of "tradition." All control was lost; the Jews in America embraced the new conservative brand of Jewish worship as well as the reform brand.
Expectations about my father could not be fulfilled. He was supposed to become a rabbi, like his father. However, he had a family to support. So he became a merchant, opening a clothing store like his brother. But in his view, all was not lost. His son Warren (first generation American, born in Philadelphia in 1946) could fulfill the obligation. It was not to be. Even as a young man, I recognized in myself great resources of stubbornness and independence that would not take me down the paths my father wanted.
Not only was I not suited to join the ranks of rabbis, but my personal view of Judaism was that it was only one among many value systems being offered to me by America. When I was 13 years old, I confessed to God on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, that I was more interested in becoming a better shortstop than a Talmudic scholar. America had worked its magic.
Writing this brief history in the comfort of my home office, in Hays, Kansas, I can only reflect on how blessed I have been. In fact, how blessed my whole extended family has been to have come to America. Therefore, I must cast my imaginary gaze on the charred remains of Parech, Poland, and, with some irony, state "Thank you for burning my village!"
Warren Shaffer was a professor of counselor education at Fort Hays State University and counselor at High Plains Metal Health Center. He is now retired and continues to live in Hays with his wife, Pam