By: Kacy Jones (the token goy on the Hillel Jewish Life Committee)
The simplistic plot of Fiddler on the Roof in five words would go something like: tradition, family, love…pogroms…exile? Historically, not an unexpected twist, but a truly heartbreaking one as the show places viewers alongside Tevye and we follow life as he does – loving with him, learning with him, and, eventually, leaving with him. We experience firsthand the acceptance the community finds in new expressions of cultural values and people foreign to their belief system. Though the Jewish men and women of Anatevka should not be expected to be kind to their oppressors, they make a point to not rock the boat between cultural divides out of kindness and fear of harm. However, this outpouring of love and goodness from the Jews is not reciprocal and the respect they give is met with purely racially motivated violence and death – physical death from outside antisemitism and the looming Holocaust, as well as death of their lifestyle. It’s perhaps surprising that the quintessential musical celebrating the beliefs and open-mindedness of Eastern European Jewish culture ends with the characters being stripped of their identity as they’re forced to move to countries that will refuse to acknowledge their religion and ways of life, but when you’re the minority, you don’t get to choose when and how you belong.
For the Jews in Anatevka, there is no right way to belong. Sure, Fiddler on the Roof, specifically the 1971 movie musical by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein and directed by Norman (Not-Actually-A)Jewison, starts with a song called “Prologue/‘Tradition’,” but the musical makes clear that these are traditions that can be altered if anyone wants to do things differently. It’s also a bit of a joke, as Tevye posits that the papa has “the final word at home,” but he invents wild schemes so that his wife Golde will accept his opinions and he always lets his daughters do what they wish. This is not to say that tradition does not have a place in Eastern European Judaism or in Fiddler. It does, as shown by many of the main characters and the Jewish ensemble. The main characters also change certain customs, but tradition is not the enemy of change and neither is depicted as being more valid than the other. Golde married Tevye via a matchmaker and yet they still have a loving marriage and wonderful partnership full of respect. In the song “Do You Love Me?” we learn that Golde is very happy with the life she has created, in the same way her daughter Tzeitel is, despite the fact that Tzeitel found love with Motel rather than marrying Lazar Wolf. Tevye’s anger at Tzeitel does not come from a place of sticking to tradition only, but from a place of care and concern for his daughter. He wants her to live comfortably in a way he could not provide for Golde, but once Motel says Tzeitel will not starve, Tevye relents. Similarly, the initial concerns Tevye has for Hodel’s marriage also come from a place of fatherly love rather than nonexistent overbearing religious and cultural values. Hodel plans to get married with or without her father’s consent, which breaks convention, and then she moves away from their insular community, which could be dangerous, but her father simply asks her to stay Jewish, and therefore still herself and safe, and asks God to keep her warm. Hodel also doesn’t go to Siberia in order to leave her culture. She expresses sadness about all of the things she must leave behind, but she goes for love. This is not depicted as heroic or more important than what Tzeitel or even Golde have done. It is simply a choice, one Hodel is free to make, as is everyone in the town while still belonging to Jewish culture and to each other.
This bond between custom and innovation is encapsulated in Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding scene where each member of the ensemble creates their own way of celebrating their culture, while not invalidating anyone else’s. Lazar Wolf’s anger at not being able to marry the 19 year old of his choosing aside, the rest of the community is happy to support the couple and the family at the wedding. And when Perchik, a man from outside the specific Anatevkan community, encourages men and women to touch and dance, most everyone does. However, again, this is revolutionary in that people who believe unmarried men and women should not touch are dancing together, but it is not portrayed as growth or better than the old way. It is simply a choice one could make and one everyone makes differently. The Rabbi is pulled onto the floor and unknowingly dances with Hodel, but as soon as he realizes, he backs away. Tevye prompts him joyfully to dance and the Rabbi brings out a piece of fabric so that he can dance with the women without compromising his personal beliefs and everyone looks on in glee. Tevye also asks Golde to dance and, when she hesitates, he slaps his hands together and she takes them. Before this clap, Topol’s Tevye gives a very telling glance to God. In it, he seems to convey “I hope I made the right choice. I hope you will not smite me” and then you can see him make the decision that if God will smite him for encouraging men and women to dance, he may as well dance with his wife. So his clap is out of fear for possibly misjudging the balance between tradition and change, but also excitement at something new. These reactions to the dance represent what every Jewish person in Anatevka goes through over the course of the musical. They must find the ways in which they want to embody their values, but they also allow for the new and respect the choices others make.
The Jewish people are incredibly loving and open minded, even to the Russians around them, and yet the wedding scene is broken up by a violent attack from the Constable and his non-Jewish companions. The Jews have done nothing wrong nor have they disturbed their gentile neighbors and yet it is their Star of David marked buildings that go up in flames. The camera lingers on the smirks of the men before they tear the wedding hall to shreds, but during the destruction we are only allowed to see the screams of the victims and the destruction of property. We do not need to see the face of the oppressor as they destroy because this is not a story about how individual men have targeted anger. The Russians are just a racist hive mind, unable to respect other ways of living. Instead, glass shatters and we get a close up of the Rabbi who minutes earlier found joy in change and acceptance, only now his face is appalled at the unexplainable hatred of his peers. Although the Jews were nothing but respectful to those in the village who “make a much bigger circle” and Tevye even formed a close bond with the Constable, it is not enough to save them from the racism of the Russians. When the Constable tells Tevye there is to be a pogrom, Tevye responds “You are a good man. If I may say so, it is a shame you are not a Jew.” The most good a man from outside the Jewish faith in Anatevka can do is let him know of future violence. The bond between the Jews and the Russians is not a symbiotic one. Rather, the Russians have all of the power and they decide under what circumstances the Jewish people can stay there unharmed.
The Jews in Anatevka even try to assimilate to the best of their ability when in public with the Russians, but it does not change how they’re viewed in greater society. In “To Life,” the Jewish men dance traditionally with spinning and high arm movements before being stopped so that the Russians can show off their own cultural dances, backing the Jewish men to the wall. They only invite Tevye in to dance when he is accidentally pushed onto the dance floor and you can see the apprehension in his fellow men when the Russian extends his hand. Topol in his portrayal of Tevye takes the hand with a devilish raise of his eyebrow, a sign that he does not know what is going to happen but he certainly would not be allowed to refuse. The Jerome Robbins choreography that follows (adapted for the screen by Tom Abbott) is not a collaboration between cultures, but a brilliant depiction of coercion and assimilation at play. The Russians rush towards the Jews with kicks and sprints, which are part of their own traditional dances, but take on new aggressive meaning when being performed towards the minority group they hate. The Jewish men eventually go back into their own raised arm dance, while the gentiles snake between their legs. This does not last long, though, and soon the Jews are back to copying the Russian moves. This scene and the choreography explain the power imbalance between the two groups. One group belongs, while the other must pretend to be something they aren’t to fit in and avoid danger for as long as they can.
Fiddler on the Roof is an important look at an oft-misunderstood culture, and spends much of its runtime focusing on both the beauty of the long historical traditions and the willingness of the Eastern European Jewish people to adapt and change when members of the community see fit. The musical takes care to show exactly how the Jewish people belong among each other, which is with respect for differing beliefs and customs, and also depicts how the Jewish community fit within Russia, which is to say it didn’t. Not because of the Jewish community itself, but because the majority group was unwilling to see the humanity of the community right under their noses. The ending of Fiddler where everyone loses not only their personal cultures they’ve worked so hard to cultivate and define, but also lose each other and other living remnants of their way of life is a heartbreaking one. It is proof that belonging within your own community can only get you so far when you are in the minority and that no amount of goodness, love, and respect can save you from hatred from people who do not wish to understand you or see you as an equal.