Culture

Fiddler on the Roof: The Tradition, Revived, in Yiddish

Steven Skybell in Fiddler on the Roof (Matthew Murphy)
A new production of a conservative classic, by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Conservatism necessarily involves compromise. That’s why it is such a precarious endeavor. You could say — as the dairyman Tevye does in Fiddler on the Roof — that it’s like a “fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” In the Off Broadway production of the musical by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Tevye (played by Steven Skybell) doesn’t say that exactly. As I probably should have guessed, the sell-out production is in Yiddish.

Joel Grey’s lively revival of this classic is a delight. Fortunately, non-Yiddish-speaking audience members (like me) can follow along with English and Russian surtitles projected on the side of the stage. Grey’s is a modest production. But it brims with character and humor while remaining faithful to the story’s message. The show is doing great — much better than critics thought it would — and has been extended till September.

Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, and his family living in Anatevka (a fictional town) inside the Pale Settlement of Imperial Russia in 1905. If one were to ask a townsperson in Anatevka why they did something, the tuneful answer would be “tradition!” However, this isn’t enough for Tevye’s daughters, who do what fictional characters so often do: fall in love with the wrong people. Rather than having grooms picked by their father and the town’s matchmaker, Tevye’s daughters want to choose their own husbands. In Anatevka, that simply isn’t done.

But the softhearted Tevye — resembling what today’s feminists might call “the patriarch” — goes to great lengths to secure his daughters’ happiness. First, his eldest daughter begs him to let her marry a poor tailor, but Tevye has already promised her to an elderly butcher. Tevye convinces his wife Golde to approve their daughter’s preferred match by telling her that an ancestor appeared to him in a dream. In Grey’s production, this is among the funniest scenes in the show. The peak of the hilarity is when the “ghost” of the butcher’s wife — enacted by a stack of people draped in sheets — starts running around the stage terrorizing everyone.

Of course, appealing to ghosts is a trick that can work only once. And Tevye’s other daughters soon try his patience. The second daughter decides to marry a socialist, who obviously does not share a reverence for “tradition!” The third daughter asks to marry a Cossack, who is not only a non-Jew but belongs to the class of Jewish oppressors. That is a step too far.

The benefit of compromise — and the reason to explore where and to what extent it should apply — is that it forces one to improve, update, and appreciate one’s position without destroying the good in it. Change is not just necessary. It’s inevitable.

Tevye’s daughters encourage him to reconsider many things associated with “tradition” that he had taken for granted. In the duet with his wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak, the strongest singer in the production), Tevye asks her, “Do you love me?” Golde is taken aback by this question. She has to think about it. She answers: “For 25 years, I’ve lived with him. Fought with him, starved with him. For 25 years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” The answer to “Do you love me?” becomes “I suppose I do.”

Tevye’s compromise with his daughters has not changed his view of marriage, but rather it has strengthened his views where they needed strengthening and refined them where they needed refining. Tevye and Golde must also learn by their daughters’ example. That love benefits from affection, not just duty. From youthful spontaneity, not just reliability. Of course, the same is true for his daughters. They, too, must learn from the example set by their parents: Love involves sacrifice, it isn’t always sentimental, it’s mostly about doing what’s right by the other person.

Moreover, Tevye’s attempts to reconcile his traditionalism with his daughters’ autonomy is contrasted with a more immediate external threat. Throughout Fiddler, Jerome Robbins’s choreography draws attention to the competing cultures of the Cossacks and the Jews, and the ways in which they were in tension. Imperial Russia was forcefully anti-Semitic at this time. And by the end of the show, an edict from the tsar will force the Jewish population into exile.

As the Jews of Anatevka leave behind the home of their forefathers, they must seek out new places to plant roots. In doing so, both “tradition” and compromise will be essential. Thus, the beauty and struggle of the “fiddler on the roof” are fulfilled. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene are doing this timeless conservative show justice.

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