How to Balance Culture and Other Themes in Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) examines the shifting nature of culture and tradition seen through Jewish heritage.  The musical focuses on Tevye, a milkman, and his family as they try to maintain their traditions as outside influences disrupt customs related to marriage. At the same time, their community grapples with ongoing threats of religious, ethnic, and social persecution at the hands of the Czar.

We’ve chosen to approach these topics in the form of an interview. Each paragraph centers around a thematic question stated at the beginning in bold. 

What role does dance play in portraying Jewish culture during the wedding party scene? What makes the bottle dance uniquely engaging and representative of this?

Weddings are a display of culture and the marriage between Tzeitel and Motel is a beautiful portrayal of Jewish traditions coexisting with inevitable generational change during a moment of celebration.  The wedding party scene is full of dancing and joyful, but also traditional, music with the bottle dance catching the attention of both the audience and other characters in the scene. Dancing is an important characteristic of wedding parties but as this scene in Fiddler on the Roof showcases Jewish weddings involve dancing that is collective and an ensemble performance. Traditionally men and women dance separately in lines and holding hands and moving their arms and legs in sync. The invitation of Tzeitel’s sister’s boyfriend to have the women dance with the men prompted another case of breaking with tradition. This was very symbolic because a wedding ceremony symbolizes a connection to one’s cultural heritage and a following of tradition but adapting that tradition to fit with the nuanced evolution of modern generations. 

The bottle dance is a favorite among fans of the show and this can only be described by the adrenaline rush of watching the dynamic moves of the dancer while balancing a wine bottle on top of their head. The dance begins with one man but slowly more men join into the festive dance that must be a distinct and special dance, characteristic of a Jewish wedding or moments of enormous celebration. The dance requires high amounts of skill especially when the dancers are squatting up and down while moving forward in a line.  This dance is seen as a representation of Jewish culture because traditional ensemble dances performed at weddings can signify Jewish culture and resemble an appreciation for cultural practices.        

How does the musical’s first number, “Tradition,” serve to ground the reader in the world and the culture of the musical?

Fiddler on the Roof opens with the musical number “Tradition” and the beginning words of Tevye serve to ground the audience in both the themes of the musical and also the issues that threaten those themes, “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.” Tevye explains the social roles of the family unit and the other members of the community and how adhering to these traditional roles maintains balance and a continuation of their Jewish heritage. Tevye goes on to explain the daily habits and customs which are unique to Judaism and the cultural traditions that have kept balance for their community over many generations. It is also during this number that the audience is introduced to the setting of Anatevka, their small village in Russia. As the song goes on the camera moves through the village to different jobs being done by the other village members, there’s a nature of the collective entity and a society where the commitment of each member to their specific role is what makes the village successful. It shows only men working in town and then switches to the women singing “how to make a proper home” while bathing their young children. It is clear that the established traditions in Anatevka are rooted in the expected roles of individuals that help support the collective society.  These roles expand across gender, age, and religious commitment.       

How does Topol’s portrayal of Tevye embody the theme of the importance of both maintaining and adapting culture?

Topol’s portrayal of Tevye as a leader both within his family and his community and is highly respected. He is the embodiment of wanting to maintain balance through the tradition of Jewish culture. He is a poor man but generous and full of wisdom, it is through his character that the audience is introduced to how important the many cultural practices are to supporting their village and the people that make it up.  His struggle during the musical is to find matches for his daughters to marry and during these scenes, Tevye both upholds Jewish tradition and also adapts to generational gaps that are affecting culture.  He is hesitant when the butcher wants to marry his daughter Tzeitel because he is uneducated but Tevye agrees because he believes Tzeitel will be well fed and cared for. Tevye and his wife Golde had an arranged marriage just like many others before them, It was a way to guarantee a match that would provide financial support and security. The people of Anatevka respect the matchmaker but younger generations are being influenced by love and emotions rather than agreement-based marriages. Tevye’s love for his daughters runs just as deep as wanting to maintain his old way of life and when Tzeitel is sure that a miserable life would follow if she were to marry the butcher Tevye does not force her to. At the beginning of the musical, the audience would be quick to assume that Tevye is stubborn in his views but as much as he can pass on the significance of Jewish traditions to his children they can also teach him that change is inevitable and doesn’t constitute a loss of culture.  

How does Yente’s role in the community both keep tradition and also push younger generations to adopt new attitudes and views on their Jewish culture? 

Yente upholds the tradition of matchmaking, which is important because it matches people based on the safety and financial stability that men can provide for their wives amid constant poverty and anti-Semitic attacks. However, the dissatisfaction of young people such as Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava with their pool of potential matches pushes them to become involved with other boys and men out of romance and love, even when they may not be as well off as far as finances or safety go as they could be with Yente’s choices for them. 

This shift to marrying for love has its fair share of negatives as well. It creates a divide between the daughters and the older people in the community, including their parents. For Tzeitel, it also creates tension between her father and Lazar Wolf, the man Tevye promised Tzeitel to before she said that she wanted to marry Motel instead. These rifts, particularly those within the family, are exemplified by Hodel having to decide whether to stay with her family or go to Siberia to be with Perchik. Her decision to leave the community and go to Perchik signals the shift from traditional values and ways of forming marriages to new attitudes that value love and romance.

How is the dream-like state Tevye goes into during his performance of “If I Were a Rich Man” along with lyrics emulate the influence poverty and class have on him and his family? 

Tevye’s fantasizing about life with “a small fortune” shows how much more security and freedom he and his family would have if they weren’t living in poverty. He focuses a lot on how he would treat Golde and how happy she would be if they were better off, doing things like “supervising meals to her heart’s delight.” One of the moments in the song that I found most touching was when Tevye is reflecting on how, if he didn’t have to work all the time, he could join the wealthier men and spend his days praying and studying scripture, strengthening his relationship with God.

However, it’s also a great sign of strength that he is able to get so fully immersed in this fantasy he’s imagining for himself and be so happy with it, even for just a little while. Even while living in such difficult circumstances and having to constantly toil just to make ends meet, he isn’t defeated. He still has an incredibly vivid imagination and optimism, and his faith and his conversations with God are a big part of that, so it’s no coincidence that it’s one of those conversations that leads into the song.

In what musical numbers do we see Tevye’s daughter’s feeling trapped by traditions and how does the experience and sound of the songs feel different from the numbers performed by the older members in the community, or even their father? 

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is the first number that comes to mind here. At first, Tzeitel is complaining about matches being made for her, while her younger sisters, Hodel and Chava, are dreaming about getting married to the man of their (and their parents’) dreams. However, as Tzeitel points out the realities of less-than-picture-perfect matches, they become as afraid as she is and beg not to be married to someone chosen for them by someone else. The song has a waltz feel and is a very light, carefree melody that fits the choreography and scenery of singing it as they go about their household chores (which prepare them for being a good wife and homemaker). It’s very Americanized and modern, using a full orchestra with strings, brass, and woodwinds rather than instrumentation, harmonies, and melodic structures that are more traditional to Jewish culture, as in songs such as “Tradition” or “If I Were A Rich Man,” which are sung by older members of the community, and especially Tevye.

by: Meredith Salmon & Courtney Ellis

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3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. So great! I really loved the point you made in your ending paragraph about “Matchmaker” being a very Westernized waltz as opposed to many other traditionally-oriented numbers that follow the cultural norms in Anatevka. I hadn’t thought about it in that way before. I thought this was really thoughtful, really great points!

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  2. Meredith, I really loved your entire essay! One of the parts that really stood out to me was how you acknowledged that the musical number “Tradition” sets the scene for what the different roles are for the Jewish people within this community. For people who are unfamiliar with this Jewish culture, I think that this song is very important to gaining a general understanding of the community. Another part of your essay that I thought was very engaging was talking about the number “If I were a rich man”, and how that interacts with a conversation about class.

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  3. I really enjoyed this! I thought it was so valuable when you brought up positives and negatives of matchmaking and marrying for love. I think often people fall into the trap of assuming the negative about things that are foreign and new to them, but the points you made really help to keep that from happening. Awesome job!

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