Fiddler on the Roof – What ‘traditions’ are we passing down?
This week Chaim Topol, the actor best known for playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” died at the age of 87 in Israel. Reading this brought up my own childhood memories of this wonderful musical and the songs that reverberated through my home by my dad. I grew up hearing my father singing the songs from “Fiddler on the Roof” with such gusto; so on the occasion of his 22nd yahrzeit in 2019, just before COVID hit, when I was in New York, I went to see Fiddler, in Yiddish! I was a bit worried about the Yiddish, but was pleasantly surprised to see that while the English subtitles were a huge help, I have a large vocabulary of Yiddish words and sayings. Wow, what a show! It was like my childhood came to life. Seeing Tevya as the dedicated head of the house family and community man was very nostalgic for me. My dad was so much like Tevya!
This time I watched with different eyes, more mature, not little “Mammela” anymore, but a grown woman with grown up children. The story is actually quite tragic and has deeper meaning and ramifications for how we continue our rich Jewish tradition and religion. One of the highlights is the opening song of “Tradition.” I can see in my mind’s eye how my father would shake his forefinger, singing, “Tradition… Tradition!” any time a situation arose that veered off the path a bit. When the song was sung in the show it got me thinking deeper as to how exactly we have survived as the Jewish people? What is the secret? It is said that Napoleon, upon seeing the Jews crying about the destruction of their temples on Tisha B’Av, exclaimed, “A nation that can mourn for so long the loss of its land and temple will return one day to see it rebuilt.” How is it possible that we have survived for thousands of years in spite of every imaginable persecution? No matter where we have been exiled to, we have clung to the continuation of our past through the rich culture and nuances of our tradition. And clung we have. Everyone has heard of stories from the Holocaust of Jews giving up their daily food rations in exchange for flour to be able to make matza for Pesach. Ironically, here the Jews clung to the festival of freedom and its laws while suffering their own servitude at the hands of the Nazis, but this is the secret to our continuation: Remembering and continuing our past and our tradition. Furthermore, Tevya demonstrates a connection with G-d as a way to maintain tradition. Throughout the show he is always quoting “The Good Book” and is constantly in dialogue with G-d. He explains that G-d’s laws keep the lives of the people in balance, and if they didn’t have their traditions, their lives would be “as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” This deepened my understanding of how we have survived; it is through commitment to our heritage. When we were threatened with death and annihilation, we chose to enmesh ourselves in our laws.
Two important traditions that have ensured our survival are that of marriage and Shabbat. Enters Yenta, the dedicated matchmaker, a feisty nagging old lady who never lets up! I feel there is a piece of her in each of us as it doesn’t matter what our religious level is, we have a strong pull to set people up, almost as if it is part of our DNA. Judaism’s deeper idea behind marriage is not just physical love and commitment, but the spiritual union of two souls. The traditional aspects of the ceremony which have been performed for thousands of years weaves something from past generations into this new couple and they, in turn, form a link with the past for future generations.
Watching the play, I felt sad to see that as each of Tevya’s daughters married, this concept became more and more diluted. The first marriage was one of love and spiritual commitment, the second of love and common national ideas, and the third of love but a rejection of her religion and faith altogether. This felt tragic as I watched it unfold. It is not just a play, it is what is happening all around us today as well. And what of the generation that marries out? How can we keep our tradition alive when we are faced with so many leaving?
Growing up, I remember my father constantly warning us children about the importance of marrying Jews and continuing the tradition. Back in the early 90’s, after 5 years of dating, Ian and I got engaged. What a celebration! A hope for a new generation to be born connected to our heritage. “To life. To life. L’Chaim!” I remember as we excitedly made the wedding plans, my dad was literally like Tevya, and each time I discussed costs, he would jump to his feet and literally burst into song, “If I were a rich man, Daidle deedle daidle Deedle daidle deedle daidle dum.” He would have loved the Yiddish version of “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothschild.” It was at this stage of the performance that I turned to the empty seat next to me and ‘asked’ my dad, “Are you enjoying the show?” When I got married I realized the importance of marrying a Jew, but only now do I see how fundamentally crucial it is that marrying Jewish is the only way to ensure the continuation of the tradition. It is this same message that I pass on to my four daughters because I see myself as a link in the tradition, and if the chain ends with me, then that will be tragic.
“Sunrise… Sunset… Sunrise… Sunset.” This song brought a flood of tears to me as I recalled dancing with my dad to this song at my own wedding. “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older, When did they?” It dawned on me that weddings are a bittersweet time where parents hand over their precious children into the hands of their soulmate. I remember the joy and blessings I felt as my dad and I danced, the privilege I experienced of having this wonderful person as my father, role model and faithful cheerleader. I didn’t even consider any sadness that he might be feeling with his “mamella” leaving home. As I watched Fiddler now, more mature, I thought about all the years of loss and absence I have felt since my dad died. Had I known as I danced with my dad that night that there wouldn’t be many more sunrises or sunsets for him… The lesson I take from this is to be fully in each moment experiencing them and “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” as Henry David Thoreau said.
Thankfully our religion offers us a magnificent way to be fully present without distraction, and that is the gift of Shabbat. Ahad Haam, poet and philosopher said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” For me, it is a two-way relationship. I stop and take a break at creating and doing in my world for Shabbat, and as I do this, Shabbat nurtures me. Shabbat is sacred time, to take a break from the physical and material world where we do, do, do, and to encounter the spiritual. It’s a time to be, a time where we disconnect in order to really connect with those around us and our Creator. It’s a humbling time where we realize that the world continues to exist perfectly without our input.
Growing up we were lucky to have ‘dinner time’ each night when the family assembled to eat. There was even dessert during the week! Supper lasted half an hour if that, but on Shabbat, there were guests, cousins, mouth-watering delicacies and special food which we would never eat during the week. My mom was a genuine “Balabusta,” a Yiddish expression describing a good home maker, just like Golda, Tevye’s wife. All my mom’s food was, (and still is) delicious, and she spent hours behind the scenes planning and preparing everything to be perfect. My sister and I helped my mom in the preparations by making homemade, handpainted chocolate leaves to decorate the desserts. What fun we had! Friday night was made special by blessings from my father, home baked delicious challot by my mom, tinned asparagus (which we were allowed to eat with our fingers because the Queen of England eats hers with fingers too), roasted turkey, chopped liver, doughnuts and singing! And it went on for hours. Nobody was off rushing anywhere and there were general knowledge questions being asked, and lots of “How was your week?” As the characters were running around the stage preparing for Shabbat, it brought me right back to my childhood Shabbatot. I am so grateful to my parents for these foundations and special memories.
Today, I love that on Shabbat everyone dresses up, no phones come to the table, and I, too, continue the traditions I grew up with (even the asparagus. I still can’t bring myself to eat them during the week). I think my dad would have loved Shabbat meals in my home. It frames my life as it is looked forward to and planned for from Tuesday, and after it finishes, it leaves me replenished to enter the new week. So, Shabbat is this great gift, a great tradition that we have to reconnect, recharge and replenish; in fact, it is probably a gift that the whole world would benefit from.
While tradition for Tevya is something rooted in the ancient past, for me it includes the passing down of ‘traditions’ I live by which are also strong themes in Fiddler. I resonated deeply with the songs “Miracle of Miracles” and “Now I have Everything.” Their themes have had a large impact on me as foundations with which I live my life and hopefully I am passing these attitudes on to my children; like my own ‘tradition’. “Miracle of miracles” is about seeing miracles in our lives. Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” When we recognize miracles, it brings us to a place of gratitude as to just how much we have been abundantly gifted. The other song, “Now I have Everything,” is also impactful in my attitude. What is “everything”? It’s a perception, a perspective about appreciation, an attitude in life. Can we thank God for the millions of individual blessings we have been given? Do we ever consider a perfectly functioning liver or hearing? What about the people in our lives? Do we tell them on an ordinary Tuesday how our lives are richer because they are in it? Or are we still waiting for more? We say in the morning blessings, “Bless are You King of the universe who has provided me with everything that I need.” We don’t say “Who WILL provide me”. We say “provided”, in past tense. Everything we need, we already have.
As the show drew to a tragic end, following the Pogrom and expulsion of all the Jews from Anatevka, I had a heavy heart as I saw the repetition of our history; Babylon, Rome, Spain, Poland…and more. Frantically, they all prepare to go in their own directions, families being torn apart and the rich Shtetl life abandoned. The heart-breaking performance ends with a glimmer of hope where Yenta the matchmaker announces that she is going to the Land of Israel, finally ending her status as the “wandering Jew.” Similar to Yenta, at this stage of my life, I feel privileged to have made aliyah and am living in Israel with my precious family. We joined my mom and my brothers who made aliya years before. My father would have been so proud! As Tevya’s family leaves Anatevka, a fiddler plays and follows them off the stage. What will be in the future? Hopefully I am passing on the legacy of my father, my mother and ancestors to my children who will, in turn, continue to do so for the next generation.