Anatevka resurrected? Feature in Foreign Policy Review misses a few Jewish details

How many of us remember the mournful song that appears near the end of "Fiddler on the Roof" when the tzar’s soldiers kick the Jews out of their tiny village?

Hint: It goes like this. You can click here and watch the scene in the classic movie. You may want to have tissues nearby.

Anatevka, Anatevka.
Underfed, overworked Anatevka.
Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?

Anatevka, Anatevka.
Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,
Where I know everyone I meet.

Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
From Anatevka.

When Sholom Aleichem wrote the story that inspired the 1964 musical (and 1971 film), Anatevka was a fictional name for a real life village just west of Kiev.

So what should pop up this week in Foreign Policy Review but the story of a real place called Anatevka? It's a fine story, yet it has one major hole, which we'll get to. Yes, we are talking about important religious details.

KIEV -- When the rabbi of Chernobyl, Mordechai Twersky, felt he was dying in 1837, he set out on a long walk from Kiev. He made it about 30 kilometers to the west, where he came upon a rolling green field of wildflowers on the banks of the Irpin River, outside the village of Hnativka.
It was there, he decided, that he would be laid to rest, having chosen the pastoral location, according to local lore, “because there is no house of idol worship, and the sound of impure bells won’t disturb my rest in the grave.” A Jewish cemetery for residents of the nearby Jewish villages, known as shtetls, soon sprang up around the cyan mausoleum built to mark his grave.
Two decades later, in 1859, the Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem was born nearby, and the cluster of Jewish settlements became the inspiration for his stories about “Tevye the Milkman”-- now more commonly known as the Fiddler on the Roof…

Aleichem’s villages of Anatevka and Boiberik were in reality called Hantivka and Boyarka, the story reports. And then:

The Ukrainian Jews pushed off their land often migrated to other villages and urban centers, under increasingly strained conditions. The turn of the century made life harder still. More pogroms, far worse than before, swept through Ukrainian cities in 1905, killing hundreds. And as vibrant shtetl culture became a thing of the past, the towns became associated in the public imagination with the villages from Shalom Aleichem’s stories: “dire straits, with … broken-down Jews, wooden huts, rotting shingles.”
Until now. The Anatevka shtetl is being rebuilt, this time as a home for Jewish internally displaced persons fleeing the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. The settlement’s new founders are intent on bringing back a way of life that disappeared from the region long ago.

It turns out that about two years ago, a Kiev rabbi, Moshe Azman, was moved by the plight of Jewish refugees from eastern Ukraine.

At the time, thousands were fleeing their homes in Donetsk and Luhansk every day. Many of these refugees were Jewish, and the rabbi and his congregation at Kiev’s Brodsky Synagogue were doing their best to keep up with the influx of displaced people arriving at their door.
The Jewish community had pulled together funding for a temporary shelter for refugees at a summer camp in the Cherkasy region, away from the fighting, but Azman sought a more permanent solution. He’d bought the land adjacent to Twersky’s grave last year without realizing the Chernobyl rabbi, an early member of a famed Hasidic dynasty, was buried next door. It was only when he arrived in Hnativka in the spring of 2015 to survey his new purchase that he realized he was standing on hallowed land. “It was an accident. But there are no accidents — There are now over a million refugees in Ukraine. It was a miracle that I bought land here,” he said. By June 2015, construction of what is now the Anatevka Jewish Refugee Community had begun.

Kind of like life imitates art, isn’t it? Not only does the rabbi start a refuge, he names it after a village in a wildly popular musical.

I did a search for the place and Anatevka does exist on maps today. The only mismatch in the story is that everywhere I looked, Aleichem’s first name is spelled Sholom, not Shalom.  

The article swings into a history of the shtetl, essentially a Jewish village system located in a western portion of the Russian empire known as the Pale of Settlement. The eventual fate of these shtetls was not good. Some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, including 34,000 of them massacred in just two days at Babi Yar, just outside of Kiev, 75 years ago this year.

What’s fascinating about this story is that the refugees living in the “new” Anatevka are expected to be practicing Orthodox Jews. However, many of the refugees are non-observant, as they had no chance to understand their religion while growing up in what was then atheistic Russia.

All the signs in Anatevka are in Russian and English, the latter maybe to impress the New York investors who Azman is leaning on to fund this project.

Now this is where this otherwise very decent article falls down -- on some crucial details.

A photo shows someone unloading a portrait of the Russian-born Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Lubavitch Chabad movement. What is that doing here? The Lubavitch Chabad movement may be its fastest-growing segment of Orthodox Judaism. However, these believers place an emphasis on the soon-coming of the Jewish Messiah, which is not something other Orthodox movements are as fixated on.

So, if this is a Lubavitch outreach, the story should say so. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency story on the village says the community is not affiliated with Chabad and gives a lot more information on what it’s cost to date (at least $1.5 million) to build Anatevka’s few structures. Also, an earlier JTA story explains the Anatevka nomenclature is not a branding move to bring in money from American Jews, but it’s actually the name of the closest village, albeit spelled differently. A few paragraphs later, however, it talks about ways the managers of Anatevka are trying to affiliate it with the fictional life of Tevye the dairyman and spells out the differences that two other Jewish agencies have with the Anatevka project.

So what is this place, really?

Certainly there’s a lot of fundraising going on, judging from the village’s Facebook page and Anatevka’s website. The Foreign Policy story should have gone more into some of the debate among Jews over this property and whether it’s a clever piece of PR that’s being helped along by Jewish Americans.

As all veteran reporters know, some things are true, some things are too good to be true and other things are truth plus marketing. Although the intentions behind it seem to be good, the new Anatevka seems to be more the third option.

Smart reporters will dig into the faith details and pick up on the difference.

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