A Closer Look at the Coexistence of Tradition and Choice in Judaism
BY MAYA PARNESS
Growing up as an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose family has been in the United States since the early 1900s (a classic Eastern European ancestral Jewish cocktail of Russian, Ukrainian, and Austrian), Fiddler on the Roof has the magical ability to make me feel seen. Now, my practice of Judaism, at least on the surface, is very different from the Jewish practice that Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, and Sheldon Harnick present in Fiddler. My denomination, the Reform movement, is relatively secular and rooted in individual autonomy within Jewish practice. “So Maya,” you may ask, “how exactly does Fiddler on the Roof speak to your soul this much if it’s so different from the Judaism you know?” The answer to your question is because it’s really not that different. In many ways, Reform Judaism and the Judaism presented in Fiddler are very similar— significantly, they both hold ideas of tradition and choice at their core. To a non-Jewish audience, it might seem as though notions of belonging in Fiddler on the Roof are dependent on the ability of individuals to strictly adhere to Jewish tradition by way of community norms around ethnicity and gender. However, the Judaism presented in Fiddler on the Roof is, in its own way, revolutionary in that it redefines who belongs in the community through its definition of what belongs in the community. In creating space for tradition and choice to not only coexist but to strengthen one another, Fiddler’s Jewish community in turn creates space for anyone to belong so long as they do not actively undermine the community’s core.
First, I’d like to define what the Eastern European Jewish tradition interpreted by Fiddler actually is and how it got to be that way. In the song “Tradition,” Tevye outlines pretty clearly what everyone’s role is. The men make a living and study Torah, while the women care for the family and keep a “kosher” (read: Jewish) home. It’s clear that these roles are very gendered, but it’s important to understand that these gender roles are not oppressive. In Jewish text, women are seen as inherently more spiritual than men and thus are exempt from certain commandments in order to focus on nurturing the cultural identity of the Jewish people which is centered in the home. Being exempt does not mean being forbidden. Women do not have to go to synagogue, but if they have the time and would find it meaningful to do so, they may. Additionally, the spiritual work of women (upholding Judaism in the home) is viewed as equally important to the spiritual work of men (studying at synagogue)— neither the synagogue nor the home are considered more sacred than the other. Women in Fiddler’s Jewish society have a lot of agency and value within their observance of tradition, evidenced by the song “Do You Love Me?” in which Golde decides she loves Tevye who is a stand-in for tradition, therefore choosing tradition despite being exposed to the different choices her daughters have made. How Jewish women are oppressed in Fiddler is no different from how the men are oppressed, in that the oppression as perpetrated by the Russians is due to their Judaism. Many of the gendered and insular traditions of this community come from centuries of persecution that have resulted in relative segregation from non-Jewish society for safety concerns along with specific delegation of roles to preserve faith and tradition despite everyone around them wanting them assimilated or exiled at best and wiped out at worst.
Alongside the everpresent backdrop of tradition in Fiddler on the Roof is the pervasive force of choice, particularly the choices made by Tevye’s family and those who come in contact with it, and this change actually strengthens Jewish tradition as opposed to dismantling it. We can look at Tzeitel’s love story as emblematic of this phenomenon. When Motel asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel, Tevye’s knee-jerk reaction is to comment on how two young people making a pledge for each other is “unheard of” and “absurd,” but not against tradition. But when Motel’s strong assertion makes it clear that Tzeitel will not starve, which Golde and Tevye both identify as an important factor in their decision to accept Lazar Wolf’s offer, Tevye points up at G-d and yells “Tradition!” and then shrugs, as if to say, “this new idea and tradition can coexist.” He then accepts Motel’s proposition, leading to the most beautiful show of Jewish tradition and its interaction with choice in the entire musical: the wedding scene.
In wedding scene, we see the whole community, even Yente, come together over the union of Tzeitel and Motel, each of them joining together for an emotional chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset,” in which, sung and dressed in relative unison, reflects on the inherent change that occurs with the passage of time as individuals grow up and come into their own lives and choices. Once they are married, the whole community breaks out into dance, which initially is separated by gender, but eventually, Perchik challenges the community to consider another choice they can make— to break shomer negiah, the Jewish practice of abstaining from touching members of the opposite gender to whom one is not married or related. And then they do. Hodel dances with Perchik, not to reject tradition (during the first time they dance together, Hodel decisively asserts “we like our ways!”) but to add to what tradition can mean. Tzeitel and Motel dance together, Golde and Tevye dance together, and then the whole crowd does the same. Hodel even starts to dance with the Rabbi, who makes his own choice to remove the element of touch by extending a handkerchief to Hodel but still continues to dance with her. Here, we see the Jewish community make a choice to change the external manifestation of tradition, the practice of shomer negiah, in order to strengthen the internal reason for the tradition in the first place: joy and celebration. This show of a change in the tradition is not any more or less joyful than the celebration before the change was put into place— the dances are just as percussive and joyful, the ensemble claps and smiles just as much. The tradition was strengthened (though not necessarily improved) by widening the definition of what tradition can include. It’s also notable that this change in tradition was not what stops the wedding. The two events that put a damper on the joy of wedding are attacks on choice, namely Lazar Wolf’s attempt to assert his own dominance over Tzeitel’s choices when he argues that this was supposed to be his wedding, and attacks on community itself, i.e. the Russians starting a literal pogrom, causing the community to scatter, and then destroying the town, including throwing out pieces of paper from inside Jewish stores (read: Jewish text/law) and burning down buildings emblazoned with Jewish stars.
As Tzeitel and Motel’s story is an example of a transition from challenging previously held notions in Jewish tradition to communal acceptance, there is another story of eventual acceptance into the community— Chava and Fyedka. When Chava first tells Tevye of the close relationship between them, Tevye reminds her, “you must not forget who you are and who that man is,” referring to the fact that Fyedka, as a Russian, is part of the group that actively oppresses the Jewish people of Anatevka, and, as we are reminded by this exchange occurring outside of Tzeitel and Motel’s house, are willing to destroy them. He then says, “a bird may love a fish, but where will they build a home together?” These are not statements made in anger, these are statements made out of genuine concern for Chava’s wellbeing. He understandably does not see how someone of an oppressed community can have a truly equitable and safe relationship with one of their oppressors. Of course, his tone is angry once she officially says she and Fyedka want to get married, but his face is shocked and confused. “Marrying outside of the faith? Do you know what that means?” he asks. He is asking her if she knows it could lead to her losing her faith and her culture via assimilation into Fyedka’s values. This is why it makes a lot of sense when Tevye declares Chava to be dead after she elopes with Fyedka, through a Christian wedding no less— in his eyes, she has lost her culture and therefore she has lost herself. Historically, if Jews will do anything to stay alive, they convert to Christianity. But most Jewish people, like the Anatevka Jews, choose to continue practicing Judaism despite the misfortune that will befall them because of it. Tevye posits that Chava is dead to him not because he’s angry that she’s disobeyed him, but because for Tevye, if you marry the oppressor, you stop being Jewish, so you might as well have died because you are not you anymore.
This leads me to the community’s acceptance of their marriage. It’s easy to conflate the exile of Tevye from his home with a release of communal expectations that resulted in his begrudging change of heart. But that’s not what’s happening in that scene— note the moment where Tevye drops his resolve. Tevye avoids eye contact with the couple until Fyedka says, “We cannot stay among people who do such things to others,” and then Tevye looks at them. This moment of eye contact is an acknowledgement. He realizes that Fyedka is not interested in upholding the dominant oppressor culture through complicity, and therefore will not require Chava to sacrifice any part of herself. This moment allows Tzeitel to wish Chava and Fyedka goodbye, and with no hesitation, Tevye adds, “and G-d be with you.” He accepts Chava and Fyedka because Fyedka has rejected the ideology that directly undermines the Jewish community and therefore the ideology that undercuts Chava’s very personhood. The community doesn’t seem to have a problem with them either— nobody pays Chava and Fyedka much mind as they walk away. They’re all in the same boat— forced out of their home, in one way or another, by Russian othering of Jewishness. And by accepting a marriage so out of the norm as Chava and Fyedka’s, Jewish tradition has done what it does best— reaffirming everyone’s personhood.
In Fiddler on the Roof, it’s so easy to think that change and choice are enemies of tradition. We can take a surface-level look at Jewish tradition and conclude that Jewish women are oppressed, that every choice made that doesn’t explicitly fall within tradition is actively undercutting it, that exile from Anatevka was a hidden blessing because it provided a backdrop in which social norms fall to the wayside and allowed Jewish people to embrace more progressive values. But this surface-level take is a trap. It’s what people like the Russians want everyone to think, so it seems that Jewish tradition is an outdated and backwards ideology and that only assimilation into modern ideals can set Jewish people free, because then it’s easier to dehumanize us and destroy us one way or another. But if we think about tradition, choice, and change as things that amplify and uplift one another, we see Judaism for what it really is— a people that reaffirms the humanity of all that do the same for them. Jewish tradition is living, breathing, and ever-changing, and it makes space for everyone to have value and everyone to have agency. This is the tragedy of “Anatevka”— the community was learning and changing together, just as they were from the opening notes of “Tradition,” and exile, or, destruction of Jewish community, leaves just one fiddler on a sad, cold, and gray screen, playing the same melody, but playing it alone.