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Retro movie spotlight: Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler On The Roof

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Local News: On Friday, March 28, Belhaven University's music department is hosting Belhaven Strings & Orchestras in the Concert Hall on Riverside Drive. Belhaven's arts web page describes the events as "a colorful and beautiful showcase of string solos and chamber groups featuring... outstanding string students, as well as the Belhaven String Chamber Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra." Admission is complimentary admission and doors open at 7 pm. For more information, go to www.belhaven.edu/arts/schedule.htm.

Focusing on the family of Tevye, a Jewish Russian milkman in the town of Anatevka, the 1971 film, Fiddler on the Roof, tells a humorous, poignant story about small town life, tradition, and the ups and downs between parents and children. The music, notably, “Tradition”, “Matchmaker”, “If I Were a Rich Man”, and “Sunrise, Sunset”, gives the movie a festive, yet melancholy atmosphere—a unique blend of hopefulness and sadness.

1. Plot summary

The film starts on a lighthearted note, but the tone becomes increasingly somber as the film progresses. Much of the humor revolves around Tevye (portrayed by Chaim Topol) and his wife, Golde (portrayed by Norma Crane), trying to find suitable husbands for their five daughters. When it appears that Tzeitel, the eldest daughter (portrayed by Rosalind Harris), is going to be matched up with Lazar Wolf, the middle-aged town butcher (portrayed by Paul Mann), she persuades her father to bless her to marry her actual love, Motel, the town tailor (portrayed by Leonard Frey). Though it goes against custom for the betrothed couple to choose each other, Tevye gives in, wanting his daughter to be happy.

Hodel, the second oldest daughter, falls in love with Perchik, a young radical wanting to fight against the oppression of the turn-of-the-century Russian government. Departing even further from custom, Hodel and Perchik don’t ask Tevye permission to marry; they simply inform him of their plans and he, not without some difficulty, gives in and agrees to bless their plans.

Chava, the third oldest, defies custom the most when she falls in love with Fyedka, a non-Jewish man in the village. Marrying outside the faith is unthinkable to Tevye and, though he forbids her to have any further contact with Fyedka, Chava runs away and elopes. In the most heartbreaking scene of the film, Tevye renounces Chava and declares that his daughter is dead.

2. Exploring some of the film’s key themes

Unlike so many films that portray the young up against the old, Fiddler on the Roof does not pose a simple “Progressive=good, Traditionalist=bad” dichotomy. Even when Tevye disowns his daughter, he is still a sympathetic character. Viewers see him wrestling with his decision, trying to somehow reconcile his love for his daughter with his disapproval of her decision, which goes against everything he believes in. In a monologue to himself, he says he can’t “bend”, as he had with his two older daughters—“If I bend that far, I will break.” The film winks at the occasional irrationality of being bogged down in tradition, but it doesn’t mock tradition itself.

Tevye is a good man, trying to do what is right, just as Chava is, at heart, a good daughter, wanting to honor her parents. In the final scene when all of Anatevka’s Jews are being deported, Chava once again finds Tevye, attempting to reconcile. He won’t look at her, but, as she leaves, he prompts Tzeitel to say, “May God be with you” to her, indicating that his heart is still warm toward Chava, even if he can’t, at that moment, figure out how to have a relationship with her.

Tevye is portrayed as a sincerely God-fearing man. He speaks to God throughout the film as if talking to a familiar friend. He jokes with God about his crippled horse, nags God about giving his son-in-law the tailor a new sewing machine, and frequently questions why God hasn’t yet made him rich. He quotes the “Good Book” to all he meets, once even doing so in a prayer, before catching himself—“Why should I tell you what the Good Book says?”

Tevye’s Jewish faith is not something peripheral to his life, a separate compartment he acknowledges on the Sabbath. It is the center of his identity. His entire being revolves around his Judaism. The townspeople of Anatevka are refreshingly portrayed as sincere in their faith. The line between their Jewish faith and their cultural traditions sometimes gets blurred, but they are not portrayed as people who unthinkingly follow their faith out of some obligation to dead tradition. They follow their faith because it brings life to their community. They are shown to be fallible, flawed people, but not hypocrites.

Their faith hasn’t made them sour, humorless people, which is so often the caricature one gets from Hollywood. Once when the Rabbi is asked if there is a prayer appropriate to pray for the Tzar, he wryly replies, “May God bless and keep the Tzar… far away from us.”

The film showcases Jewish persecution in Europe arguably as well as its ever been portrayed on film. Fiddler on the Roof humanizes the Jews of Anatevka, making a culture which will no doubt feel very foreign to contemporary Americans, seem a little less distant. In humanizing the Jews, the Russian government’s inhuman expulsion of them stands out as all the more de-humanizing. The saddest thing to bring to mind is that Russia’s government in 1905 (the setting of the film) was at least nominally Christian. How could a Christian government behave in such an unchristian manner to its Jewish citizens?

3. Wrestling with the film’s unresolved questions

The film leaves many questions unresolved and, though this is one of the most frustrating elements of the movie, it is also one that, upon further reflection, is very artistically satisfying. We don’t know for sure if Yente, the town matchmaker, successfully makes it to the Holy Land where she wants to go, or if Lazar Wolf makes it to Chicago. We don’t know if Tevye’s family makes it to New York. We don’t know if Tevye’s youngest daughters grow up and marry the boys Yente has picked out for them. Most importantly, we don’t know how Chava’s and Fyedka’s marriage turns out. Leaving these questions unresolved forces viewers to grapple with the uncertainties raised by the film.

Christian viewers must grapple with Tevye’s understandable concerns about his daughter’s inter-religious marriage. On one hand, one could hope that Chava, in marrying Fyedka, becomes a follower of Christ herself. The film implies that the couple eloped at the local Orthodox Christian church, as Golde must go there to consult the Rector to confirm her fear that her daughter has in fact married Fyedka. On the other hand, evangelicals regularly decry “missionary dating”, and even if his bride becomes a follower of Christ, it doesn’t alter the fact that Fyedka was on shaky moral ground when courting a girl who, at least at that stage, didn’t share his faith.

Because the film doesn’t resolve all that we might ask about the newly married couple, we don’t know if Chava became a Christian or if Fyedka eventually became a Jew, and we don’t know how the groom’s family responded to their marriage. If the film elaborated more on this, it might make for a neater story. On the other hand, leaving it unresolved forces viewers, if they haven’t already, to deal with the fact that the inter-religious marriages raise questions without easy answers.

One of the most important questions the film raises is how a father, in Tevye’s situation, should respond if his daughter has married outside the faith. As well intentioned as he was, viewers can easily see that Tevye’s heavy-handed approach is likely to alienate his daughter, not bring her to any different viewpoint. But what would an appropriate, more diplomatic approach look like? It’s a hard question.

4. Conclusion

The saddest element is that the Jews and Christians of Anatevka were so separate. What Christ taught, and what the apostles preached, was not a “new” religion, distinct from the faith of the Jewish patriarchs. That a Jewish/Christian marriage is an “inter-faith” marriage at all is a sad testament to the division between the two belief systems—a divide that should never have occurred.

The division did occur, though, and as it stands, traditional Christians can sympathize with Tevye’s concerns about his daughter. Agreement on who Jesus is or isn’t is so foundational that marrying someone who believes differently about him is rightly a boundary that can’t feasibly be crossed. Christians and Jews should certainly be friendly to each other (Tevye demonstrates such friendliness himself), but intermarriage is a different spectrum.

When Chava, trying to justify her wanting to marry Fyedka, tells her father, “The world is changing,” Tevye replies, “Some things never change.” On that point, he is very much right. The importance of the question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah never changes. If the question was ever important, it will always be important.