by: Kira Hinchey
Imagine a community as a stone bridge. Each stone represents a different building block, each essential to the community’s identity. At the center lies the most important part that ties everyone together: the keystone. For many communities, tradition stands as that keystone. Shared traditions connect people to each other and to the past. Some examples include holidays, birthdays, religious traditions, and group ceremonies. But tradition doesn’t just show up, out of the blue, on special occasions. Tradition includes how we interact with each other on a daily basis. Who can talk to whom and who can marry whom. For example, when you address someone older or of higher prestige, you typically address them using “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to acknowledge the traditional social boundaries between you (though, for good reason, our society has begun to phase out gender-specific language like this). When combined, these traditions create a blueprint to help us navigate life in society. Sometimes traditions become outdated; specifically, as we have seen recently in America, those intent on excluding individuals or limiting their life choices based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other core identities. Some traditions stay, some disappear, others evolve. Change serves as the only constant in our lives. And when that change comes, we have to evaluate for ourselves which traditions remain a strong, connecting force that promotes belonging, and which traditions no longer prove useful to us and our loved ones’ happiness.
Fiddler on the Roof, written and revised for the big screen by Joseph Stein and produced by Norman Jewison, explores this internal struggle. Instead of a close-up view of one individual, Fiddler pans out its focus to encompass a small village called Anatevka. In Anatevka, everyone finds their sense of belonging by adhering to religious and traditional roles in society, rooted in Orthodox Judaism. The show utilizes its scenic design, interactions between individuals, and large ensemble performances to establish a sense of community and showcase Anatevka’s cherished traditions. Along the way, Tevye, the town’s milkman, finds himself, as we all do, questioning his community’s traditions when they inhibit his daughters’ happiness. At the same time, he desperately tries to adhere to his community’s standards for belonging.
“Here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof… You may ask, ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can you in one word: TRADITION!” With this opening line, Tevye divulges his community’s top priority. Upholding tradition. At this point, audience members may wonder several things: Well, which traditions? Where do these traditions come from? Suddenly, the show presents the answers to these questions and whisks the audience away to Anatevka through a combination of scenic elements and an ensemble number. Culturally relevant images flash across the screen. Aerial shots switch between horses, carts, and dirt roads and views from inside the synagogue of Yiddish words on Jewish paintings lining the walls, menorah candles, the star of David. Images of a rural village and Jewish symbols intermingle, helping us see that Orthodox Judaism permeates all aspects of their community.
The scene shifts towards the ensemble. Each person in the bustling town performs a designated task. Tevye pours milk for a neighbor, men work on animal skins and weld metal, and women wash clothes and pick feathers off of chickens. All the while, the women sing lines about their societal role as the “Mama” and “Daughter,” and the men sing about their role as the “Papa” and “Son.” What originally looks like mass chaos gets dissected and labeled through the song. An older woman talks to a young girl and her mother. She fulfills the community’s need for a matchmaker. This seems odd to a twenty-first century audience. I, personally, would not want my father to be the sole decider of with whom I spend the rest of my life. But Anatevka exists during a different time. The matchmaker role must provide some type of social cohesion. Otherwise, the role would not exist. Even a hunched-over man dressed in tarnished clothes has an established role as a beggar to play in the village. Right off the bat, the show demonstrates the importance of religion and social role to belonging in their society. For society to accept you, you must accept your role based on your gender and economic status. Oh, and you must be Jewish. As Tevye says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
As the show progresses, Tevye comes to see just how “shaky” life can become. For example, when Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and her childhood love, Motel, tell Tevye they wish to get married, Tevye reacts with outrage and disbelief. His outburst reflects the rigid social structure of their village. He flails his arms and the lovers cringe as he yells, “Arranging a match for yourself? Tell me. What are you? Everything? The bridegroom, the matchmaker, the guests all rolled into one?” This man’s anger comes from a place of fear and outright confusion. Tzeitel and Motel ask Tevye to forgo the traditional use of a matchmaker and allow them to take agency in a way that their societal roles do not allow. It’s crazy. At least to Tevye. However, after a moment, Tevye deliberates on the concept, and for the first time, he realizes that the traditional way of marriage in their village views women as property and would prevent his daughter from finding happiness. So, he chooses to depart from the norm. The tight-knit nature of the village means that his decision has societal consequences. Before this moment, Tevye already verbally promised his daughter, (like a piece of property!), to the town butcher. Because of this decision, his relationship with the butcher grows tense.
Aside from personal relationships between characters, the society’s emphasis on gender roles appears through the choreography of the ensemble during Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding. This scene introduces a traditional Jewish wedding. Yellow rope candles held by the crowd burn as Tzietiel and Motel sip from a chalice. As soon as Motel’s foot meets the glass (“Mazel Tov!”) the crowd absorbs the couple and hoists them on chair to their respective sides of the reception. The women perform small, meak group dances while the men shout, cheer, and push each other around in a circle. The men’s costumes consist of identical black suits, making the individual disappear into the mass. The community welcomes Motel into his role as a husband and Tzietiel to her role as a wife. A rope in the center of the room draws a literal line between the genders. Then, Perchik appears. Perchik, an academic living with Tevye’s family, proposes the two groups dance together. To us Americans, wanting to dance does not seem radical. But members on both sides resist. They even ask the Rabbi if dancing can be considered a sin. He racks his brain and reports that the Torah does not prohibit dancing. Tevye views this decree as permission and decides that he can safely break the separated-dancing tradition. This scene serves as an example of challenging tradition while also respecting it. The rabbi joins the circle and touches hands with one of Tevye’s daughters. Disclaimer: I definitely do not claim to be an expert on Judaism, but I believe the religion prohibits Rabbis from close contact with women. The Rabbi retracts his hand, but instead of shutting down the party, he adapts by extending a cloth to the daughter so that they may dance without physical contact.
Over the course of the production, Tevye grapples with several challenges towards established tradition. By doing so, he discovers the traditions that matter the most to his community. Up to this point, members of his community have mocked and questioned his scandalous decisions, yet they do not oust him and his family from the group. The society retains its unity. Which raises the question: what are the boundaries for questioning social norms? Which element of their shared belonging, if lost, would result in the unraveling of the community? Well, the answer can range depending on the core values of the community. For Anatevka, the core of their community, their keystone, lies in Judaism. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Other religions have persecuted Jewish people throughout history, a specific example being the Christian Russians in Fiddler. In this community, Judaism trumps all other relationships; it provides the strength and unity they need so that other communities don’t run they over.
That is why when Chava, Tevye’s third daughter, elopes with Fyedka, a Russian, Tevye abandons his role as a father and ostracizes her. He permits Tzeitel to choose her husband, but only because Motel is also Jewish. He breaks social norms and dances with his wife at the wedding, but only after the Rabbi confirms that the Torah does not consider dancing a sin. For a group so long persecuted by other religions, their religion means everything. Tevye realizes that if he does not denounce his daughter, his entire family would no longer belong to their community. Without the support of the village, his family would literally starve, especially in such an isolated area such as Anatevka. So, he draws the line at religion.
At this point, we know just how important the community of Anatevka views tradition and religion. The cohesion created by these elements generate so much power, they can force families apart. Using the bridge analogy, the community has sealed its cultural element stones together firmly to religion, if you deviate from Judaism, you will find yourself pushed off into the water below. All the families in the village walk along this metaphorical bridge. And then comes the inescapable change. Near the end of the production, the Russians appear and force Jewish residents to vacate, with threats of violence. It is like the Russians marched up to the Anatevka bridge and said, “This river is ours now,” and bombed the bridge.
The families disperse. Snow covers the homes, now physically and metaphorically empty. Over the course of the production, Tevye fights between his family’s happiness and societal belonging. But once the dust settles, he finds that his cherished community no longer exists. Chava and her husband stop by Tevye’s house to say goodbye. He shuns his daughter until the last moment when he utters, “God be with you.” His previous reasons for ignoring his daughter stemmed from his religious beliefs, but also, arguably more strongly, from his need to belong in his community. Don’t get me wrong, being forced out of your community is horrible, without a doubt. But in this specific instance, it frees Tevye from the social standards. His prescribed role in the community no longer applies. His family alone defines his belonging now. Tevye’s belief transformation in Fiddler speaks to a universal struggle to respect past traditions but also question their worth. All communities have tradition, both spoken and unspoken. But if the community disappears or evolves, or you change, it only makes sense that your notions of tradition and belonging change as well. For Tevye, the community of Anatevka dictated the rules of having Jewish family. But without these imposed standards, he can finally decide for himself how to respect his religion and maintain a happy family. And through this change, Tevye finds the strength to connect with his daughter before heading to America.