by Olivia H.
I have an obligation to preface this essay by saying that I am not Jewish – yet. That is a very personal part of my life which I choose not to share with many people, but I feel somewhat comfortable saying that I have a more than basic understanding of Judaism and a more unique perspective. Naturally, this means that my analysis may be biased to a certain extent (sorry). It’s also important to mention that while Fiddler on the Roof is a solid starter course when it comes to learning about Jewish life, it has an inherent flaw: it’s Ashkenormative, meaning that it only focuses on one particular Jewish cultural subgroup (Ashkenazim) and fails to acknowledge the existence of other Jews (i.e. Sephardim, Beta Israel, Mizrahim, Jews of Color, etc.) Jewish life, especially in the 21st century, looks very different than it did even a century ago.
Consider the “Us versus Them” dynamic: insider versus outsider, normal versus abnormal, accepted versus unorthodox. Jews are part of a minority ethnoreligious affiliation (where genetics are not the sole criteria of belonging, but that’s another topic for a different essay), meaning that in almost every country and community, they are the outsiders. Fiddler flips the script and reverses the dichotomy – gentiles become the “Other” and the audience is the outsiders. Yet somehow we never fully forget that Jews are and have historically been the “Them,” the “outsiders.” Pogroms and the order from the Tsar to leave Anatevka tell us that to be Jewish means to be a part of a global diaspora which is constantly on the move, despite the occasional illusion of stability and belonging in a state which will never love them the way they love it. The Jewish residents of Anatevka love their little shtetl, but they have never truly belonged there, and they will never truly belong to the new places in the United States in Eretz Yisrael (where they move post-edict).
It must be reiterated that Fiddler is a great introduction to Jewish culture, as long as you understand that Fiddler specifically addresses Ashkenazi minhag (or accepted traditions) and a more Orthodox interpretation of halacha (Jewish law). Fiddler is not the first, or the last, movie or TV show to attempt to educate gentiles and Jews alike on Jewish culture. Most recently, the Netflix show Unorthodox gave viewers an inside look at the Satmar Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Fiddler, like the Netflix show, provides us a uniquely Orthodox perspective on community, belonging, interfaith relationships, and gender roles. Everyone, Jewish or Gentile, has an innate understanding of what it means to “belong” to something. What happens when Fiddler is the only source of information one has on what it means to “belong” to a Jewish community? How does this skew the viewer’s perspective on the Jewish patriarchy or various perspectives on interfaith marriage? These questions must be asked because they inform different levels of understanding the quintessential “Us versus Them” dynamic which fuels Fiddler and its resulting popularity.
If you ask any person what the first thing they think of when you say Fiddler on the Roof (in particular, the 1971 Norman Jewison production), odds are they will say either “Tradition”, the Bottle Dance from the Wedding Scene, or maybe “If I Were a Rich Man”. “Tradition” goes through various aspects of everyday Jewish life. We meet Tevye, our hardworking protagonist, as well as other residents of the shtetl. We meet the other members of Tevye’s household- Tevye’s wife Golde and their three daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava. The Bottle Dance, or the entire Wedding Scene, introduces even more key parts of Jewish culture- the importance of weddings, dance, music, and tradition, the glue that holds the community together.“Tradition” is our opening scene, and provides all of our first impressions. People from all backgrounds can find common themes and characters, it makes us feel at home. Most people understand or at least are familiar with the concept of the nuclear family, or a heteronormative nuclear family (husband, wife, 2.5 children, the works). “Tradition” hammers the importance of family into the listener’s ears, citing Jewish familial customs and halachic practices as cornerstones of Jewish society- why one wears tzitzis, how one observes Shabbos, how one lives a so-called “righteous” life.
This concept of family is brought up in the song, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Tevye’s daughters do the household laundry as they go over their own laundry lists of suitable qualities- “for Papa a scholar, for Mama rich as a king.” But by the end of the movie, all three daughters end up with men that were neither chosen by the matchmaker nor approved by Tevye. Tzeitel marries her poor friend Motel, Hodel chooses Perchik, and Chava pairs with Fyedka, a Gentile. The latter marriage is devastating to Tevye, forcing him to mourn the loss of his daughter to what he sees as the ultimate betrayal of Jewish values and law. Tzeitel, the eldest, is the first to marry, spawning one of the most iconic scenes in Fiddler, the Wedding Scene. The men and women are split apart and separated by a cord. The women are clad in bright colors, and the men in a uniform of bekishe and peyos. It’s considered a mitzvah, a commandment or “good deed”, to entertain a bride and groom during a wedding, and the attendees certainly do their best. The men kick up clouds of dust as they perform the Bottle Dance, an act that requires dancers to carry half-full bottles on their heads as they kneel and rise in rapid succession. A plucked string accompaniment follows the first half of the dance, rising to a crescendo that is complemented by crashing cymbals and a clarinet line reminiscent of traditional klezmer music.
So how does Fiddler on the Roof reinforce these “Jewish” elements? We see characters clad in what could be called shabby shtetl chic garb, with a dusty and gritty palette that sets the stage for our introduction to shtetl life. The cacophony of the ensemble actors shows us that life in Anatevka is chaotic yet somehow also harmonious, which is oddly comforting. The storylines of the various characters may change – a widower’s life story is different from a rabbi’s, which contrasts with Tevye’s – but the steady and reliable pace, and tradition, of Jewish life provides stability to the story and history of the Anatevka shtetl. Throughout the musical, we become accustomed to the noise and the grit and we start to feel at home, lulled into a false sense of complacency and peace, until outside events (i.e. the pogrom) throw us off our rhythm and remind us once again that we are just as much outsiders in Anatevka as the Jews are outsiders in Russia, and in the rest of the diaspora at large. I still do not feel comfortable saying that I am Jewish. I honestly don’t know that I will ever feel fully comfortable saying it. I have become acutely aware of what it means to be an outsider in what implausibly feels like home. Fiddler was almost painful to watch because I felt so connected to it, and also so uncomfortably disconnected – perhaps even alienated. We have to ask ourselves what it means to belong, and why there are these boundaries of insiders and outsiders that have been created. We are all Tevye, Golde, Hodel, Tzeitel, and Chava. We are all Perchik, Lazar Wolf, and Motel. Perhaps we are also Fyedka, or even the Constable. Fiddler asks us to initially lean into stereotypes, and then question what we think we know about what it means to be both insiders and outsiders, strangers in a strange land, poor occupants of a small shtetl. Can we ever truly belong? Fiddler would seem to argue that, while we superficially can, at the core, we are all searching to belong.