It had been forty years since my last violin lesson when I went this summer to rent a violin to start up again. I glimpsed the stock room where there were hundreds of violins, still and gleaming and soundless, coming together in a symphony of silence.
It’s funny what the body remembers. As soon as I tucked the violin under my chin, I automatically started the fingering of a Vivaldi concerto in A Minor on the violin’s graceful, ebony neck. There was no sound played, just my fingers making contact with the steel strings.
My father and grandfather loved playing the violin and they wanted me to love making music too. Each of them practiced with me often, and one of my earliest memories is of my father tucking my tiny, quarter-sized violin under his chin to tune it. He aimed to give me, his tin-eared daughter, a fair start.
My violin tuned, my dad then perched the small instrument on his lap. “I can’t believe they make them this small,” he said. By his own description he had me “later in life” and I imagine he said the same thing about me when I was born.
I started violin lessons when I was eight. When I was fourteen I handed my father back the full-sized violin I had finally grown into. I was not a musician.
My Grandfather Bolton also began violin lessons when he was eight. His family cut the household budget razor-thin to give their promising young son music lessons. When Grandpa touched bow to strings his parents heard his talent and though they may not have understood it that way, my great-grandparents sensed that Grandpa’s musical ability coupled with America’s social mobility would enable him to move ahead in this country at dizzying speed.
At the age of 14, my grandfather debuted at a tony Connecticut country club. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that he went to his first gig in a sleigh and was woozy from the cold until someone warmed him up with a hot toddy. It was the first time he was drunk.
My grandfather chronicled his sparkling immigrant story on legal-size loose-leaf pages. Grandpa’s faithful secretary typed draft after draft of a book he simply entitled Memoirs. With each pass, Grandpa further sanitized his history, hoping to make his life as all-American as the cars he drove.
William M. Bolton was born in 1891 in Ukraine and came to the United States when he was six months old. He saw the advent of the automobile and the refrigerator. He wrote about his father’s trips to the icehouse in the family’s horse-pulled cart for blocks of ice to store dairy products. But he wrote nothing about the poverty in which he grew up.
Grandpa fiddled his way through Yale by joining the musician’s union to pay his college tuition and to buy the “right clothes” to go to classes with the likes of Cole Porter. I imagine that Cole Porter played his piano in the rarefied company of Yale’s sons while Grandpa played at dances in fraternity houses to which he would otherwise never be admitted. He was silent about Yale’s anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. By the time my paternal grandparents met during Grandpa’s junior year at Yale, they had deliberately forgotten that they came to America from Russia as babies.
I’m not sure what my father and grandfather would make of Thanksgivukkah, this once in a century, possibly once in a millennium holiday. They loved America fiercely and unquestioningly. They may have thought the whole idea was kitsch. Certainly the name is as cumbersome as their Judaism was to them. Or they may have felt vindicated by the fuss over the confluence of this American holiday with an ancient Jewish one. My grandparents were assimilated to the point that they traded the white and blue flame of a Hanukkah menorah for the red and green glitz of a small silver Christmas tree propped on a coffee table.
But I think I’ve figured out my grandparents’ story. When I had begun to play the violin my parents went to see Fiddler on the Roof. They came home with a recording of the show’s song that I played in an endless loop on our hi-fi. Zero Mostel boomed about a fiddler just like Grandpa, the fiddler who hovered over my childhood like a Chagall painting.
A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say everyone of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.
My grandfather fiddled to keep his balance as he took on the mantle of a navy blue, Ivy League life. To start over he changed his name from Bolotin to Bolton. But despite those dramatic attempts at fitting in, I think my father and grandfather were Thanksgivukkah Jews. They aspired to have the best of what America offered. But in the end their descendants celebrate Hanukkah over Christmas.
Fiddler on the Roof shed light on part of my grandfather’s identity. He loved the record as much as I did. And it was the first time that I realized my grandparents came from shtetls like the fictional Anatevka. It feels right that their story is set to music. It feels right that Fiddler on the Roof was as American as the Boltons, or for that matter, Thanksgivukkah.