Tevye & Holiday “Traditions”: On The Other Hand…

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Image Source: Wikimedia/Impawards.com

Image Source: Wikimedia/Impawards.com

While some of my friends and neighbors are getting ready for the holiday season by watching Christmas specials, I recently decided to watch a different sort of “tradition-al” film—
Fiddler on the Roof.

“Fiddler” is celebrating 50 years since it first opened on Broadway. Like many people, I associate the musical with old-world life in the
shtetl
. But, watching it recently, I was struck by how much remains relevant to Jewish life today, particularly during the holiday season.

As Tevye, the main character, and his family face the influences of secularism and Christianity, he struggles to reconcile his love for his family with his love of tradition. And, when his daughters’ pursuit of love comes up against his passion for tradition, he is willing to adapt, and he does…until he can’t.

The struggle reaches a climax when his third daughter marries a Christian. After his dreams of arranging his daughters’ marriages has already been shattered by his two older daughters (with the eldest marrying a poor tailor, despite Tevye having promised her to a wealthy butcher, and the next one leaving home to join her political prisoner love in Siberia), the final straw comes when his third daughter proclaims her intentions to wed outside the faith. When she and her beloved come to him, their exchange is painful:

CHAVA: Papa, I beg you to accept us.

TEVYE [to himself/to the heavens, as the others all freeze]: Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith? My people? If I try and bend that far, I will break. On the other hand…No. There is no other hand.

What I find most beautiful about this musical is that regardless of whether one thinks Tevye should be more accepting of his daughters’ choices or if you think that his daughters ought to have more reverence for the traditions with which they were raised (matchmaking included), one cannot help but admire the characters’ willingness to struggle.