When I was on vacation in California (home state, represent), I struck gold. My friend in LA had extra tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Now, I saw the show when I was in high school in San Diego, at a bad theater, but starring the great Theodore Bikel. I was excited, as he was one of the 3 big Tevyes, but to be honest, the show wasn’t all that great.
So I decided to give it another shot. And here is where the gold comes in. The show starred Topol! That’s right, Topol, the original Tevye (at least in my eyes) – the guy from the movie! I read his bio in my little Playbill, and honestly, it didn’t matter to me what else he’d been in, because Topol IS Tevye the Milkman. And lucky for me, I got to see him on his “Farewell Tour.”
Watching the show, I was in awe of how he lit up the stage. His voice has aged since the film was made, but he was still magical. He danced, he sang and he was funny! He really brought the show to life, I mean, I had tears in my eyes when he tried to give his daughter Tzeitel to Lazer Wolf!
Halfway through the show (the very, very long and quite slow show), I started wondering what other people in the audience thought of the plot. There were people of all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities there. I started wondering how they view this classic Jewish story. I wondered how other Jews viewed the story. Do people think that the lifestyle and opinions of Tevye are just in the past? Do they view the ancient traditions as ridiculous pieces of history? And my biggest question: when Tevye rejects Chava for marrying a non-Jew…do people think Tevye is a bad man who can’t keep up with the times?
Though clearly not the best of musical theater, Fiddler on the Roof has always been very meaningful to me. I remember watching the double VHS set at my Bubbe and Zayda’s house all the time. It was either that or E.T., and that little alien voice totally freaked me out. But beyond sentimental meaning, the story itself carries a great deal of weight about Jewish culture, past and present. In just three [brief?] hours, Tevye’s family single-handedly defies Jewish tradition.
And beyond defying tradition, they uphold tradition, too. There are scenes that I could pull out of my own life. But would other people watching this show even imagine that these traditions still exist? Picture the wedding scene: all the men are dancing up to Motol and the women are dancing around Tzietel. I had the chance to see this (and participate in it) first hand at my friends’ wedding earlier this summer. Watching Fiddler on stage, it struck me how lasting our traditions are. Whether they are religious traditions or not, we’re still going strong, doing the hora in 2009 and doing the hora in 1905 Tsarist Russia. And that’s only 100 years back – I think we can do even better than that.
But back to my most important question of the night: what do people today think of Tevye when he rejects Chava, his middle child? As a little girl watching the film, I was always frightened when Tevye appears in the field with Chava, yelling “there is no other hand!!” He then tells his wife that Chava is dead to them. This scene is fairly shocking, considering that up until this point, he has weighed both sides of the debate for his older two daughters’ situations. You expect that he’ll give in to “the other hand” and accept Chava back into his life. But this is the straw that breaks Tevye’s horse’s back (I mean, the horse was injured to begin with, right? Of course I’m right).
It’s too much change for Tevye to handle. And I dare say anyone in his position would feel the same way. Take out the whole religious aspect of things: parents often flip out when their kids make drastic changes to their life – or decisions parents feel are terrible ones. But then add that whole religion thing back into the equation; don’t you feel a little bad for Tevye? His daughters are all showing him that they don’t need him, that his role in their spiritual and religious lives is not as important as it used to be. That despite how they were raised, they’re going to do whatever the hell they want.
I think all Jews (and non Jews too) should revisit this classic tale. Watch Fiddler on the Roof again, with the stunning performance by Topol, and try to find the parts of it you relate to. You may not find a whole lot, but I’m sure if you look close enough, you will find a richness in this story that you may not have recognized before.
Right? Of course I’m right!