Two weeks ago we had some of our grandchildren with us. One of them loves acting and musicals. She wanted to know what musical production she could watch. We had fun going through the list from The Sound of Music to Les Misérables. We settled on Fiddler on the Roof. I was interested to see if the classic adaptation would capture the attention of all three of the children, ages 8 to 13. I was not disappointed. They all loved the movie!
Our guide and the hero of the play is Tevye, a hard-working milkman and father of three lovely girls in the little town of Anatevka, a Ukrainian Village. In the course of the play, Tevye and his wife struggle with questions of the soul —questions around such things as tradition and which traditions are worth keeping and which ones are ok to let go. Throughout the story a fiddler plays tunes on a roof in the village, a poignant metaphor for the beauty found in a simple, pleasant life in a traditional town with an orthodox Jewish population based on what else? Tradition!
Tradition Rooted in Faith
The traditions held precious by Tevye and his community are found in the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah. These verses consist of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, beginning with the phrase: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” It is a reminder that God comes first. Other traditions include obedience to the law, the ten commandments, sabbath day observance from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, prayers, tefillin, feasts, foods, clothing, and marriage. Arguably “traditions” are what has maintained the Jewish faith now for over 3000 years!
Tevye appropriately opens the play singing the song entitled “Tradition.” He sings with his whole voice and body bringing the audience into his passion. It is exhilarating and joyful to watch. He tells us why tradition is so important to the family, town, and culture by saying, “Everyone in Anatevka knows who they are and what God expects them to do.” How simple and profound. Once we discover who we may be, then we can execute our future with Providential blessing.
Order of Importance and The Lines We Contend With
Some of these traditions surround the roles of marriage, faith, employment, love, and education. This type of film/play has become a classic because it speaks to these universal problems of values, priorities and what matters most. These are issues that we all deal with in our lives. The struggles for these answers are wonderfully taught by Tevye who, in the beautiful Jewish tradition, is constantly speaking out loud to God about his dilemmas and the impact on his family. In the play, Tevye’s daughters are all approaching the age of making independent choices in their individual lives.
One day, the local matchmaker arrives to speak with Tevye’s wife with the somewhat alarming news that the lonely local butcher Lazar Wolfe, who is at least 60 years of age, would like to marry their oldest daughter Tzeitel. Economically and religiously, this is a good match. But Tzeitel loves her childhood sweetheart, a young man who wants to become the village clothier and tailor. He is poor but has great ambition and dreams to one day own his own sewing machine. The dilemma is whether or not to let their daughter marry a poor man. Tevye decides he is a poor man (as an aside, he mentions this to God and asks if it would really upset the Providence to have let him be a rich man?) and he concludes that love may be a higher value to him and his daughter than money.
About that same time, Perchik, a radical Marxist student from Kiev, also arrives and falls in love with Tevye’s middle daughter Hodel. Perchik is a radical thinker and his viewpoints are dramatically different from the community’s. Perchik is eventually exiled to Siberia for his political views but Hodel’s love for him is great and she tells her father she is leaving. Tevye bristles at not being asked for permission to do so. The tradition of deferring to or asking permission from the “papa” was waning. Hodel promises to be married in Jewish tradition. But once again love overrules a less consequential tradition.
Finally, Tevye’s third daughter Chava falls in love with a young man who is Christian Russian Orthodox and the two are married in that faith. This was too much for Tevye to take and Chava and her husband become dead to him.
What We Leave, What We Take
As the story is winding down the Jews of Anatevka are notified that they have three days to leave the village or be forced out by the government. Tevye, his family and friends pack up to leave their homes and the simple life of traditions they had built. What did they leave behind? What did they take?
What traditions are you building that will last the test of time and endure the generations? Faith, family, celebrations, rituals, rites, customs — Which ones are higher in order or sequence? Education is how we discover who we are and how we establish and internalize our values. Remember that those values govern our behavior, but principles are unchanging laws of nature that are external to us and operate regardless of our awareness of them, our liking them, our belief in them or our obedience to them. Principles govern value-based choices. When we are faced with the questions around what to leave and what to take, it is wisdom to base our value system of traditions and choices on principles that are unchanging and enduring.
Image attribution: Mileta Leskovac, scenographer, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons