Tradition! Fiddler on the Roof’s Protection (And Deconstruction) of the Patriarchy

By: Sarah Beth Huntley

From the opening line of the first song of the movie, Fiddler on the Roof  establishes the fact that the entire community works to maintain what they believe is most important: tradition. We see a tight knit community where everyone is involved in everyone else’s business and each high and low in life is felt by the community as a whole as they are bonded over their religious culture as Jews. This story showed some true Jewish traditions, such as in the wedding scene with the canopy and the breaking of the glass and in the opening montages, and beautifully represented the Jewish culture — at least from the outside looking in — except for one thing: the overwhelming presence of the patriarchy. From the way the women are traded around to the overwhelming number of men in the movie, you cannot escape from the power that is tightly held by the men in the community. The worst part is, they pass this off as acceptable because it is seen as “tradition” for tradition’s sake with no plausible reason for why they do things the way they do. This is best summed up in a line by Tevye in which he says “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” We see the men act so intensely about the breaking of tradition in the village, but we also see the community — and Tevye specifically — grow and evolve as the younger generation of women tries to take more control of their destiny. Fiddler on the Roof creates a community in which the characters must uphold Anatevka’s patriarchal ideals and traditions to be accepted, but, through the agency taken by Tevye’s daughters, subsequently evolves to understand how tradition can change with the changing times.

As I watched Fiddler, I was immediately engrossed in the story and found myself silently celebrating each time one of Tevye’s daughters got what they wanted and fuming when Tevye refused to acknowledge Chava. As a Black woman, one of the biggest things I notice in the different types of media I absorb is how the women and minorities are treated. It did not take long for Fiddler to show me that the patriarchy was very alive and present within the village of Anatevka and, although disgusted by it and Tevye’s active participation in it, I still enjoyed the musical and the character of Tevye very much. The real question is why? Why am I able to enjoy a story and a character that is, in hindsight, kind of problematic? 

Change. One thing that Tevye and, in turn, the community was able to do was change. Evolve. Grow. At the beginning of the movie, it would be hard for me to not see Tevye as kind of awful — he literally was bargaining his oldest daughter off to a man close to his age. It was also ironic that he argued for his patriarchal control through the lens of tradition, considering the biggest tradition was the upkeep of his religious faith and throughout the movie we see him fail to recognize religious texts or to go to temple. Throughout the story, however, we see him begin to loosen his grip on this idea of his dictatorial patriarchal status being a necessary tradition. Why does this happen? His daughters, the women of the younger generation. Tevye very obviously loves his daughters and wants what is best for them. At the beginning of the movie, we see him thinking that he knows what is best. However, his love for them and their determination to get what they want is enough to show Tevye the error of his ways (if only it were that easy for all of the patriarchy). Women taking active control of their destiny is what impacts Tevye, and the community as a whole, in their thinking of what is right or wrong and I believe that is a topic that deserves more attention.

In the opening song, there are many troubling things that establish the patriarchal dominance in Anatevka. Before the music even begins, Tevye talks about the people in his community, only referring to them as “he” and “him.” The song further establishes the patriarchy as it describes how the men work and make all the decisions of the home while the women take care of the home and children in order for the men to be able to pray (HUH??). It gets even worse when describing the children. The boys are sent to school and wait for the matchmaker to let them know what girl they are going to marry while the girls learn how to keep a home and wait for their fathers to decide who they will be married to (once again, HUH?). Rather quickly, the absolute power that the men have in opposition to the lack of with the women is established. The women are allowed no agency in their lives while the men have all of it, and with no actual explanation for it besides “tradition.” 

We see the direct impact this system has on women in the community through Tevye’s three oldest daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, specifically in their song in which they sing about hoping the Matchmaker does not match them with someone with whom they were dissatisfied. This song may seem wild to some — as it definitely does to me — because why should they have to wait on the matchmaker to find them someone when it could be someone old and/or abusive? Tradition, of course. Luckily, after this, the three women each decide to take agency over who they spend their lives with — to the dismay of Tevye — and finally gain some control in their lives and prove that not all “traditions” are good.

Tzeitel takes the first step towards change when she and Motel, the poor tailor whom she loves, make a pledge to marry each other. In the words of Tevye, this was “unheard of.” She keeps this from her father, however, because she hopes the matchmaker will match her with Motel in order to stay with tradition. However, she is matched with Lazar Wolf, the old butcher, and has to beg her father not to make her marry him and to instead let her marry Motel. Not only did this show her taking agency and sparking change but we also see this spread to Motel who, inspired by Tzeitel, takes some agency of his own when he fights back against Tevye’s claims that he is nothing. By the end of this scene, Tevye agrees to this, despite the fact that it goes against tradition and we see no pushback from the community in this decision with the entire village still attending Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding and supporting their marriage and life together. Whether Motel and Tzeitel had married or not, there would not have been any issue from the majority of the community. The real upholder of the patriarchal traditions were men like Tevye who felt their status as head of the home to be their only power in life. Still, the whiff of the patriarchy is still present in this situation, for Motel does most of the talking in this argument and it is the masculinity he begins to present in their argument that makes Tevye begin to consider. We’re getting there, though.

Hodel, Tevye’s second oldest daughter, shows a bit more agency than Tzeitel, feeling shepherded on by Tzeitel’s actions with her marriage to Motel. This first happens when she agrees to dance with Perchik, the girls’ teacher, at Tzeitel’s wedding, breaking the tradition of the men and women in the community remaining separated, especially at weddings. She and Perchik take down the barrier separating the two groups and bring them together through dance, urging on the rest of her family members followed by the rest of the community (even the rabbi, which I personally found hilarious). Hodel then takes things a step further when she agrees to marry Perchik and they (or he, because, you know, PATRIARCHY) tell Tevye they are going to be married and would like his blessing. Despite the tradition of first receiving the father’s permission, Tevye once again blesses the match. Whether he had or not, though, Hodel would be taking control of how her life will go, for she planned to go through with the marriage with or without the blessing. Later on in the movie, Hodel goes to join Perchik in Siberia, even though he has not asked her to. She does this based plainly on how she feels about him and her desire to help him in any way she can. Hodel has full control over where she is going and what she is doing and, despite the fact that this “goes against tradition,” she is still accepted by her father and, in turn, by the rest of the community.

Out of all of Tevye’s daughters, Chava pushes the limits of tradition the furthest, by not just going against her father’s patriarchal values, but also against the traditions of Orthodox Judaism with her marriage to Fyedka who is not Jewish. When discussing the idea of marriage, Chava is the one having the conversation with her father, not Fyedka. Unlike her sisters, she takes the most agency in directly addressing her father with what she wants and not taking no for an answer. Instead of submitting to his disapproval, Chava runs off and marries Fyedka, afterwards asking her father to accept them. He is unable to accept them, but not because of the threat of losing his patriarchal power. He is more worried about losing touch with his faith by letting his daughter marry a non-Jew. In the end of the movie, however, we see Tevye acknowledge Chava and Fyedka as they all depart from the village, and this proves how Chava’s opposition to tradition also led to its growth. 

At the end of the day, Tevye, and the community, learned about the importance of love and upholding who you are rather than the outdated traditions performed only because they always have been. Just as in today’s society, Anatevka learned a real lesson about why the patriarchal control of the men in the community held them all (but mainly the women) back from being able to find joy and love in their homes and relationships. All of Tevye’s daughters made the traditions within the community evolve by the end, just as the community as a whole is having to evolve by leaving Anatevka for many different plains. Not only has the community been changed forever, but the new sense of agency within the three young women would lead to their children growing with the notions of independence and freedom of choice (and feminism). The daughters’ lives as well as the community’s determination to uphold who they are despite going to a different place proves how, by the end of the movie, the community has learned that things change and it is not the end of the world, but merely life. The ending marks the collapse of the patriarchy in the community as they all learn to accept the women as individuals who are allowed to have agency over their lives and still be accepted by the community as equals.

Ensembles

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I loved this essay! I think you really captured why Tevye is still so easy to love, despite some of his views. I also think you are touching on the intentions of the source material, Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman when you talk about growth and change. I think their original intention was to show how “traditional” cultures respond to changes in social norms. Overall, awesome work!

    Like

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