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In Defense of the Schmaltzy

How long ago did something have to happen in order to merit nostalgia? Can we be nostalgic about last month? Last year? Can we be nostalgic about the Civil War? The Roman Era? (We’ve sure tried.) And how long did that moment have to last? Just an instant? A weekend? Or does it require more temporal heft? Maybe at least a year?

Perhaps more important, how close of a personal connection do we need to a time in order to justify nostalgia? Can it be applied only to something that happened to us? Is it okay if it happened to our ancestors? Or to a community, whether real or imagined — and most are imagined — to which we belong?

Circumscribing the boundaries of nostalgia is as difficult as circumscribing the boundaries of the object of nostalgia’s affection. The experience thrives best in conditions of hazy recollections and desire, sometimes conscious and sometimes not — circumstances that are anathema to precision.

The word, which was coined by 17th-century medical students to describe the anxious state of Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting away from home, has evolved over the years to come to stand for an emotional longing, usually accompanied by an idealization of another time and often another place. Or, put another way, exactly how American Jews felt when “Fiddler on the Roof” first appeared on the stage, exactly 50 years ago.

As Alisa Solomon explores in her book “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” the show arrived at a pivotal point in the assimilation of American Jews, a moment in time when our shtetl-roots morphed from an embarrassment to a point of pride. The stereotypes the show trafficked in have become part and parcel of our cultural history: learned men working from the land in their storybook villages, the dappled light of the Sabbath candles closing each week. Finally, Jews had enough material success to look back on the world their families had left kindly, and kindly they did — far enough away to no longer pose any real threat or embarrassment. And so “Tradition!” they sang, and tradition it became, one based not on religion so much as on nostalgia for a schmaltz-colored past.

Fast-forward to today, and this brand of nostalgia has fallen sharply out of fashion. We consider ourselves too clever to idealize the shtetl past. We’ve seen the uncropped Roman Vishniac photos, and know the poverty that exists outside the frame. We shy away from notions of perfection or harmony, resist claims that things were once better, or more pure. This doesn’t mean we have given up on the past, so much as that we no longer seek emotional or cultural redemption in it. Our backward gaze has become a clinical one, a digital generation’s search for authenticity whereas those before us sought out feeling.

This new brand of nostalgia mainly manifests in the way we eat. Food has become the main expressive medium of our time, and through it we seek not only expressions of our political values and cultural identities, but also our ties to the past. Those Jews once derided for having their whole Jewish identities bound up in bagel eating are now the same ones baking, or seeking out, not overly chewy, perfectly authentic bagels cooked according to someone’s great-grandfather’s century-old techniques.

But in honor of the anniversary of “Fiddler,” which coincides with a renewed interested in the unabashedly sentimentally nostalgic early 20th-century Jewish Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, inspiration for Wes Anderson’s unabashedly sentimentally nostalgic recent film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” let’s take a moment to reconsider that “biddy biddy bum” sentimental nostalgia that has gone out of fashion, only to be replaced by your perfectly executed artisanal gefilte fish.

In Harvard literature, Svetlana Boym’s essay on the topic, “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” discerns between two main types of nostalgia — the restorative and the reflective:

Restorative nostalgia, she writes “stresses nostos (home) and attempts a trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home.” While reflective nostalgia “thrives on algia (the longing itself) and delays the homecoming — wistfully, ironically, desperately.” Boym doesn’t see these categories as absolute binaries, but splitting open the concept of nostalgia does allow us to distinguish between what does feel like two distinct modes. Boym writes: “Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging, and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.”

While no period of time fits neatly into one category, I’d argue that today we are a moment of restorative nostalgia, while the “Fiddler” lovers that preceded us operated more in the reflective mode. They were less interested in rebuilding the temple, to borrow a metaphor from our religious tradition, than in happily longing for it from a distance. Somewhere in their fetishization of things past lived a reckoning with its unknowability, and a decision to use it as a source of feeling rather than belief.

It’s easy to be cynical about the feelings “Fiddler” provoked. In his critique of it, Irving Howe took aim at the saccharine and inauthentic portrayal of the Old World, claiming: “If a future historian of the Yiddish epoch in American Jewish life will want to know how it came to an end, we can now tell him. Yiddish culture did not decline from neglect, or from hostility, or from ignorance. If it should die, it will have been from love — from love and tampering.”

But what if this frivolous love wasn’t the source of death, but rather of life? Maybe it was “Fiddler” and not Torah that pushed people to pay their synagogue dues, but what if without “Tradition! Tradition!” ringing in their ears these Jews would have avoided it altogether? There are worst things to be guided by than a romanticized origin story, which probably explains why this is hardly the first time one brought people together.

At the end of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which takes place on the brink of World War II, the narrator suggests that our old-fashioned and charismatic hero inhabited a world that may have ceased to exist before he even entered it. In a discussion with Anderson, Zweig biographer George Prochnik says that this “gets away from the idea that Zweig was unable to see reality, and moves more towards the notion that he had a desire to live in the imagination so fully that it would diminish the impact of the real.”

This imaginary place, accessed best by nostalgia, is one of hopes, dreams and togetherness and occasionally the font of utopian visions. These are our Edens that exist only through a backward glance, but nevertheless can propel us forward in a way that only pasts that never truly were can do. To life! To life! L’chaim!

Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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