A PBS documentary on the making of “Fiddler on the Roof” which I watched days ago revived my fascination for the movie. I hadn’t seen the stage version of the musical, but had viewed the film six times over the years. Definitely, I can watch it again another six times. The story, based on the book by Joseph Stein, weaves around nuances of Jewish culture vortexed on religion and tradition. Quite skillfully, it renders a sensitive narrative about lives intertwined in the Jewish village of Anatevka, a settlement of Imperial Russia in the early 1900’s. Never lacking in artistry, the movie is especially gifted with exceptional music by Jerry Book, song lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and choreography by Jerome Robbins.
Gripping and moving, the story portrays an amicable Jewish community hinged on social customs primed on religion, culture and loyalties. For this blog, I focus on what I believe is the bull’s eye of the story – conflict between love and tradition.
Tevye, father of five daughters, struggles to understand each of his three older daughters’ choice of a husband. Rebels of love, so to speak. Love cramps the long-held custom of matchmaking and parental choice. What the three daughters did is clearly a defiance of tradition. Their choices create a paradox that Tevye attempts to explain to his wife Golda, in awkward though charming exchange bordering on the comical. Not to miss is the anguish of the conflict powerfully revealed in Tevye’s reactions and conversations with God, very engaging and genuinely evocative of his trusting intimacy with the spiritual Abba, a telling relationship that runs the thread through all of the narrative.
Trying not to venture a spoiler for those who haven’t seen Fiddler on the Roof – I mention in a nutshell, the daughters’ choices of their lifetime partners underscore the strain of the demands of tradition on this Jewish family. Rejecting the lure of an economically advantaged life, or the comfort of a familiar home, or acquiescence to a cultural standard to avoid ire – the daughters stray in their own individual ways from the conventional path expected in a tightly-knit society where tradition is the nugget of communal strength.
Love, the culprit of defiance to tradition, is actually much celebrated, not just in sweetly subdued romantic dialogues and episodes effectively and artistically woven into the story. It ejects triumphantly especially in Tevye’s poignant question to his wife Golda, married to him after a customary matchmaking – “Do you love me?” And the touching response, “After 25 years … it’s nice to know.” This, equaled by Tevye’s muffled goodbye to his alienated daughter who married outside the fold, followed with a blessing mumbled under his breath and said during the communal exile when all had to leave Anatevka after the pogrom.
Tradition is generally the niche or comfort zone of any culture. When transgressed or rejected, pain ensues, either for those that left it or those that stayed in the niche. In Fiddler, love is not anathema to tradition, but it definitely puts to a test loyalty to tradition – bearing down the hard decision of how far one can bend to follow the dictates of the heart.
What grips me about Fiddler on the Roof is not just its excellent production, or the rich contrasts punctuated by humor, doubt, cheerful festivities, community resilience, anxieties over political upheavals, not to mention the film’s outstanding performances, music, dance sequences and cinematography. What I’m most impressed with is the way the narrative unfolds — a saga immersed in depths of emotions that span the whole spectrum from stoic contentment, trust, respect, to fear and unravelled uncertainties, though yet with resignation and acceptance. And overriding all these is love – love that dominates and reigns. Love that softens the sharp edges of tradition.