Fiddler On the Roof and Tradition

Maya Mondlak Reuveni
October 3, 2015

Tradition. What is tradition? I find it ironic that I am standing up here, talking about tradition as a Jewish girl becoming a Bat Mitzvah, when generation after generation has believed that a girl was not to have a Bat Mitzvah. If I were standing here even fifty years ago, it would be considered that I am breaking tradition.

Fiddler on the Roof is a play about a father, Tevye, who lives with his wife, Golde, and their five daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze, and Bielke. The story takes place in the early 1900’s in a small town in Russia called Anatevka. In this story, Tevye has to deal with many challenges in his life such as poverty, his daughters growing up, and their desire to love who they want, not who their father wants. For me, the main themes in Fiddler on the Roof are tradition and breaking tradition.

Throughout the story, you witness the daughters breaking with tradition. For example, wanting to marry a man who Tevye does not approve of is a topic that comes up a lot. Another is the girls loving someone, but knowing it’s not okay to love them. As I thought about this some more, I realized that this can relate to modern times. People still can’t always love who they want to love. For instance, until recently, there were many places where gay marriage was not allowed and even gay relationships are not acceptable.

As much as I love this play for its humor, I also have a personal connection to it. When my mom was a little girl, her mom was in a production of the play in Spanish, because at the time they lived in Mexico. She played Chava, and my mom remembers going over the lines with her mom, to help her rehearse for the show. This brought back memories of my mom and me sitting in our living room, when I was around five or six, and watching my grandma put on skits for us that I couldn’t understand at the time. For the past four summers, I’ve acted in a musical theater camp, along with two of my best friends at the JCC (Jewish Community Center). A few summers ago we performed the musical Fiddler on the Roof. I was cast as Hodel, the second oldest daughter. It was quite a learning experience for everyone in the play because it gave us a different perspective about what life was like back then. Playing Hodel was especially interesting when she fell in love with someone who her father disapproved of. However, Tevye finally gives Hodel and Perchik his blessing, signifying that Hodel is allowed to love Perchik.

Throughout the story, Tevye experiences his daughters growing up and changing, and he constantly debates with himself about what is right and what is wrong. He asks himself, should he let Tzeitel marry Motel, a poor tailor, when there is no way to know if he will be able to provide for her? However, he would make her extremely happy. Or, should he force her to marry Lazar Wolf, a very rich butcher who will be able to provide everything for Tzeitel. If he did, her happiness would be at risk and she could resent him for her entire life. Since Tevye is the father, according to tradition he has the biggest say in who his daughters potentially marry. However, he seems to constantly forget that there is one more very important voice in this decision. Golde! It’s so amusing to watch Tevye and Golde debate whether they should to stick with tradition, or let their daughters be happy, and put aside tradition. As much as Golde has every right to voice her opinion, Tevye never seems to care about what she, the girls’ mother, has to say.

Throughout the entire story, tradition guides Tevye, but it also stands in the way of important decisions that can risk his daughters’, and other people’s happiness. Tradition is very important to Tevye because it gives him a sense of community, and secures a metaphorical Jewish “circle”. Many people felt that they had to keep their Jewish tradition strong, to feel secure. This is a reason Tevye was so furious with Chava that he considered her dead to him, when she ran off with a boy who was not Jewish, after he told her she was not allowed to see him. Until that happened, none of the daughters had broken with tradition. None of them had run off with a person who they loved who was not Jewish, and none of them had fallen in love with someone their father did not approve of. The metaphorical circle had been broken.  At this point, Chava was a great disappointment to her father, as well as to others who believed tradition came before love.

As part of the preparation for writing this essay, my mentor, Amy, and I read the original story of Tevye the Dairyman, by Shalom Aleichem, which was the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof. At one point in the story Tevye says, “Anyone can be a nincompoop, but being a woman helps.” Most of you here today know me very well, so you know that feminism is something that is very important to me, and I consider myself a feminist. I’m sure that you can imagine how angry I was hearing this stupidity. For anyone reading this story, seeing the play, or watching the movie, it doesn’t take much to see the inequality that is shown between men and women. Of course, this story did take place a very long time ago, when there wasn’t much awareness of feminism.  The daily routine for a woman at this time was simple. Wake up in the morning, kiss your husband goodbye on his way to work, and make sure your daughters are awake and ready for a busy day working around the house. Cleaning, cooking, and if you have young children, caring for them as well, and making sure your husband and children eat something before bed. If you asked Tevye, I’m sure he would say this was a much easier task than milking the cows, making cheese, and selling it. And I’m sure, even today, one or two people here would say it was, too. However, does this mean that we can give no credit to the women? Was their only responsibility in life to have children, and look after the house?

As much as Fiddler on the Roof is mainly focused on Jews, and Jewish customs, it’s also a universal story. People all around the world can relate to it in their own way. While researching Fiddler, I found that many different countries have performed this play in different languages such as, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi, and many more from all around the world. As I watched different scenes from the play in different languages on YouTube, I asked myself one simple, yet extremely complicated question: Why is it that people can relate so easily to this story, when really, their lives are completely different from the characters’ lives? I started thinking of a few different possibilities, which really could have made sense, but I still wanted to think about it some more. After I re-read this paper, I realized that Tevye deals with many challenges in his life, and so does every single person on this planet.  Of course, not in the exact same ways, considering the very different time period, but the struggles are mostly the same. Money problems, children growing up and getting married, and all the challenges that people face every single day.

This brought me to answering my question. The answer might just be that people relate to this story because, whether they speak Japanese, Spanish, Hindi, or any other language, they go through what Tevye and his community experience. Maybe connecting to these universal life challenges provides them with a sense of comfort. Putting religion aside, could it be that we might reach a point in our lives when we all feel like a version of Tevye? Feeling what he felt when he saw Hodel get on the train and leave her childhood and family behind forever, experiencing the anger he experienced when Chava didn’t follow his wishes. Or maybe at some point in your life you’ve felt like Golde. Having your opinion completely disregarded by someone, in this case Tevye. Or you might even feel like Tevye’s horse. Being used for work, day after day, with a big weight on your shoulders. No matter who we are, or what our story is, we all have something in common with characters in Fiddler on the Roof.