In the Broadway musical and film “Fiddler on the Roof,” set in early 20th century Russia, Tevye and Golde struggle to maintain longtime Jewish religious and cultural traditions as they are eroding around them. Modern ideas — such as marrying for love and living in a secular environment — begin to take hold among a new generation of Jews.
Many of these same themes were evident in the lives of Aaron Naginsky and Mariasia Balotin, who came of age at the same time as the fictional daughters of Tevye and Golde. When Aaron and Mariasia decided to marry, her parents, Shlomo and Shana, objected, according to the 1977 interview with Ada Naginsky Grossberg. But the couple married despite the parents’ objections, when he was 25 and she was 19, as recorded in the 1930 census — or in about 1905. By then, Aaron likely was established in his trade as a butcher.
There was a lot of turmoil in Russia around the time of Aaron and Mariasia’s marriage. 1903 brought the first pogrom of the 20th century, which had a profound impact on the psyche of Russia’s Jews and brought global attention to their plight. The Kishinev pogrom, spurred by false allegations that Jews had played a role in the murder of two Christian children, began on Easter Sunday and lasted for three days. Neither the government nor the military intervened to stop the riots, which resulted in the massacre and wounding of hundreds of Jews as well as the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses.
In the years that followed, unrest continued throughout the Russian Empire. Large sectors of the Jewish population became involved in national politics as part of a broader effort to unseat the autocratic regime of the czars and establish a representative form of government, according to the Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. During this period, known as the Russian Revolution of 1905, the government used harsh tactics to repress opposition, including dozens of pogroms committed against Jews.
As a young couple, Aaron and Mariasia were touched personally by this deteriorating environment for Jews. Most notably, Aaron’s older brother, Israel, departed for America in 1904, part of a rapidly accelerating wave of emigration from Russia. To reach the port of embarkation, Israel likely took the main route traveled by immigrants from southern Russia, crossing the Austro-Hungarian border illegally then taking a train to Vienna and proceeding north to Hamburg, Germany, as described in “World of Our Fathers.” Like most immigrants, he traveled in steerage, paying his own way at a cost of about $34. Departing May 4 aboard the S.S. Belgravia, he arrived in New York a little more than two weeks later with $10 in his pocket. Single and 25, Israel probably was the first family member to come to America, as the ship passenger list notes that he was joining a friend in New York.
We can speculate about some other possible developments within the Naginsky family during this time. Aaron’s younger sister Mary, who was about 20, may have begun her involvement in the Zionist political movement, as we know she left Russia intending to go to Palestine — but we don’t know when. Aaron himself may have gotten involved in the government reform campaign, as we know he was interested in politics.
There’s good reason the experiences of Aaron and Mariasia are reflected so accurately in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The play was based on a series of tales by the popular Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, who was noted for writing in the voice of the simple religious Jew. A contemporary of the parents of Aaron and Mariasia, Sholom Aleichem was exposed to the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, as well as traditional Judaism as a child. With this background, he was able to understand and effectively convey the modern-day challenges faced by Jews to people of all faiths around the world.
Like a fiddler on the roof, the fate of the Jews — and the Naginsky family — was uncertain and precarious, but their community, steadfast and rich in tradition, would help them survive.