CARACAS (JTA) — The celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sholem Aleichem has special significance for the Jewish community of Venezuela.
The majority of Venezuela’s Ashkenazi community comes from immigrants who moved here after World War II, and their lingua franca was, and in many cases still is, Yiddish.
Several community libraries have large collections of books in the language, and for many years Yiddish was an integral part of the curriculum of the central Jewish school Moral y Luces Herzl Bialick, which had more than 2,000 students.
Coinciding with the anniversary, a new, critically acclaimed production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was staged at the Aula Magna at Venezuela’s Central University.
Unfortunately, the motifs of Tevye’s environment — including social uncertainty, political upheaval and eventual exile from the village of Anatevka — have become real possibilities in present-day Venezuela. Thus the play’s message is hitting home with the audiences.
As a byproduct of Israel’s recent operation in Gaza, provoked by years of Kassam rocket fire from Gaza that rained regularly upon Israeli cities, the Venezuelan government issued some stern pronouncements about the Israeli government.
“They are assassins, and guilty of a greater holocaust than the one perpetrated by the Nazis,” said some high-ranking state spokesmen. “The people of Israel should challenge their own government because of this, and the Jews of Venezuela must issue a formal statement differentiating themselves from the actions of the State of Israel and condemn them.”
Such incendiary statements at least indirectly were responsible for several previously unthinkable attacks in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. In a commando-style raid, some 19 individuals attacked the central Sephardic synagogue, Tiferet Israel, on Jan. 30. At least seven policemen were in the group. For about five hours they desecrated the sanctuary, leaving behind disturbing graffiti, including the message “Death to the Jews.”
Several weeks later, a grenade exploded in Beth Shmuel, the home of a yeshiva and synagogue in a different neighborhood of Caracas.
While in both incidents there were no human casualties, the Jewish community was astonished because Venezuelans typically are tolerant in all walks of life, especially in race and religion. These two attacks would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
An additional episode has made the staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” relevant to the feelings of uncertainty in the Jewish community. Several days before the opening of the show, Manuel Torres, the director of the Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho Orchestra, informed the director of “Fiddler” that since its theme was a Jewish one and the government does not view Jews with favor, he thought it prudent to withdraw his orchestra from the commitment to play because, he argued, his orchestra might lose its government funding.
[Editor’s note: Torres refused to comment about the case when reached by JTA. But in an interview with a local Venezuelan daily, Torres denied being pressured to withdraw from the show, saying the orchestra was concentrating on other events.]
This controversy produced denials that only confirmed an environment of self-imposed censure that is growing here, especially in the Venezuelan media. Venezuelan society is divided between government supporters and those that would welcome a change of course in the next election.
Through a play based on one of his stories, Sholem Aleichem became involved in Venezuela’s political circus — sharing the limelight with President George W. Bush, one of the favorite targets of Venezuela’s current government.
In the meantime, audiences have exploded in applause at every performance of “Fiddler.” Able performers with extraordinary voices have brought to life the culture of the shtetl on a continent that is so different in tradition yet shares the common ideals of love for freedom of the spirit despite material shortcomings.
(Pynchas Brener is the chief rabbi of Venezuela. Michael Hausman is the director of "Fiddler on the Roof.")