Fiddler on the Roof: How Ethnicity Molds Identity

A conversation with Natalie Vitols and Dylan Potthoff

Dylan Potthoff: Hey everyone! Today, Natalie and I will be discussing the 1971 production Fiddler on the Roof, a film musical written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, lyrics by Bock, and produced by Norman Jewison. This musical (brought to us through the power of Netflix), follows a Jewish peasant (Tevye) through the process of marrying off his three Jewish daughters within a small village in pre-revolutionary Russia. Here, we see that this predominantly Jewish town thrives on order; men must learn a specialty, women must be assigned a husband, and religious practices must be strictly followed. However, as time progresses, we begin to see how these predetermined regulations and power structures sway and bend, resulting in changing perspectives and ideas that serve as a benefit to many of the main characters. In essence, Natalie and I will be examining how the portrayal of ethnicity in Fiddler on the Roof both constructs and inhibits the growth of a personalized identity.

DP: Natalie, I’ll start by asking you a question. What does this musical mean to you, and how do you think certain characters are inhibited?

Natalie Vitols: I really enjoyed this musical and in particular appreciated how Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava were able to go against the sexist ideals pushed on them and follow their own path in who they chose to marry. It is clear how these women were inhibited by their background in the number “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”. Here, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava sing about the realities of being young Jewish women of this time being set up with their husbands by a matchmaker. At the beginning of the song the younger girls yearn for a good match and are choreographed looking off into the distance and smiling while dancing and folding laundry, showing the dreamy hopefulness they have. However, Tzeitel reminds them that since they are poor, they must accept whatever match Yente brings for them. Rosalind Harris does a great job of portraying Tzeitel as the pragmatic older sister by having a less dream-like voice and also joking around imitating Yente. By the end of the number, we see that the sisters are wary of who their matches may be as they sing looking straight into the camera “It’s not that I’m sentimental it’s just that I’m terrified” showing how they have little control over their future and are scared of what man they will be forced to marry. This number particularly shows how the culture that the family lives in is very limiting and constrains women to a life with little to no freedom. While ethnicity can be a positive part of one’s experience and identity it can also limit people in the life they are able to live. It is clear in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” that Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava’s ethnic background has sexist ideals that unfortunately make them fear the life that they may be forced to live, married to a man that they do not know and do not love. 

DP: That’s a really good point; the gender-bound ethnic constructs certainly provide an objectified portrayal of Jewish women (incomplete without a husband), while also eliminating the sisters’ sense of free will and choice. I get the sense that these women are figuratively (and literally) trapped from birth.

NV: Yes, and this number helps the audience understand the limitations of the culture shown in the show. While the characters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava show the restriction of their Jewish culture, how do you think Tevye represents being a Jewish man in his community?

DP: I strongly believe that Tevye embodies what it means to practice Orthodox Judaism. At the same time, however, he also reflects a degree of open-mindedness as a result of the ever-changing world around him. As a byproduct, he (in certain instances) imagines an alternate universe where he isn’t confined to his role within the Jewish village. Specifically, the production number “If I Were a Rich Man” temporarily demonstrates Tevye’s artificial sense of pride and power. Topol begins this number by softly singing without instrumental accompaniment, illustrating just how far-fetched and weak his dream to become rich really is. This lack of general confidence and poise is also demonstrated through choreography at the beginning of the number, as Tevye continues with his laborious duties (loading hay into the horse stable). However, Tevye continually becomes more engrossed in this dreamlike fantasy, giving the character a sense of artificial power. This is first demonstrated when Topol throws his hands in the air with the words “I’d build a big, tall house”. With the word “big” specifically, the tempo for the number locks in, and the instrumentation becomes more diverse, numerous, and present. Tevye’s sense of fantastical power/liberty reaches its peak at several points within the number, as Topol furiously waves his hands in the air and shakes his body; the background music also reaches its peak volume. Here, Tevye completely loses his sense of reality; he immerses himself in his power fantasy, demonstrated by his aggressive dancing, a full instrumental background, and his loud, rich vocal contribution. New instruments are presented, including flutes, bassoon, and trumpets, differing from the traditional instrumentation of Jewish Klezmer music. It almost seems increasingly westernized.

NV: That’s how I perceived Bock’s shift in instrumentation. At specific points where Tevye feels powerful, the accented trumpets synchronize with his footsteps, giving the music a march-like effect commonly associated with Western military bands.

DP: Exactly, I think the music conveys that Western assimilation (and digression from ethnic tradition) helps to break individual limitations. In one instance, Tevye exclaims that the most important men in town will “fawn on me” as his arms are lifted widely in the air, and the orchestral accompaniment aggressively matches their note lengths with his syllabic delivery. Here, Tevye wishes to exude control over other people; the camera angle (which is below Tevye) adds to the notion of belittlement of other men. Through these moments of singing and dancing, we begin to understand that Tevye feels condemned/restricted by his socioeconomic status; he concludes that wealth will solve his problems, grow his confidence, and allow him to exemplify the man that he believes he is meant to be. Moreover, Tevye demonstrates how he feels confined by his trade and intellect; as a product of Jewish ethnic tradition; Tevye was “destined” to be nothing more than an illiterate dairy farmer. In a sense, Tevye’s circumstance is a product of such a system, yet he craves/yearns to become more of himself.

NV: “If I Were a Rich Man” is a great number and gives the viewer insight into how Tevye is held back by his life and tradition and wishes for more. While it is a fun and entertaining song it definitely has some deeper meaning behind it. 

DP: Right, and although Tevye is undoubtedly one of the more tolerant people in the village, he still has limits. As a man devoted to his religion, there are some changes that he cannot allow himself to accept. Everyone has a line that they cannot cross, right?

NV: Yes, we see how ethnicity can inhibit one through Tevye’s reaction to Chava marrying Fyedka. I think that it was very strong of Chava to follow her heart and marry Fyedka even though he is not Jewish, but Tevye does not feel that way. It is clear that Tevye loves Chava particularly in the song “Chavaleh” where he sings about how sweet and wonderful of a child she was. However, this love for his daughter is not enough for him to accept that she has married someone outside of their culture. We see Tevye having an internal debate about whether he should deny everything he believes in and embrace Chava and Fyedka or if he should deny his daughter and stay true to tradition. He determines that he cannot turn his back on his faith and his people and chooses to abandon his own daughter. Chava tries to speak with Tevye and reason with him but he replies by aggressively screaming “No, Chava, no!” at her as she pleads with him. As he walks away, Chava sobs with her head in her hands, showing how hurt she is that her father will not accept her. This scene takes place with wide empty fields in the background, which I think is a great design choice showing the isolation that Chava feels now that she is no longer accepted in her family and culture. It is upsetting to see that Tevye prioritizes strict religious and cultural traditions over his own family in this situation. While it is great that ethnicity and religion can bring community and belonging to people, it can also result in isolation and heartache to those who do not fit the mold. I think that this instance in Fiddler on the Roof can resonate with many people who are not accepted by their families because they do not conform to their values. Particularly, I think this situation with Chava and Tevye parallels the experience of many LGBTQ+ people who are not accepted by their families because their religion does not support same-sex relationships. I think that people should always value the love of their family over all else and it is upsetting when families disown their children because of who they love. This theme in Fiddler on the Roof is prominent in the setting of the story but is also very applicable in modern society. 

DP: That’s a really interesting point; although exemplified through ethnicity in this musical, people of today are still bound by the collective norms of the past. Some scenes within the musical attempt to reflect a rise in individualistic expression (breaking the “mold”) within the ethnic community, yet the group’s collective identity holds them back. This can be seen towards the end of the wedding scene in Act 1. Traditional to these religious weddings, it’s a sin to dance with the opposite sex. As Perchik, the forward-thinking “radical” among the community, offers his hand to Hodel, the community is both appalled and flabbergasted; never before had they considered the notion of choosing one’s partner. Tevye, the most sympathetic and open-minded of the Jewish community, then chooses to dance with his wife, as the rabbi mentioned such actions were not strictly prohibited; the rabbi even agrees to share a dance with Hodel as they “hold hands” together through a handkerchief. As the community begins to accept this practice, there is quite a dramatic shift in the musical background. In particular, Jerry Bock’s music adopts a significant accelerando; the melody played by the violin becomes increasingly disjunct, shrill, and explosive. This shift parallels the increase in self-expressionism through the dance; the rabbi furiously shakes his hands in the air (to the point where I first thought he was having a seizure); he (almost) physically cannot handle this revelation of personal freedom. However, this brief hiatus of bending ethnic regulations ends as the Russians ride into the village, performing a “demonstration” (also referred to as a pogrom) by destroying property and personal possessions. Once again, the religious common denominator overshadows self-expression and identity, further establishing the group’s inferiority within society. 

NV: One thing that I found particularly interesting about the wedding scene was how shocked everyone was when Perchik proposed a dance but how welcoming they were of the idea when the rabbi said it was not a sin. In this instance, you can see how much the community relies on rules and the verdict of their rabbi, as they were only willing to participate in the dancing if the rabbi confirmed that it was acceptable. 

DP: To add to that, Tevye even directly acknowledges the importance of ethnic tradition/rules through his description of his dream to Golde. Attempting to convince her that Motel Kamzoil is the perfect husband for their daughter, he details how both Golde’s grandmother Tzeitel and Fruma-Sarah, Lazar Wolf’s late wife, are strongly opposed to the idea of Tzeitel and Wolf’s marriage. This completely changes Golde’s perception, illustrating once again just how much the influence of the past affects the direction of the future. Even the production design, consisting of an eerie graveyard, ghost-like clothing, and copious amounts of cobwebs, parallel the aged and mystical nature of their ethnic tradition. In a sense, Tzeitel’s ability to marry Motel is determined by the past; her sense of individuality (in marrying whom she chooses) is undercut by the approval of those whose opinions are deemed important. Personally, I don’t think I have ever been required to adhere to such a strict and group-oriented set of regulations (at least not within the past several years). My ability to choose for myself has allowed me to create my personalized identity, granting me a degree of freedom and uniqueness unaccustomed to those practicing Orthodox Judaism within this musical.

NV: I feel the same way! I have never been held back by such firm rules or have been a part of a strict group or community. I feel very lucky to have the ability to form my own identity and live with so many freedoms. 

DP: Me too! I often take this liberty for granted. Well, I really enjoyed discussing this musical with you! You brought up several interesting points, including the daughters’ difficulties with Jewish ethnic tradition as well as the loss of identity through Tevye’s refusal to adhere to drastic traditional changes. Alternatively, I examined the ways in which tradition hinders personalized, independent growth through the implications of societal constructs and collective identity. Ultimately, the lack of progressivism and religious variation condemn this ethnic group to the flaws of past generations. As society advances and places a greater emphasis on independence and a sense of self, the ritualistic practice of ethnic dedication can undermine such developments.

2 thoughts on “Fiddler on the Roof: How Ethnicity Molds Identity

  1. Hi guys! I really enjoyed your discussion of Fidler on the Roof! You guys did such a good job at really analyzing the family dynamics, as well as how their Jewish identity plays apart of every part of the character’s lives. I especially loved your analysis of the wedding scene as well as how well you highlighted the complexities of all the characters, especially Tevye.


  2. I really enjoyed this project! I was drawn in to read this because it had similar points that we included in my groups project so it was super interesting to see the same ideas from other’s points of view. I liked the analysis of tradition and how big of a role it plays in the characters lives. I also found it fascinating that you included so much about the intersection of religion, tradition, ethnicity, gender, and family. Great job!


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