In one of the final scenes of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the Jewish residents of the poor Russian village of Anatevka are told they have three days to pack up their belongings, sell their homes and goods, and leave. As the villagers congregate, they wax nostalgic about their pitiful yet strangely beloved hometown. Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics evoke the bittersweet emotions of anyone who has ever been ripped away from a quaint yet beloved place:
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.
I belong in Anatevka; tumbledown, workaday Anatevka;
dear little village, little town of mine.
In Harnick’s lyrics I hear echoes of the yearning lament of the exiled Psalmist who prays, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalms 137:4) How, indeed?
However, one of grace’s greatest miracles surely is seen in exactly this: that God’s people somehow do learn to sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land! Somehow, faith is not destroyed in exile but is sustained and even deepened. Somehow, God’s people discover that God is not locked down in Jerusalem or Anatevka but is free to meet them again in new places. The play ends and somehow we know that Teviah will sing the Lord’s song in a new place.
Most of us are not from the Conejo Valley. Some of us moved here with considerable anxiety and uncertainty. We wondered, could we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? Would God—could God—sustain us and protect our loved ones in this strange new place? Would we—could we—faithfully love God and neighbor in this “foreign land?” To our amazement, we discovered that God was already alive and working here. Unlike Visa, which is only “everywhere you want to be,” we find God even in the places we were sure we didn’t want to be. Far from being limited to our beloved hometowns, God, whom even the highest heavens cannot contain, goes ever before us. As John Browing’s hymn reminds us, “Thy children shall not faint nor fear, Sustained by this delightful thought; Since Thou our God, art everywhere, They cannot be where Thou art not.” Even in Anatevka.