Thursday, February 24, 2011

As Shaky As A Fiddler On The Roof?

For me, the word tradition is synonymous with Fiddler on the Roof. It is the song the musical opens with, and it is the theme that permeates the entire story.

Tradition!” sings the chorus of Anatevka’s boys, girls, mamas, and papas, as Tevye the Milkman explains the rules of the small Jewish shtetl. “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything... how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl... You may ask, how did this tradition start? I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition... Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

The famous Broadway musical is based on the stories of Tevye the Milkman, written by the Yiddish author and playwright Solomon Rabinovich, known better by his pen name of Sholem Aleichem (Шолом-Алейхем). Sholem was born in Ukraine in 1859 and later immigrated to the United States as part of the Jewish exodus from the oppressive tsarist Russia. My family owned a full collection of his works, so I grew up reading his stories, novels, and plays, which I viewed as my historical heritage. Of course, I had to see Fiddler on Roof! But, like many staged productions, and especially Broadway shows, Fiddler on the Roof had interesting twists on the Jewish traditions, which were a bit different than what I'd heard from my grandparents and other elders as a young girl. For starters, I was surprised to see that the fiddler’s depiction of the shtetl was a patriarchate.

(Tevye & Papas)
Who day and night
Must scramble for a living
Feed the wife and children
Say his daily prayers
And who has the right
As master of the house
To have the final word at home?

Growing up, I don’t think I knew a single Jewish family in which the father had the final word at home. I knew some families in which fathers didn’t have any word at all – but certainly not the other way around. In my knowledge of a traditional Jewish household, moms ruled the world. Moms defined rights and wrongs, moms made decisions, and moms laid out plans. Dads were kept posted. For the most part.

The second surprise was when it came to family planning.

And who does mama teach
To mend and tend and fix
Preparing me to marry
Whoever papa picks?

When it came to matchmakers, the moms I knew would never trust their inept husbands to pair up their beloved offspring! I could always tell moms were up to something when they gathered behind closed doors in the kitchen, discussing something in low, whispery voices.  It usually meant that someone had a daughter or a son old enough to tie the knot. And their parents wanted to see them wed to a Jewish spouse.

It didn’t always work, but the moms, aunties, and grandmas always tried. The modern Jewish moms and dads had one thing in common with the Anatevka mamas and papas: they both wanted their children to marry their own kind – and stay Jewish. That was one tradition they felt strongly about. Luckily, they didn’t banish their rebellious offspring from their sight like Tevye did his daughter who chose to wed outside her faith. Otherwise, quite a few young folk from my generation would end up not talking to our parents ever again. Myself included.

"Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as a fiddler on the roof!"

What would you say? Does tradition preserve the best of the past or stunts new growth? 


  1. Oh, Lina, your description of Jewish life (the real one, not the movie version) sounds so much like Iranian culture! The women are in charge and the men expect them to make the decisions. Though they (the men) would deny it vehemently if you suggested such a thing. :)

  2. You know, Heidi, with all my travels to the Middle-East I always notice that too. As much as the culture can be oppressive towards the women, they do rule the family in so many ways. And the guys withdrew - often very willingly. My Jordan tour guide said that his father spent 7 days a week in his store because when he tried to stay home on the weekends, his wife nagged him too much.

  3. I love Fiddler! I know "Tradition" claims that the papas are in charge, but that may be tongue-in-cheek. Throughout the course of the play we see that in Tevye's family that is definitely not the case. He tries repeatedly to put his foot down to his wife and daughters, but he never succeeds. And despite the song, for his three oldest daughters, they end up making their own choices about who to marry, progressively bucking tradition more and more.

    Interesting perspective on reality vs. the song!