Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’: Understanding (and Misunderstanding) Tradition

BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMESeptember 16, 2022 PRINT

G | 3h | Drama, Comedy | 1971

Legend has it that studio executives, apparently unaware that director Norman Jewison was Christian, met him to discuss their film “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971). Upon hearing of their ambitious musical, Jewison said, “You know I’m not Jewish, right?” A wink and a nudge has followed the film ever since, but a twinkle in the eye came first.

It all started with the early 20th-century tragicomic stories by Sholem Aleichem, often called “the Jewish Mark Twain.” Aleichem’s series, “Tevye and his Daughters,” inspired the lesser-known, and decidedly dark, American-Yiddish film, “Tevye” (1939), and later, playwright Joseph Stein’s book. Stein clarified that his story is universal because it’s “about characters who just happened to be Jewish.”

The 1964 stage musical that followed turned it into a hit on the back of Jerry Bock’s superb music and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics.

The story reflects human yearnings of any age and time. Amidst tumultuous change in Imperial Russia, a poor milkman, Tevye (Chaim Topol) and his wife Golde (Norma Crane), Jewish villagers from Anatevka, yearn for stability and prosperity.

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Tevye’s family prays before sitting down to a Passover meal in Tsarist Russia, in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (MovieStillsDB)

Three grown-up daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava) of the family’s five girls leave their parental home to set up new families. The girls seemingly defy tradition, by choosing grooms for themselves. Their choices test their parents’ red lines on conformity, class, and religion: One groom’s poorer than they are, another’s a rabble-rouser, and yet another’s not even Jewish.

Getting Tradition Right 

Some critics argue that the movie places circumstance above custom, and pragmatism above tradition. That’s too sweeping. In many ways, it does the opposite, by questioning lazy ideas about tradition.

At first, Tevye’s and Golde’s understanding of tradition is rudimentary, along the lines of the “how” of living: how to sleep, how to eat, how to wear clothes, how to keep your head covered to show devotion to God.

Then, they wise up to the truth. As the story unfolds, tradition turns out to be more vital than a “who must do what and when” list. It’s about the “how” of life itself: how to love, how to celebrate, how to let go. They learn that tradition isn’t received knowledge, but received wisdom. Not a mere ordering of custom and practice, but a higher form, an ordering of values, with love and truth at the summit.

The film’s point is not that love is greater than tradition, but that love, expressed through the “traditional” institutions of marriage, the family, or religion, is the highest tradition there is. Understood correctly, tradition helps us to distinguish and choose what’s better between what heals and what harms, what unites and what divides. Only then can we discern what’s less useful and can be replaced from what merely needs to be contextualized, refreshed, then retained.

Far from being “anti-family,” the girls emulate their parents: upholding marriage and family as a model. They’re marrying and starting new families that, they know, will be centered around love and truth.

Sure, the film includes a dismantling of some old, inequitable traditions, and an embrace of new, egalitarian ones. But this dismantling isn’t always being done to Tevye and his family; they’re doing it, too, to themselves, to others. They’re not passive objects, but active agents in the drama of tradition.

Tevye abhors the idea of a dowry and shows it. He re-awakens affection within his 25-year-old marriage, instead of accepting apathy in an “arranged” partnership as inevitable.

With Golde, Tevye discovers that their parents’ wish that they’d “learn to love each other” wasn’t meant only for their wedding day, but as a signpost every day of their married lives. And that marriage doesn’t imply love, any more than living-in does. Living “as a couple” doesn’t make “a couple.” Only love does that.

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Chaim Topol as Tevye and Norma Crane as Golde, his wife, raise three daughter in changing times of Tsarist Russia in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (MovieStillsDB)

Tevye recognizes that keeping his word isn’t only about a “spoken” promise like, say, offering young Tzeitel in marriage to the affluent-but-aged Wolf, just to keep a promise. It’s also about an “unspoken” promise, to prepare his daughter for happiness, not just to protect her from hunger or humiliation.

At a wedding party, when Hodel’s suitor Perchik pulls down the customary cord separating men from women, and invites her to dance, it isn’t long before Tevye cheekily invites Golde to dance.

Chava’s suitor Fyedka tells his buddies to stop harassing her, to show her respect. Bullying girls may be the default for boys his age, but Fyedka replaces their tradition (of indulgence) with his (of restraint).

First, Tevye sympathizes with Tzeitel’s choice of poor-but-young Motel over Golde’s preferred son-in-law, Wolf. Then, Golde supports Chava’s choice of  non-Jew Fyedka over Tevye’s preference for a Jewish son-in-law.

Far from exposing it as dying, dead or static, the film hints at tradition being a dynamic, living, breathing thing. In spite of its brooding themes, funny lines are strewn all throughout the film, like colorful prayer shawls.

Remarkably for such a male-dominated, heavily-bearded landscape, Tevye’s girls, villagers yet, are among the bravest changemakers.

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Rosalind Harris as Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, and Leonard Frey as Motel Kamzoil, the tailor, Tzeitel’s eventual husband, pledge their troth in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (MovieStillsDB)

At home, the girls sing their fantasies (and fears) about prospective grooms, knowing how poverty limits their choices as brides. They needle each other about having to put up with older, unattractive, uncouth men:

“Chava! I found him,
Will you be a lucky bride?
He’s handsome, he’s tall;
That is, from side to side.
But he’s a nice man, a good catch.
Right? Right!”

Russian-Jewish painter Marc Chagall’s oil painting, “The Fiddler” (1913) inspired the motif of a fiddler on a roof, a metaphor for the precarious lives of marginalized communities. Trivia fans and cinephiles will want to seek out Daniel Raim’s new documentary “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” (2022).

A Musical That Falls Short of Its Music

Worthy as they are, Jewison’s visual ambition and achievement fall short of John Williams’s majestic adaptation and orchestration of Bock’s music. It’s not Jewison’s fault that this gap exists, but there you are.

Williams writes the four-minute cadenza played during the opening credits, several crucial transitions and extended set pieces. Short of re-writing it, he reimagines, expands, and elevates the original score to a stratospheric level. What’s more, he’s supported by virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern.

Try this: Listen to the soundtrack with no accompanying visuals. Every track summons stirring images of life, death, love, joy, sorrow, fear, daring, hope, and despair. Instantly, you sense a simultaneity, an all-at-once-ness. You feel several emotions, often mid-sentence, in a single song.

Now, do you get that ‘epic’ sense from Jewison’s scenes on screen? Not intensely enough. Not consistently enough. There are flashes of Jewison’s cinematic brilliance that do justice to some tracks, but ultimately too few of them. The choreography of “Do You Love Me?” is tender and intimate, “The Wedding Celebration/Bottle Dance” appears lively enough and “Tevye’s Dream” is fun.

What of other tracks, as they appear on screen? As music and lyrics from seven tracks reach your ears, they conjure entire worlds: “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “Sabbath Prayer,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Far From The Home I Love,” or “To Life.” But when Jewison’s images reach your eyes, there’s too little of that effervescence, that depth. For a play? Those images do more than justice. For a movie? They’re a little dull.

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Chaim Topol as Tevye, patriarch of a poor Jewish family in Tsarist Russia, learns about tradition in “Fiddler on the Roof.” (MovieStillsDB)

The entire cast is fabulous, but Topol (only in his mid-30s at the time) is outstanding. His melancholic playfulness as Tevye stays with you long after the closing credits have rolled. Topol’s voice is deeper and carries more gravitas, his pace of delivery is slower and his diction and intonation immeasurably more colorful and more weathered than Zero Mostel’s (Tevye in the 1964 stage play).

In a comical inversion of tradition, Tevye winks at ancient Jewish custom that discourages lay folk from calling God’s name, never mind chatting Him up. With not a mediatory rabbi in sight, Tevye nudges us, the audience, then chats conspiratorially with God, the way he’d grumble or gossip with a childhood friend. It’s in this charming spiritual intimacy that he finds the insight and forbearance, as a “fiddler,” to play life’s tunes. How else do you think he gets that twinkle in his eye?

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Poster for “Fiddler on the Roof,” a film by Norman Jewison that tells the story of a poor Jewish family amidst tumultuous change in Imperial Russia. (MovieStillsDB)

‘Fiddler on the Roof’
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Chaim Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 3 hours
Release Date: Nov. 3, 1971
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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