Transfiguring the Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof and I go way back, deep into the murky, lugubrious mists of my formative years. I don’t believe that I was any older than five when I saw it for the first time. I remember two scenes from that viewing: “If I Were a Rich Man” (which I love . . . although I couldn’t pick a favorite song) and “Miracle of Miracles” (which is the only song in the movie that I loathe). And unless I am very much mistaken, I was unceremoniously put to bed before the end of the movie. Such is the plight of the five-year old.

It was not until I was beginning my senior year in high school, in fact, that I rediscovered this delightful cinematic opus. My grandparents had given my family a two-video VHS copy and, being bored late one night, I popped it into the player.

Three hours and two minutes later I had nearly talked myself into rewinding it and playing it again.

Although I settled for a good night’s sleep in the end, I watched it at least three or four more times that year, and I hadn’t been at LeTourneau for even a full semester when I had the irresistable urge to get my hands on another copy.

I had talked Bryan (my roommate at the time) into going to Blockbuster with me where we had acquired and made use of a membership card, and it was there that I turned in my hour of need for a shiny DVD copy of Fiddler on the Roof.

In addition to having Bryan (who had never seen it) with me, I somehow also managed to collar Wilson and Uncle Doug (neither of them had seen it either), and the four of us enjoyed ourselves enormously.

I purposed then and there to ask for my own DVD copy for Christmas, and it was duly given unto me. With that, I assumed the mantle of the proud office of “Keeper of the Fiddler” . . . and I have worn it ever since.

That spring I watched it with Martinez (who also had not seen it before) and half a dozen or so of the Penn 2 guys. The following fall I watched it with Anna and Moore (they hadn’t seen it) plus Wilson, Sharon, Scholl, etc. Last spring, we regulars were joined at the screening by Gallagher (who had seen it) and . . . Well, in short, it has become accepted practice to have a showing of Fiddler on the Roof during every semester I am at college.

And this semester was no exception. Quite far from it, in fact. I am currently taking “World Literature Through Film” as an Honors, junior-level lit elective, and the class requires students to form groups. This is in order that the entire last half of the semester may be spent showing movies based on works of world literature and presenting a comparison/contrast on the original work to the class.

After promptly forming a partnership with my close associates, Wilson and Martinez, we began to rack our brains for an appropriate selection. My initial tentative suggestion (Lolita) was shot down by Dr. Solganick (although he did it reluctantly, I must say), but it wasn’t long before Fiddler came to mind. In the end, I’m rather shocked it wasn’t the first thing that popped into my head.

The long and short of all this is that our presentation took place Thursday night, and was quite as successful as any presentation I have given before or could hope to give in future. And there was the added benefit of having nearly 20 people there for this semester’s showing of the movie. I don’t remember who exactly, but there were at least five there who hadn’t seen the movie before.

What follows below the fold is the paper that Wilson, Martinez, and I wrote to go with the movie. Martinez wrote the beginning (on the book), Wilson wrote the middle (on the author and historical context), and I wrote the end (on the movie itself) . . . with Martinez fitting the three portions together and covering introduction and conclusion. This was followed by polishing and re-polishing and . . . blah blah blah. I’m rambling.

Read the paper if you have the time. And if you find yourself in the area, be sure to join us next semester for Fiddler on the Roof!

Translating Tevye: Tradition, Community, Faith, and Doubt
in Two Visions of the Dairyman

Sholem Aleichem?s novel Tevye the Dairyman is a classic piece of Yiddish literature. Fiddler on the Roof, the film based on Aleichem?s work, is likewise a beloved masterpiece. Many of the characters and plots overlap between the two versions; their ultimate theme is also the same, but it is expressed in slightly different ways and in a different tone. Although the film is based on the book, its approach to difficult questions of faith is significantly more playful.

Sholem Aleichem?s Tevye the Dairyman is a collection of short stories about a man who argues with God. Tevye, the main character, leads a difficult life and cannot understand why he is so poor while other Jews are so rich. Tevye struggles to reconcile the injustice of the world with the character of his God. The later stories tell of Tevye?s problems in marrying off his daughters; each one reveals a perspective on the Jewish tradition. Despite constant and recurring problems, Tevye remains true to his faith in God, which gives him courage to endure difficult times.

The early stories, particularly ?Tevye Strikes it Rich? and “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune,? have a lighthearted tone. Tevye makes many amusing comments, such as the observation his horse is ?only human too [?] or else why would God have made him a horse,? or that an event ?took place exactly a dog?s age ago, nine or ten years to the day, if not a bit more or less? (Aleichem 3). Such verbal acrobatics are entertaining to the audience, and they take some of the edge off of the otherwise-depressing subject of poverty. This lightness for the reader is reflected in Tevye?s nearly carefree attitude. He grumbles and complains about his lot in life, but he accepts that things ?were meant to be? the way they are (13). He has faith in God and believes that He knows best. This faith provides the foundation for everything Tevye does; it gives him an anchor in times of difficulty.

The later stories, however, are not as lighthearted. All of Tevye?s daughters give him troubles, some more depressing than others. The sequence in which Tevye concocts a dream to cover Tzeitel?s marriage to the tailor Motl Komzoyl is amusing, but the family?s parting with Hodl is tinged with sadness, and Chava?s elopement leaves Tevye bitter throughout the remainder of the book. Later, Shprintze commits suicide after her failed engagement, and Beilke ends up living in poverty in America after driving Tevye mad with worry. Tevye describes his daughters as ?too smart for their own good,? but he loves them all dearly, as he shows in dealing with their marriage problems (52).

But Tevye?s troubles do not end with his daughters. At the beginning of ?Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel,? Tevye tells of losing his wife, Golde (99). Then, Motl Komzoyl, Tevye?s son-in-law and Tzeitel?s husband, dies between that story and ?Lekh-Lekho,? leaving Tevye responsible for his eldest daughter and her children (118). To round out his troubles, the village policeman tells Tevye that he (along with all the other Jews) must leave his home and move to another town.

In these later trials, Tevye?s faith begins to wobble. His conversations with God become more accusatory, and his rants against the injustice of life become more bitter. His problems with his daughters seem to harden his heart somewhat, so that by the end of the book he does not know whether God is really listening. At times, Tevye?s faith is little more than the mortar holding him together with his fellow Jews.

But there are two rays of hope in the darkness of Tevye?s life. First, Chava returns and reconciles with Tevye. Second, and more importantly, Tevye clings to his faith in God, shaky though it may be. The book ends with Tevye encouraging Jews everywhere ?not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives? (131). The community of Jews still exists. But despite the positive elements, the ending carries overtones of bitterness and confusion as Tevye struggles with his faith.

The parting message from Tevye to his people indicates Aleichem?s preoccupation with the concept of community. In typical Jewish literary fashion, all of the Tevye stories show a profound attention to history and the fellowship of faith. The reader may gain a much more thorough appreciation for Aleichem?s work through a study of its literary and historical context.

According to Hillel Halkin?s introduction to the book, Tevye the Dairyman is ?perhaps the only [novel] ever written in real time, that is, according to a scale on which time for the author and time for his characters are absolutely equivalent? (xxi). Because the novel was written over twenty years as a series of short stories, and is set within Aleichem?s own surroundings, the reader can follow a remarkable progression in the author?s thinking. The writing unfolds against the background of late Tsarist Russia, a time of growing persecution for Jews. This historical context provides a sense of urgency to the narratives; Tevye?s growing doubt is driven by the isolation and disenfranchisement of his people, which suggest a breakdown in the promises of their faith. Aleichem thus makes a strong statement about the condition of the Jewish people in his lifetime.

Sholem Aleichem shielded himself from scrutiny not only by using Tevye as a mouthpiece, but also by crafting a new persona for himself as the author; the writer Sholem Aleichem was actually the rabbi Shalom Rabinovich. The author used these fictional mediators to pose difficult questions to his readers. Joseph Sherman observes that Tevye the Dairyman often transfers familiar religious formulae to new situations, creating paradoxes of faith. He notes, for example, that ?every time Tevye quotes from the Hallel [a prayer of praise], the effect of his quotation is to challenge the existence of the mercies that it celebrates in the everyday experience of ordinary folk like himself? (10).

David Booth explains further: ?Tevye has no sense of the clear cause-effect nature of God?s will as evoked in earlier Jewish responses to catastrophe. In this strange new world, all that he can count on is his family and his community.? God is silent during Tevye?s troubles; at the end of the book, hope seems to come not from the fact that ?God still lives? (since He has not been generous with deliverance) as much as from the fact that there is still a community of believing Jewish brethren scattered across the globe. In Booth?s view, Tevye has taken his questions so far that ?the affirmation becomes more important than what is affirmed, the storyteller more important than the story? (302). This existential tone marks Tevye the Dairyman as a vital part of the modern Jewish literary tradition, a tradition preoccupied with the challenges posed by philosophical rationalism as well as human suffering.

In 1894, Jewish identity papers in Russia were marked with the word ?Jew;? in this year, Sholem Aleichem wrote the first Tevye story. In 1905, Aleichem witnessed a pogrom in Kiev and subsequently left Russia; this is the date of ?Chava,? the first truly tragic story in the series. In 1914, the flood of Jewish emigration from Russia was cut off by World War I; this year saw the end of the series with ?Lekh-Lekho,? in which Tevye, although denied his dream of living in the Holy Land, is separated from his home forever (Halkin xiv-xv).

But the saga of Tevye did not end with ?Lekh-Lekho;? Tevye the Dairyman was adapted into a stage play, which was later adapted into a film. The plot of the film is drawn entirely from the book, specifically following the plots of ?Today?s Children,? ?Hodl,? and ?Chava? and including elements from ?Tevye Strikes it Rich? and ?Tevye Blows a Small Fortune.? The later, more depressing stories are absent, except for the common ending, in which Tevye is forced from his home.

One of the most important things to note about the adaptations is that both are musicals. The use of music is the primary distinction between the novel and the film; the poetic features of Aleichem?s prose are adapted to the screen in song form. The movie uses music to capture the feel of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. However, the reasons for the selection of this particular artistic medium run a bit deeper than that, and the decision to tell the stories of Sholem Aleichem through music works beautifully.

Music can overcome the barriers of language and culture in order to communicate directly to the heart and soul of the listener. In fact, we see this in the movie during the song ?To Life,? as the Russians and Jews set aside their differences for a time of celebration. The music acts as an emotional unifier. It brings the characters in the movie together as they sing, and it draws the viewer in with them as well. This echoes the theme of community that is so prevalent in Tevye the Dairyman; the musical element in the film subtly reinforces this theme for the viewer.

Music is used effectively in a number of different ways throughout Fiddler on the Roof. Most of the songs fall into more than one of the following categories. First, music cultivates and reveals deeper connections between characters in a number of instances (e.g. ?To Life,? ?Miracle of Miracles,? and ?Do You Love Me??). Some of the songs, such as ?Matchmaker? and ?If I Were a Rich Man,? give added depth to the characters. The forming of connections extends beyond individuals to the cultural level; a number of the songs draw deeply on Jewish culture, bringing out the importance of various Jewish beliefs and traditions. This is perhaps most apparent in the song ?Sabbath Prayer,? a montage of Jewish families celebrating the Sabbath together in different homes throughout the village. The influence of Jewish customs can also be seen in dance during the ?Wedding Celebration? number.

Another function of the songs is to emphasize a point or theme beyond what could be accomplished with normal dialogue. ?Sunrise, Sunset,? ?Far From the Home I Love,? ?Tradition,? and ?Anatevka? all fit into this category. In fact, ?Tradition? sums up the major theme of the film: Jewish traditions form the foundation of Jewish identity. In ?Anatevka,? furthermore, it becomes clear that this Jewish community consists of something much deeper and more lasting than the few dilapidated houses that make up the small Russian village. A bond far stronger than mere location binds these characters to one another.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, some songs are heavily symbolic. The best example of this in Fiddler is the ?Chava Ballet Sequence.? The sequence is one of the linchpins of the movie, using music and dance to summarize the progression of the story to that point. As instrumental music plays, Golde silently teaches Chava to dance, after which Chava walks out to join her older sisters. The three dance together to the tune of the Fiddler (more will be said about this enigmatic character later), until the two eldest are joined by their respective spouses and dance away from their sister. Chava is left dancing alone until she feels the luring call of Fyedka. There is a brief struggle as the Fiddler tries to hold her back, but in the end Chava runs (but does not dance) to join Fyedka. Symbolically, this represents how the girls have been taught to ?dance? to the tune of tradition by their mother, and how the first two have been joined in the dance by their husbands. Chava, on the other hand, has abandoned the dance completely; she has broken with tradition and community, leaving behind everything and everyone she has ever known, as her heartbroken father watches.

The musical numbers are not the only important elements at work within Fiddler on the Roof, however. The title character, who ties everything together as the movie?s chief metaphor, is quite musical in nature. He could effectively symbolize a number of different things, but the most significant is shown by what Tevye says at the beginning of the film: ?A fiddler on the roof. Here [. . .] you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. You may ask [. . .] how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!? The Fiddler represents both tradition and the spirit of Jewish community.

The Fiddler appears several times during the movie, each one a key point in the plot or in the changing of Tevye?s fortunes. The first such appearance is in the opening credits, after Tevye has introduced the concept of tradition to the audience. After this, the Fiddler does not return until Tevye hears news of the pogrom, after an evening of carousing with Lazar Wolf. Here he moves from an emotional high to an emotional low, and this is one of several points in the movie where he questions God. It is here that the Fiddler appears to pull him back out of despair and lead him home.

The Fiddler?s role in the vital ballet sequence has already been mentioned. His fourth and final appearance in the movie comes just a few moments before the closing credits begin to roll. Tevye and his family have just left behind their home, and are slogging slowly through the half-frozen mud of a road in the middle of nowhere. They, like countless Jews before them, have been cast adrift in the world, and Tevye seems despondent. Then he hears the quiet playing of the Fiddler behind him. Turning, he spots the musician, who stares back with a mischievous glint in his eye. Tevye motions him to follow with his head, and then, as the Fiddler follows and plays joyfully behind him, strides purposefully onward with his head held high. The message seems to be that so long as the Jewish people keep their traditions with them, their fellowship with God and each other will remain intact, and they will have nothing to fear.

Here we see a significant departure from the message of Tevye the Dairyman. Both the novel and the film grow more serious as they progress, but the book has moments of utter sadness (e.g. the deaths of Shprintze and Golde), while the film remains relatively optimistic. In the book, the hope expressed at the end of the last story is almost half-hearted after Tevye?s recent expression of doubt. In contrast, the film ends with the lilting, happy strains of the Fiddler?s music, which accompanies Tevye and his family (which includes Golde, who is still alive in the film) as they travel. The film?s ending is almost happy; it certainly celebrates the stoic resolve of the Jewish people.

In short, the novel Tevye the Dairyman carries an almost bitter tone as it reflects on what seems to be God?s abandonment of the Jews. At the same time, it maintains that faith in God is necessary, if for no other reason than for the community it gives the Jews. The film Fiddler on the Roof has a similar focus on community, but its happier tone reflects a more hopeful outlook and faith in God.

Works Consulted

Aleichem, Sholem. Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. Trans. Hillel Halkin. Schocken Books, 1987.

Booth, David. ?The Role of the Storyteller?Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel.? Judaism 42.3 (1993): 298-312.

Fiddler on the Roof. Screenplay by Sholom Aleichem and Joseph Stein. Dir. Norman Jewison. MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1971.

Halkin, Hillel. Introduction. Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. By Sholem Aleichem. Trans. Halkin. Schocken Books, 1987.

Sherman, Joseph. ?Holding Fast to Integrity: Shalom Rabinovich, Sholem Aleichem and Tevye the Dairyman.? Judaism 43.1 (1994): 6-18.

~ by Jared on November 11, 2004.

3 Responses to “Transfiguring the Tradition”

  1. Following the Fiddler

    Wheeler has posted the paper that he, Martinez, and I wrote together for World Literature through Film. The paper itself is mildly entertaining; I like his introduction, which explains our group’s history with Fiddler on…


  2. Also nicely done…probably the best you’ve posted. Your observations on the effectiveness of music to communicate emotions, culture..the very essence of a situation are good. And certainly TFOR does this especially effectively on film. “Sabbath Prayer” is the most powerful example of this.

    give yourself a gold star….


  3. sorry for the fragments earlier…too many 5th grade discipline problems rolling through my door.


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