Fiddler on the Roof: Evolution of Tradition through Family

By Cullen Allen and Katie Babbitt

Introduction 

Katie: The Mirisch Production Company 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof masterfully presents the internal conflicts of Tevye, a Jewish father in early 20th century Russia, as he grapples with the clash of his daughters’ happiness with his ties to tradition. His internal struggle is shown in various relationships throughout the musical, and is reflective of a broader trend of evolving ethnic identity in a world that does not always make space for groups of Hasidic Judaism. Each relationship that Tevye encounters strays further from what is the norm in the village as well as in Tevye’s point of view.

Cullen: The challenges and introspection that Tevye faces reflect a universal conflict between the old and the new. The real cultural significance of Fiddler on the Roof is the balance that it strikes between the community created through tradition and heritage contrasting with the ideas of free will and individuality. 

Part 1: Tzeitel and Motel

Katie: The first relationship we are going to analyze is the love and marriage of Tevye’s oldest daughter and how this begins his internal reflection. So Cullen, how do you think the relationship between Tzeitel and Motel caused Tevye to change his perspective about the role of individuality within tradition?

Cullen: So definitely we see the ties to tradition as Tevye initially pledged his daughter to marry Lazar Wolf. When Tzeitel is begging for her father to reconsider in the barn, Tevye presents strong loyalty to his traditions in saying “But we made an agreement and with us, and agreement is an agreement.” These moments of contention between the father and daughter show how tradition can cause inner-family conflict. 

Katie: Right, but when Tzeitel says “Is that more important than I am Papa?” we see a realization occur and his demeanor clearly changes. I feel like he is realizing the impact of his position as a matchmaker and the consequences that his tradition can have for his children.

Cullen: Exactly, this is the first time Tevye is truly deciding the fate of one of his daughters and the actuality of that differs from his understanding of strict tradition. So really we see a conflict arise for Tevye, as he begins to consider the value of individual happiness as a separate force that competes in importance with tradition. 

Part 2: Hodel and Perchik

Cullen: So following Tzeitel and Motel’s marriage, there is the case of Hodel and Perchik. When they announce to Tevye of their intentions to marry, hoping to receive his blessing, he becomes  absorbed in his internal dialogue. The couple make it clear that they will get married regardless of Tevye’s reaction to this news. We see a lot of shock and confliction in Tevye’s reaction

Katie: Yes, we see him go through his typical “on one hand” and “on the other hand” dialogue as he realizes his daughter wants this man. But right after this he is yelling out “Tradition!” towards the sky. Since he is the patriarchal figure in his family, he is used to having to make the best decision for them.

Cullen: In thinking about that, how do these moments of clear internal struggles convey the role and conflict of religion, tradition, and family in Tevye’s personal ruling between right and wrong? 

Katie: I think the quote that stood out most to me was when Tevye says “They decided without parents, without the matchmaker. On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? Oh yes, they did. And it seems these two have the same matchmaker.” He makes a religious reference in comparison to his daughter which is really telling in the way he is trying to deal with his emotions. I feel like he is also trying to balance his strong ties to religion with how he feels about his family, which definitely must be a struggle considering how important tradition is to him.

Cullen: Here I think that Tevye is creating space for his daughter’s will and happiness to work in tandem with principles and pillars of their heritage. The body language that the actor portraying Tevye, Chaim Topol, as he looks to the sky as if he is receiving advice from god himself really connects the character’s experience as a father and a man of his faith. The images of him looking at the sky allow the audience to see this powerful internal conflict of him wanting to be a good father and preserve the heritage of their culture. 

Part 3: Marriage Between Tevye and Golde

Katie: So at this point in the film, Tevye has had to compromise for two of his daughters. One relationship we haven’t mentioned yet is the relationship between Tevye himself and his wife Golde. We know they were matched together and married shortly afterwards. So how do you think the experiences with his daughter’s relationships prompt Tevye to reconsider the role of happiness and emotional satisfaction in his own marriage?

Cullen: I think the performance of “Do You Love Me?” by Tevye and Golde really shows how he is encountering some intense introspection. After discussing the marriage of one of their daughters, the two of them realize that the notion of loving your partner has never come up in the context of their own relationship. Tevye sings, “Golde I’m asking you a question…Do you love me?” They were married through the traditions of match-making and have never really directly considered how their emotions responded to this custom of heritage. 

Katie: Now we see Golde encountering a similar conflict to Tevye, as she sings the line, “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him. Fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” 

Cullen: I think that is really beautiful. 

Katie: Right? Tevye and Golde had a family together based on tradition, and at the same time they fell in love deeply and truly. I noticed how Norma Crane who portrays Golde is seemingly annoyed with Tevye’s questions about their relationship. I think this shows an intersection between gender and religion where typically women in religions are supposed to model behavior after someone meek and obedient who shows little emotion. For example in Christianity, Mary is the model for all women.

Cullen: She also probably feels strongly about Tevye if she’s anything like her daughters who are openly emotional and romantic in comparison to other women in the village. This song and scene really shows us the beauty of their tradition and the love of their marriage even in these times of change and hardship. As a couple, they claim their identity and hold pride in their heritage. Tevye and Golde are an amazing example because we see that love can work in tandem with tradition. 

*long pause of real personal discussion of how much Katie and Cullen love their parents. 

Part 4: Bounded Tradition, Chava and Fyedka

Cullen: Chava’s and Fyedka’s marriage announcement comes with much shock and anger from Tevye because Fyedka is not of the Jewish faith. With his previous two daughters, he has evolved his own perspective, so the viewer expects Tevye to eventually approve of Chava and Fydeka as well. This last daughter really presents a breaking point for Tevye, like when he says, “How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people?”

Katie: Once again, his internal conflict is depicted on the screen, and it is expected that he is about to agree and approve of them. But instead, Tevye says “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand, no. There is no other hand.” I agree that the denial of Chava and Fyedka’s marriage illuminates a breaking point in Tevye. This last relationship is supposed to teach us how deeply interwoven our traditions and culture are in the fabric of our own identity.

Conclusion

Cullen: I think that overall, Tevye’s family teaches us how tradition and relationships really work to preserve culture and create a home for a community. When they are displaced from their village, there is no physical sense of home anymore, so they have to rely on traditional values to continue their community.


Katie: I think that sums up the ending really well. Despite being separated from the physical aspects of their religion, the people in the community cling to each other to fill this space.

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3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I really enjoyed reading your conversation about how Tevye’s family relates to his idea of tradition. Particularly, I think that your conversation demonstrates how family is able to both connect through and challenge other family members’ notion of tradition, so it can bring a family together or create arguments within a family. This is a crucial idea within Fiddler on the Roof because, as you pointed out, the message of the musical is that tradition is what binds a group together. However, in the musical, we see Tevye’s notions of tradition challenged by his three daughters. In order to keep his personal ideals, he must create a rift in his family with Chava. This is how Tevye attempts to balance the connective and destructive nature of tradition within family. He is worried that, without tradition, his entire family and way of life would crumble; therefore, he must cut apart one member of the family in order to keep the rest whole. Your dialogue was very illuminating in discussing the role of tradition and how it conflicted with Tevye’s ideal of family.

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  2. I love the connection you made between tradition and religion. Tevye does not abandon his religion as he stretches the definition of tradition, he simply acknowledges that the boundaries may be less solid than he thought. He still maintains the relationship he has with God and grapples with his questions through spiritual conversations. I thought this was respectful of the story to gift Tevye this consistency. I also liked how this movie allowed Tevye’s journey to affect his own relationship with his wife. He gains a level of introspection that causes him to look back at his own past and the things he has taken for granted. But at the same time that you hope his marriage may benefit from this, we also see the pain that this struggle with tradition brings in the relationship with Chava and Fyedka. Change is slow, and happy endings take time.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading this dialogue, and the analysis is very thorough and intriguing. In particular, I really enjoyed how specific lines of dialogue that were pointed out convey the entire theme of the production. Tevye is constantly trying to make the best choice, and upbringing and circumstance constantly combat each other. I also thought it was really interested how tradition is described as both an inhibitor and an advantage. Although Tevye and Golde’s marriage and love for one another benefitted from the strict confines of Orthodox Judaism, they were not granted the same sense of individuality as the three daughters. Whereas the daughters are no longer afforded the sense of normalcy and predictability that tradition offers, they are granted free will and choice. I also really enjoyed how Katie explained how “interwoven” tradition is into Tevye’s identity through his reaction to Fyedka’s marriage. He views tradition as stability, whereas the daughters view it as condemnation. I think this difference in opinion is very strongly argued in this dialogue through concrete examples and meticulous analysis. Great job!

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