How the Nuances of Jewry, Modernity, and Gender Intersect in the Ensemble of Fiddler on the Roof
by Schuyler Kresge
20,261 performances. That stunningly large integer is the estimated number of times that Jerry Brock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein’s 1964 work Fiddler on the Roof has been performed since its initial Broadway run (Silver et al). Known internationally as one of the most prolific musicals in history, the show captures life in a shtetl (small Jewish villages that were predominantly located in Eastern Europe) during the early twentieth century.
While 20,261 consecutive performances of any work is jaw-dropping regardless of context, what underscores the triumph of Fiddler is that it is uniquely Jewish in a way that few other musicals in the popular canon are. More than simply having elements or tropes of Judaism as seen in other musicals featuring Jewish characters, Fiddler on the Roof is steeped in Judaism in a way that threatens to make it inaccessible. In order to combat this and fully engage unfamiliar audiences in the shtetl of Anatevka, Brock, Harnick, and Stein deftly employ the Jewish subgroup of Fiddler’s ensemble. By presenting audiences with the issues of belonging and modernity directly through the ensemble’s Jewry (collective Jewish identity), Fiddler allows audiences to understand the core themes of generational conflict regardless of their background. In doing so, Fiddler adaptations, specifically Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation for this analysis, open themselves up to critiques regarding the roles of gender in Orthodox Jewry. However well-meaning these critiques are, they remain founded upon audiences’ flawed understandings of the nuances of Jewry. While the Jewish portion of Fiddler’s ensemble serves a crucial role in a gentile audience’s accessibility to Fiddler’s Jewry, the ensemble also provides an easy target for accusations of problematic gender roles despite the reality that the rigid gender structure represents Anatevka and Judaism writ large‘s fervent attempt at defending from increasing antisemitism.
In order to understand how the shtetl Jewry found in Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble is empowering rather than oppressive, it is important to first appreciate the significance of how the Jewish sub-ensemble engages tradition and belonging throughout Fiddler on the Roof. More than any other dominant surviving religion, the concept of belonging and codification is absolutely absolutely essential to Jewish community. Since Judaism’s founding over 3,500 years ago, dominant groups ranging from the Ancient Egyptians to Revolutionary-era Russians like those of Fiddler have incessantly persecuted both Judaism as a religion as well as Jews as an ethnic group. In response to these attacks, Jews leaned into the only thing they could carry with them as their oppressors destroyed their physical property and forcibly dispersed their communities— their traditions. To early twentieth-century shtetl Jews like Tevye and the characters of the Fiddler ensemble, actively engaging in tradition is a mitzvah. While non-Jews may recognize the word mitzvah from attending celebrations like b’nai/b’not mitzvahs (the plurals of bar and bat mitzvah), halachah (the cumulative Jewish law) defines mitzvot with the heavy weight of actions commanded of Jews by G-d. Put simply, engaging in tradition and defining belonging by faithfulness to halachah is simultaneously required by G-d and the historical geopolitical treatment of Jews. It is this perspective of the level of religious importance that many audiences lack when attempting to understand belonging and gender roles in Fiddler.
As such, while the defined gender roles outlined in the beginning of Fiddler may appear problematically patriarchal, the ensemble willingly engages them, and freely leave (albeit with some controversy) if they choose to disengage with tradition. Yes, to Fiddler’s Jewish sub-ensemble, belonging is dictated by halachah. And yet, it is the willing consent and dialectical engagement of the ensemble that makes Jewry in Anatevka a safe space, not an oppressive one. This can be best seen in the opening number, “Prologue / ‘Tradition’”. In “Prologue / ‘Tradition’”, Tevye welcomes the audience to Anatevka by presenting the eponymous “fiddler on the roof”’s attempts to play while avoiding falling as analogous to the shtetl’s attempts to survive and be Jewish in a world of antisemitism. As the camera shows the sharply-defined gender rules in Anatevka, the Jewish population extols the value of tradition in song. The design elements of this scene deliberately support this idea of gendered belonging, as the audience sees the genders segregated throughout this montage. While these strict gender separations seen through Fiddler on the Roof’s ensemble during “Prologue / ‘Tradition'” seem to support a casual audience’s belief that shtetl Jewry is oppressive, a close reading of Tevye’s words once again provides a Judaism-aware audience the context to understand the flaws within this argument. As Tevye relates life in Anatevka to the roof fiddler, he answers his own question, stating “how do we keep our balance?…Tradition!” When placed in the context of mitzvot and halachah outlined above, it is evident that tradition is a matter of survival and necessity to Fiddler on the Roof’s Jewish ensemble, forming belonging and community, not oppression.
Just as “Prologue / ‘Tradition’” serves as an attempt to show a a community with immense trauma bound together through tradition, Tevye’s monologues act as check-ins on the extremely unique way in which halachah interacts with societal progression and modernity. While halachah is regarded as the law of G-d, there is also an understanding within Judaism that G-d’s will works out, even in the rare event that it appears to be in opposition with halachah. As such, there are critical moments in Jewish culture where tradition is overlooked in favor of what is considered an act of G-d. It is in this “grey zone” that much of the generational conflict of Fiddler occurs. By understanding that these conflicts are, essentially, scholarly textual debates, the role of belonging in Fiddler’s ensemble makes even more sense.
When Tevye monologues, briefly reprises the “Tradition” leitmotif, or talks directly to G-d after his daughters rebel against tradition, Tevye is attempting to work out whether or not his daughters’ actions are G-d’s will or a pure violation of halachah. Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein underscore the importance of tradition in belonging to Jewry in Anatevka through the contrast between how Tevye copes with Hodel and Chava’s different choices in marriage. The key difference between the Hodel-Perchik and the Chava-Fyedka marriages is that despite his radical nature, Perchik is a Jew whereas Fyedka is a Gentile. As such, when Hodel and Perchik announce their marriage plans regardless of Tevye’s permission, while there is controversy, they are permitted to remain in the ensemble community because they have not violated any of the “requirements” for belonging. While Tevye initially states “I’ll lock her up in her room” (2:03), he quickly comes to the understanding that the halachic tradition of patriarchally-arranged marriages is being overwritten by the will of G-d and vocalizes this recognition when he compares G-d’s matchmaking of Adam and Eve to Hodel and Perchik in the very same sentence. In stark distinction to Tevye’s reaction to Hodel’s engagement, Tevye simply cannot abide by Chava’s choice of partner. In abandoning halachah entirely, no moral grey zone of debate between halachah and G-d’s will exists. To Tevye, Chava has made the conscious choice to abandon the traditions that comprise the identity of Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble. Any potential for misconceptions regarding whether or not Tevye still cares for Chava are settled when he asks Tzeitel to pass on a final goodbye at the end of Act II. Once again, a close reading of the words Tevye employs is helpful in understanding the importance of belonging in the ensemble of Jewry in Anatevka. When Tevye says “and God be with you” (2:54), he is opening up beyond the halachic traditions that have protected Anatevka’s Jewish community at a time they are under direct attack. This incredibly touching moment shows how Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein employ Jewry and Judaism to represent belonging and community in such nuanced ways that non-Jewish audiences might perceive them as toxic or problematic.
Undeniably, the Jewry expressed in Fiddler on the Roof is antiquated in contrast to the hypermodern Judaism that most Westerners are familiar with. The roles of gender within the community of Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble are codified and firm. However, a strong reliance on tradition and rigid gender boundaries does not make a system inherently toxic, especially considering the intricate nuances of the ensemble’s Jewry. Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein consistently go out of their way to signal that Anatevka’s Jewish ensemble is insular and homogenous in community as a protective measure, a measure the Russian ensemble proves necessary with attacks via pogroms. Furthermore, Tevye (representative of the patriarchs of the ensemble) shows the ability to modernize contingent upon a belief that G-d permitted the advancement. For a deeply Jewish community, this is a powerful display of trust that non-Jewish audiences can under-appreciate. Finally, it is helpful to take a moment to acknowledge that the nuances of Judaism’s role in Fiddler on the Roof can be incredibly challenging to understand. There are many moments within Fiddler where I struggled to comprehend the halachic motivations behind seemingly regressive gender roles within the Anatevka shtetl, and I am a practicing and active Jew. However, a work as impactful as Fiddler deserves a good faith analysis of the intersection of Jewry, modernity, and gender within Fiddler to properly recognize how that intersection impacts community and belonging within Fiddler on the Roof.
(JTA), Stephen Silver, et al. Some Say ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Has Been Staged Daily since 1964. Covid-19 Ended It. 21 June 2020, jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/some-think-fiddler-on-the-roof-staged-every-day-since-1964-covid-19-ended-it/. (Used to calculate the number of performances, along with a calculator)