Last week, we talked about some overarching themes in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and mainly focused on the song ‘Tradition.’ But I also wanted to emphasize that there are (at least) three contexts in which to look at this play:
- The world of the Russian revolution, ca. 1900
- America in the 1960s, when the play first debuted on Broadway
- And our lives here today; which includes examining what it is about this play that made it successful, around the world, for fifty years (and counting).
So as we continue our discussion here today, and we focus more specifically on some of the characters – MALE characters this week, FEMALE characters next week – in this play, I would like us to keep our focus on these three different contexts. How do we understand the portrayal of these people in each context?
Let’s begin. I want to talk about a number of different men in the village of Anatevka, but I also want to discuss them in relationship to one another. I want to present to you THREE different groupings of characters:
- Tevye and the villagers (as seen through the eyes of Perchik, the radical student who comes to town)
- The three sons-in-law, and their increasing level of audacity
- Jews and Russians
GROUP ONE: In her book, ‘Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof,’ Alisa Solomon offers an interesting insight into the character of Tevye. She writes about how Sholem Aleichem, the author, purposely called his protagonist, ‘Tevye, der Milchiger,’ which CAN mean ‘the Milkman/Dairyman,’ but also means ‘milky.’ From a Kosher standpoint, this is juxtaposed with ‘fleishiger,’ ‘meaty,’ and has undertones of being sort of less than manly, kind of effeminate.
And when I look at the group of villagers in Anatevka, I see a similar theme somewhat pervasively depicted throughout the town.
- The rabbi is kind of dopey (no offense to David Pollack, who plays the rabbi in our upcoming production…). He gives no real blessing, and has no significant wisdom to offer. Villagers keep talking about our wise rabbi, but just looked at objectively, what does he really contribute? What does this say about ‘old time’ religion, about the religious community of the shtetl, seen either by Sholem Aleichem or the Broadway producers in the 1960s?
- Reb Mordcha, Yussl, Avram, Nachum, even Lazar Wolf – they talk a lot, and do nothing. Perchik, the newcomer, delivers stinging indictments of them throughout the play, specifically in their first scene together when Tevye is selling his cheese, and again at the wedding.
- Motel is certainly not a very masculine character, and kind of stumbles his way into winning Tevye’s oldest daughter. Most of it was her doing anyway!
- In some ways, it’s perhaps supposed to be a loving depiction of these sweet, silly, nebishy Jewish characters – but taken in the context of the Russian pogroms, or the way American and Israeli Jews viewed the Eastern Europeans, you see that they don’t put up a fight, they don’t push back, and they leave in silence. There’s something pathetic about them as well. Why?
GROUP TWO: The sons-in-law.
We see a definite break between the generations. We see the oldest generation is particularly silly and ineffectual; the impotent rabbi (again, sorry David) and the jokes made at the expense of Yente, the matchmaker’s husband, Aaron, who gets kicked around a bunch, despite being dead!
The middle generation are all talkers, with little action. A lot of squabbling and focusing on petty issues, but no action.
The younger generation has two sides. Mendel, the rabbi’s son, is somewhat more proactive, but also a follower. He quotes the Bible, and takes on Perchik (sort of) but with little result. And on the other side is Perchik. A doer. A rebel and a radical. And again, Motel is stuck between worlds. Not quite the follower like Mendel, he DOES dance at the wedding and shirks the town’s matchmaking expectations, but he’s not willing to let go of the old world mentality. He’s deferent to the ways of the past, and only Perchik stands up to the Russians at the wedding.
I think it’s especially interesting to see the progression with each marriage; both on the women’s side (we’ll talk more about that next week), but also on the men’s side. Motel declares ‘Times are changing, Reb Tevye,’ but ultimately he needs Tevye to allow this wedding. Perchik goes the next step, INFORMING Tevye of the marriage, but very explicitly states he’s not interested in Tevye’s permission. And Fyedka doesn’t even take the time to speak to Tevye. The only real interaction between them is a short little line from Fyedka that I find surprising. After all the trouble he’s caused, that he KNOWS he’s caused, and the rift that has now been created in the family, he turns around and chastises Tevye before he exits the play, saying, “Some people are driven out by edicts… others by silence. Good bye.” That takes a lot of chutzpah…
GROUP THREE: Villagers and Russians.
This is, in some ways, the most interesting grouping really. Because this speaks to MOST of Jewish history; perhaps ALL of Jewish history in Eastern Europe. There’s a love-hate relationship between them. The Russians sing and dance with the men of Anatevka at the tavern, for the song L’Chaim. The SAME Russians also perform the bottle dance at the wedding (maybe only in our performance because we’re short on performers, but it’s not uncommon, nor do I think it would be historically inaccurate for them to do this). And then, two minutes later, they carry out a pogrom against the same people with whom they just danced. This WAS the life of Eastern Europe. Consider, for a moment, the striking conversation between Tevye and the Constable after the song ‘To Life!.’
- The Constable says, ‘I like you. You’re a decent, hard-working fellow… even though you are a Jewish dog.’
- And when Tevye thanks the Constable for warning him of an impending pogrom, and then says, ‘If you don’t mind my saying it, it’s a shame you weren’t a Jew.’ And the Constable laughs, and responds, ‘That’s what I like about you, Tevye. Always joking.’
It’s no accident that the Constable calls him ‘a Jewish dog,’ or that he GENUINELY thinks Tevye’s kidding when he says he could have been Jewish. One minute, they’re friends and joke with one another, the next the Constable shatters Tevye’s world and throws him out of Poland.
So now, taking a step back. How do we understand all of this?
What do we make of this? And maybe more important, how do we understand it from the perspective of America in the 1960s? Or the world today? (Think about the Ukraine RIGHT NOW!)
What does it mean that a Jewish author, writing a Jewish play, in a Jewish community, with a very Jewish message, would create characters and a play like this?
- Depicting the rabbi the way he does
- And Tevye, with his misquoting the Bible, and getting shot down by his wife and daughters, and leaving his home without any resistance?
- Or the ‘hero’ Fyedka, a non-Jewish, Russian soldier, who creates an intermarriage, and yet seems stronger than most of the other men in this play?
What does it all mean?
I don’t present all of these characters, or my analysis of this play, in order to provide you with answers. I believe that in each of these generations, 1900, 1960, and today, we are conflicted about our ancestors. Do we love what they represented? Or are we embarrassed by them? The answer is most often: BOTH!
And is the new generation right, or did the older generation have all the answers? Again, the answer (if we’re being completely honest… and somewhat facetious) is: Both. And neither.
This play is about grey areas. About how life doesn’t give absolute answers in all situations, but that each scenario, each relationship, each teachable moment needs to be understood in its own context. We have to weigh all the options, and consider each challenge.
But what do YOU think the answer is? What did Sholem Aleichem have in mind with his stories, and what did the Broadway producers intend when they turned it into the story we all know and love today?
We have two more weeks to discuss it, and I hope you’ll also come see the play on March 1st, 2nd, 8th, or 9th. And then, decide for yourself.
- Shabbat Shalom!