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Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Timeless Message of "Fiddler on the Roof"

  Last night I attended a local high school performance of "Fiddler on the Roof."  Aside from being  awestruck by the giftedness of our local young people, I was once again touched by the timeless message of this story. 
     For those who've never seen it, "Fiddler on the Roof" is the story of Tevye, a Russian-Jewish peasant living in the fictional Russian town of Anatevka in the early 1900s.  He has a strong relationship with God and the musical is peppered with his often comical "chats" with the Almighty, though we only hear Tevye's portion of the conversation.  In Tevye's world, life is a delicate balance.  Each person is like a fiddler balancing on a rooftop, trying to play a pleasant tune while not being knocked down by adversities and hardships of life.  He thinks that the only way to keep your balance is by adhering strictly to "Tradition!"  
    Tradition dictates the rules of life. Every person has their role to play - the papa, the mama, the son, the daughter.  As long as everyone plays their part correctly and no one questions those roles, things move along fine.
   However times are changing in Tevye's world.  The young people are starting to question the traditions, especially in the realm of marriage. Tradition dictates that marriages are arranged, with Papa having ultimate say in who the daughters will wed.  Tevye is "blessed" with 5 daughters, and being a poor family they do not have dowries.  The matchmaker in town is working hard to arrange suitable marriages.  However, the daughters have different ideas. 
    Each daughter strays from the tradition a little further in her choice of husband. The first daughter Tzeitel rejects a prospective arranged marriage to a rich elderly butcher, and begs her father to let her marry her childhood sweetheart Motel.  He is a nice Jewish boy of the same village, though a poor one, but when Tevye sees how much she loves him, he relents and gives permission.
    The second daughter Hodel chooses her own husband, Perchik, who is an outsider, a student, an intellectual, a radical with "new ideas."  He introduces strange new thinking to the town.  He believes, among other things, that girls should be educated, and that men and women should be allowed to dance together, which is forbidden in the strict Jewish society.  He is an idealist, and believes that if enough citizens band together to protest against the Czarist system of government, they can  change the world.   Hodel falls in love with him and they become engaged.  When it's time for Perchik to leave town to join the student movement, they do not ask for Tevye's permission to marry - they plan to wed no matter what. They only ask for his blessing, which he eventually gives, seeing he has no other choice.  Tevye sadly sees Hodel off at the train station to join Perchik in a distant town, not knowing when they will ever see each other again.
    The third daughter Chava goes beyond what Tevye can tolerate by marrying a Russian Christian soldier, after Tevye advises her to stay away from him.  This is moer of a break from tradition than Tevye can accept.   He feels he is being forced to choose between his faith and his daughter, and though heartbroken, he chooses his faith.  His daughter is dead to him.
      The Jews of the town are eventually evicted by the Russian soldiers, and everyone sadly heads off in different directions, taking their meager possessions and their rich traditions with them.
    Though the story is set a land foreign to us in a distant century, the story lines ring true and the  themes are timeless - love, faith, family, change, choice, forgiveness.  Don't we all have our own set of rules and roles to play that keep things on an even keel?  And when someone or something challenges those patterns and introduces a new way of thinking, we have to decide if we are going to accept the new way or struggle against it.  Sometimes we can bend and adapt and sometimes the choice is just too much.  We reject the new way and take comfort in our "traditions."   I see this in my church as we try to introduce contemporary songs and worship styles, and some resist.  We also see it in society with marriage no longer being defined as a union between one man and one woman.  Some can accept this and some cannot.
      If change happens too rapidly, things can get bent to the breaking point - relationships, institutions, governments, families, political systems.  That's why we have liberals always pushing for change, and conservatives always holding back.  The push and pull allows for advances and progress without creating so much havoc in society that we completely lose our way. Tradition is comforting in hard times and fine to hold on to but sometimes the old ways need to bend to allow room for new ideas and growth.  That is the delicate balance we all must keep, the balance between stability and change, old ways and progress, comfort and risk, safety and adventure, just like the fiddler balancing up there on that rooftop.