Fiddler on the Roof: Love’s Triumph over Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof: Love’s Triumph over Tradition

Marisa Ben-Yishay

The extremely popular and highly esteemed Broadway Musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is famously recognized for its overarching theme and focus on Jewish tradition. The plot line of this musical explores and dives deep into Jewish identity, customs and relationships. During this difficult time in history, Jews all over the world were marginalized and persecuted for being who they were. In order to withstand these circumstances and maintain their religion, Jews had to hold on tightly to their traditions and values no matter what obstacles were thrown their way. However, as times were changing, some individuals were beginning to question some aspects of tradition, specifically the process of arranged marriage. While Fiddler on the roof beautifully illustrates Jewish traditions, it also portrays the evolution of established beliefs.

Tevya, a milk man, husband, and father of six, living in the small Russian village of Anatevka, felt extremely strongly about tradition. In fact, he sang about it and emphasized its importance multiple times throughout the play through his famous song, “Tradition.” Tevya never truly understood why tradition was the way it was, however he knew it was something he had to follow, hold onto, and instill into his daughters. Surrounded by a village that felt the same appreciation for Judaism, Tevya’s daughters were raised in a world where tradition was prioritized and widely practiced around them. Therefore, Tevya did not expect his three eldest daughters to choose the life paths that they ultimately do in the musical. To his disbelief, Tzeitzel, Hodel, and Chava eventually conclude that there is an aspect of life that is stronger than tradition: love.

When Tzeitzel, Hodel, and Chava come to the point in their lives where the idea of marriage turns into a reality, the typical match maker style of pairing a couple begins to seem less enticing to the three girls. Tradition says that the papa chooses who his daughters marry and the town’s match maker, Yenta, assists in identifying eligible men. In an article that explores the evolution of marriage, written by University of San Diego’s highly educated and experienced professor Linda Barkacs, it is stated that “Nowhere, is the myth of marriage as an unchanging cultural monolith more exposed than in the popular musical Fiddler on The Roof” (39). The article goes on to identify and explore the three breaks of traditional marriage carried out by the three daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. At the time, their defiance of tradition seems outrageous, however the author argues that, “by today’s standards nearly all of perceived prohibitions (marriage restrictions) would be regarded as archaic, if not absurd.” (40). The point of the author’s argument is not to debate the right or wrong nature of arranged marriages, it intends to show how many marriage traditions have changed and evolved over time. Unfortunately for Tevya, as he strictly abides by tradition, his three daughters recognize that the world around Anatevka is changing and that some normalcies are beginning to become obsolete. Therefore, all three of them put up a determined fight when choosing who they want to be with.

The popular song, “Matchmaker,” sung by the three eldest daughters, marks the first sign of the three girl’s resistance to the match making system. The song begins with Hodel and Chava longing for the matchmaker to find them a husband. They dream of being handed off to a man to take care of them and provide them with love and companionship. However, Tzeitzel, the eldest sister, quickly chimes in to expose the two girl’s naivete. She laughs at her sister’s professions and mocks their desires. By the end of the song, the once optimistic and eager Chava sings “Matchmaker, matchmaker, you know that I’m still very young, please, take you time,” while Hodel sings, “Up to this minute I misunderstood, that I could get stuck for good.” It is clear that by exposing the true realities of the match making system, Tzeitzel has prompted her younger sisters to question and fear the matchmaking process entirely. Therefore, the girls end up very doubtful of tradition and long to find someone to marry on their own.

As seen in the Matchmaker scene, Tzeitzel is the first daughter to show her dissatisfaction with this process and take a stand against this tradition. Being that she is in love with her lifelong friend, Motel, and has made a pledge to marry him, Tzeitzel feels that it is her right to make this decision. She believes that her strong connection with Motel should be enough to get her papa’s approval and she does not care that he isn’t rich or “highly qualified.” In her eyes, their love for each other should be enough, and plus he is still of Jewish heritage. Having already set Tzeitzel up with a wealthy old butcher, Lazar, Tevya greets Tzetizel’s request with much dissent, however he ultimately concedes and grants Tzeitzel and Motel his approval. This moment in the play in a very transitional point as it is the first occurrence of Tevya breaking the rules of traditional marriage.

Next in line comes Hodel, Tevya’s second eldest daughter, who falls inlove with the very liberal and exotic, Perchik. In this play, Perchik is seen to break tradition time after time. First, he comes in and asks to educate Tevya’s daughters. At this time in history, women were meant to nurture their families and take care of the home, not to be educated or literate.  However, Tevya agrees to let Perchik teach his daughters. Shortly after, Perchik breaks tradition again when he asks Hodel to dance at Tzeitzel’s wedding. Women and men touching in this way was absolutely forbidden, however it doesn’t take long for Perchik to break Hodel and gain her love and respect. Not only do Hodel and Perchik end up getting married without arrangement, they inform Tevya that they are doing so, instead of asking for permission. While Tevya is very unsettled with this arrangement, he eventually accepts this union. When Perchik is arrested and imprisoned in a faraway land, Hodel goes off to accompany him and sings a farewell song, “Far From the Home I Love.” In this melody, she explains to Tevya why she must go and expresses her love for her home and the sadness she feels in leaving it. While this transition is not comforting to Tevya, he sends her off with love and support.

Lastly comes Chava, who is an even more unique case. Like her sisters, Chava wants to choose her own companion and avoid the match maker system. However, Chava crosses the line even more than her sisters when she finds love with a Russian, Fyedka. While Tzeitzel and Hodel do break tradition simply by not agreeing to the arranged marriage process, Chava does the unthinkable by adding Non-Jew into the situation. Tevya warns her many times to stop conversing with Fyedka in the village and forbids their communication entirely. Therefore, when Chava expresses her love and desire to marry Fyedka, he simply entertains none of it. Tevya quickly and certainly disapproves this marriage and leaves no opportunity for Chava to argue with him. When she decides to be with Fyedka anyway, Tevya dismisses her from the family and declares her dead. He mourns his daughter through his song “Chavaleh,” but he does not change his mind. While Tevya was able to make concessions for his other daughters, considering that their significant others were of the Jewish faith, he is unable to accept Chava’s complete betrayal of the traditions and values of which he raised her on. In an article written by Keren McGinity, the topic of Jewish women and interfaith marriages is explored in depth. McGinity states that, “Although a hundred years ago Jews who intermarried were viewed as having been lost to Judaism, today there is growing awareness that Jewish women who intermarry are more likely to raise their children as Jews.” Therefore, while Tevya’s concerns are warranted at the time, it is proven that interfaith marriage has not prompted a decline in the practice of Judaism, it has actually done the opposite. Jewish women who marry out of their faith tend to feel more in touch with their Jewish heritage as they know that it is in their hands to maintain it. Therefore, they feel empowered and desire even more strongly to pass their customs and religious values down to their children.

While the main theme of Fiddler on the Roof does appear to be tradition, it is apparent that tradition is not as clear cut as it seems to be in the beginning of the play. As the plot unfolds, and times begin to change in Anatevka, traditions are questioned and adjusted. Tevya, the main follower and advocate of tradition, is tested throughout this play and forced to change his views and standards. Therefore, while it may seem like tradition is the main theme of this play, in most cases, love ultimately triumphs. When choosing their husbands, the three girls choose love over tradition every time. Likewise, in two of the three cases, Tevya chooses to love his daughters anyway despite traditional norms. There is still a line for Tevya, which Chava crosses, but his strictness of tradition from the beginning of the play to the end changes drastically. Tevya too recognizes that the world around him is changing and that adjustments are going to have to be made in order to maintain relationships and values. Also, as the production of Fiddler on the Roof evolved and changed throughout the years, the plot was adjusted according to the time. As stated in the article Following Tradition: Folklore in the Disclosure of American Culture, in the later renditions of Fiddler, “American ideals of individual rights, progress, and freedom of association are assimilated into the Judaic tradition which is presented as a cultural tradition parallel to the American.” Therefore, while it is clear that tradition always sustained itself as the main theme of the play, it is also important to note how certain aspects had to be changed given the time of production. All in all, in all of the play’s various productions, Fiddler on the Roof portrays a wonderful representation of the evolution of tradition and triumph of love.

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