When 'Fiddler on the Roof' Offered an Escape to a Simpler Time

The nostalgia evoked by Fiddler let us come to terms with a changing America - and the transformation in our Jewish communities.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Topol in 'Fiddler on the Roof.'Credit: AP
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

There are no doubt many emotions surrounding the Israel Prize this year: disdain over Prime Minister Netanyahu intervening to disqualify some judges apparently on ideological grounds, pride for the winners, and disappointment among those forgotten. Even Chaim Topol, this year’s Israel Prize winner for lifetime achievement, said he had mixed feelings about his victory since other deserving candidates have been shut out in recent years. And for those who think about Topol in what is his most popular role, that of Tevye in the 1971 film (and some of the stage productions of) "Fiddler on the Roof," there is likely one other emotion: nostalgia.

Nostalgia often gets a bad rap when it is talked about in the context of social maturity. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the collective experience of nostalgia can also be a source of psychological sustenance for mourning an apparently simpler past in order to embrace a more complex present. In 20th Jewish popular culture, nowhere has this been more apparent than in the case of "Fiddler on the Roof."

This was a time of emerging feminism and rising divorce rates. Races, religions and ethnicities were mixing as never before. The nature of Jewish religious practice was becoming viewed as a personal choice — something which Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen have described as the emergence of a “Jewish sovereign self.” On this backdrop, Fiddler’s audiences were given a “safe space” — in today’s parlance — to mourn patriarchy, cultural homogenization, and collective adherence to folkways and cultural conventions.

Consider the dream sequence. In presenting his concocted reverie as a divine omen in order to convince Golde that Tzeitel should marry Motel, Tevye pulls a trick out of the bag of shtetl superstition. And the conceit works: Though we know it’s a ruse, we become caught up in the ghoulish spin of the costumes, choreography and music. For a few minutes, we bid farewell to outmoded beliefs and traditions without feeling that we are abandoning our past commitments outright.

Or the ironic and comical number "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," where the comfort of convention is as thrilling for the daughters initially in the show, as is their fierce independence by the end.

Or Tevye conceding in the prologue that he doesn’t know the origin of some of the community’s customs. As Judaism becomes increasingly infused with contemporary values — the ecological dimension of powering down on Shabbat; the blending of new food politics with kashrut, and the search for personal spirituality — Tevye’s proverbial wink directed at the audience allows us to keep one foot in the present of personal autonomy and choice, while the other dips into the comfortable past where automatic adherence to Jewish tradition formed the bonds of community.

American Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick complained that Fiddler portrayed Sholem Aleichem’s stories as “naive,” with “the occasion of a nostalgia for a sweeter time, pogroms notwithstanding.” Fiddler’s Broadway director and choreographer Jerome Robbins was concerned about the play appearing overly nostalgic, writing to his costume designer that he didn’t want audiences viewing the characters “through the misty nostalgia of a time past...”

But for allowing Americans to come to terms with a changing America, and for American Jews to reflect on the rapid changes within their own communities, the nostalgia in Fiddler has been important. As Stephen J. Whitfield has written in his history of the show, Fiddler “had the advantage of distance: playgoers were far enough removed to memorialize without honoring any particular claims it might make, and without submitting to any moral mandates it might demand.”

Thinking about the role of Fiddler in today’s Jewish landscape, I think about the constant tensions between history and tradition on one hand, and modernity and contemporary values on the other. This has been especially important in how Jewish communities negotiate difference.

From the ashes of the Holocaust, the Zionist struggle for sovereignty, and post-war North American Jews fighting against prejudice and discrimination, Jewish concerns now include many additional tensions. There’s intermarriage -- how to broaden the tent enough to include intermarried families who may wish to be part of the Jewish people, but not so much that the meaning of being Jewish is lost; increased women’s ritual participation in North American synagogues and in public space in Israel; and GLBTQ Jews looking to take their place in Jewish communities. For their part, Israelis struggle — not hard enough, perhaps — to honor their state’s Jewish identity while extending full equality to the Palestinian minority and contending with the ongoing occupation, all while confronting the difficult plight of the African refugees and asylum-seekers.

With Passover approaching — and for many, its nostalgia-drenched experience of gathering around the Seder table, we might pause to consider how to navigate the uncertain waters of change while being anchored by tradition. And yes, a little nostalgia now and then might just help.

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