Rabbi Susan Elkodsi

Every single day since its Broadway debut on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has been performed on stage somewhere in the world. Fifty-five years for a musical, from Broadway to Japan, Bensonhurst to Thailand and everywhere in between, Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the milkman have been brought to life. And who can forget the flash mob of “To Life, L’Chayim” staged by Lin Manuel Miranda and his wedding party as a surprise for his new bride?

In the documentary, “Fiddler, Miracle of Miracles,” Miranda is one of the many people who speak about the effects the show has had on its audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Japanese, Dutch, German and many other languages. There’s no question that the musical somewhat romanticizes the stories and the reality … “I think we should leave the US and go back to the shtetl in Russia … said no one, ever! But the characters in the play are human, multi-faceted and relatable.
I was about 10 years old the first time I saw Fiddler, and it was at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. I can’t tell you much about it, or who was in the cast, but I loved the music. The movie with Chayim Topol as Tevye came out in 1971, and the cast included Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker and Paul Michael Glaser as the Bolshevik revolutionary Perchik, who eventually marries Hodel. I’ve seen the movie several times since, and each time, I come away with a new understanding.

When I saw the movie in college, I remember sympathizing with Tevye. Here was a man whose whole life had been turned upside down. Everything he knew to be true and steady was changing, and he had no frame of reference for it. Marry out of the faith? Who did that? Leave the home where you raised your family, where you were raised? Start over again in a new country? Not that life in Anatevka in 1905, barely eking out a living, living with the constant threat of pogroms was a picnic, but it was what they knew.

Tevye’s goals and dreams were simple. Support the family, marry his daughters off to nice Jewish men who would take care of them, and God willing, one day, have the time to sit in the synagogue and pray … and maybe have a site by the Eastern wall. … But not only did God make him a poor man, his horse was lame, and he had no sons. And really, would it spoil some vast eternal plan if he were a wealthy man?

Fiddler on the Roof portrays the universal tension between tradition and modernity; between the need to cling to what has worked for generations while stepping into uncharted territory in a new world. Marry for love instead of security? Put your daughter on a train to Siberia to join her husband? Getting our daughter set up in a condo was stressful enough, thank you very much!

The late Joseph Stein, who wrote the show’s book, recalled his visit to the first production in Tokyo in 1967. He recalled, “Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment. I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’

In its review, the Hollywood Reporter said, “The documentary makes a persuasive case as to why this show – grounded very specifically in the lives of a persecuted Jewish shtetl community in 1905 Imperial Russia – continues to connect deeply with audiences across vast divides of religion, race, generation, personal experience and sexuality. Its layers of meaning to anyone who has ever felt ostracized, felt alone, have cemented its eternal relevance.” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who couldn’t relate to some part of the story from their own personal history.

I never had the impression that Fiddler was intended to make a political statement, but in watching the film and listening to the people who were interviewed, some of whom were involved in creating the show, others who had written books about it, I took away new meaning, and many important messages; perhaps even mandates.

More than 100 years after Fiddler takes place, our global community is facing many of the same issues. We are in the midst of a worldwide refugee crisis because of political upheaval in many parts of the world. People here and abroad are living below the poverty line, making substandard wages, lacking food and access to clean water and basic medical services, and others are caught in the middle of civil war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and invasion.

“Never again” isn’t the message of Fiddler; it’s much more complex than that. In addition to chronicling a bygone time, a family drama that unfolds throughout. In a conversation with a Japanese reporter, Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, said that “The themes of generational conflict, the tensions between holding fast and letting go, the demands of the past, and the urgency of change all run on a universal track parallel to the particulars of life in the Jewish Pale.” You don’t have to be Jewish, you don’t have to have ancestors who left their homes under similar circumstances, you don’t even have to have children, to relate and feel a part of it.

Looking at Fiddler on the Roof through the lens of a woman, a rabbi and yes, a Jew, I can’t help looking at the show – with the help of the documentary – as a commentary on society that resonates today. Jews still make up a tiny minority of the world’s population, and even though we have the modern State of Israel, antisemitism continues to rear its ugly head among the so-called “ruling classes” of the world. Black, Indigent and Persons of Color, those in the LGBTQ community, women and anyone who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, are at risk, just like Tevye’s family and entire community.

The residents of Anatevka had no choice but to leave, attempting to stay and fight for their homes wasn’t a viable option. However, while they understood they were leaving behind more than pots and pans and brooms and hats, in my mind, they held out hope that the future would be better, that they might find a familiar face in their new place, and that life would go on. In the song Anatevka, Tevye comments that “someone should have set a match to this place long ago.”

The personal qualities and the survival instinct that were needed to survive there were what the people most needed as the fiddler followed them down the dusty road to a new world and a new life.

On Rosh Hashanah, we begin a new life, even if we have no intention of physically moving to a new place. We know that the immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which included 3 of my grandparents, brought their Jewish customs and traditions with them. Some continued to hold to them and observe, others chose to discard what didn’t work for them in this new land. On these High Holidays, we don’t just ask God or others for forgiveness for sins we may have committed, we think back on our lives during the past year. Where was I last year at this time? How have I grown? What have I done to make the world a better place? Have I been there for my family?

God doesn’t care what we do for a living, how much money we make, how much we give to tzedakah. God wants to know if we showed up. Were we our authentic selves? How have we adapted to our rapidly changing world, and what have we done to respond to these changes, for ourselves and others? If we did these things, great. If we didn’t, or not as much as we could have, then there’s room to grow, and the question is, how will we do that?

For more than 55 years, more than 20,000 days, Fiddler has shown up on a stage – or stages–somewhere in the world. May it continue for another 55 and beyond, allowing generation after generation – l’dor va dor – to find and create meaning from a piece of our Jewish, yet universal, narrative.

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