It’s All About Tradition, On The Stage, And Under The Chuppah

At the wedding I attended in Washington last weekend, I had a rare and precious chance to sit with my wife, among the guests, as a guest.

It doesn’t happen all that often. Most commonly, I am at weddings as the officiating rabbi. I’m worrying about who has the rings, do the bride and groom remember their lines, is there a glass to break under the huppah, and other details that people just assume take care of themselves. But in this instance, as a long-time friend of the bride’s parents, I could just sit back and watch the warmth and charm of the traditional Jewish wedding work its magic. And I was, anew, amazed at how arcane rituals that Jews have been practicing for literally thousands of years can still resonate with such rich meaning in this very different time.

On the long car ride back to New York, my wife and I happened to listen to a charming podcast, recorded some years ago, with Sheldon Harnick. He was the lyricist who, along with the late composer Jerry Bock, had gifted the world with the timeless score for Fiddler on the Roof, among other productions.

At the time the podcast was recorded, Harnick had just released an album of the songs that were omitted from the show when it opened, of which there were many. Actually, I was amazed to hear that for every song that got in, there were five to ten more that didn’t. That score is imprinted in so many Jewish brains, it’s hard to imagine squeezing anything else into it, but they had tried.

Most amazing of all was that the iconic opening number of the show, the “Tradition” song and its accompanying dancing, was not part of the original score. As it was first developed, the show was intended to open with Golda, Tevye’s wife, barking out orders to her five daughters on a frantic Friday afternoon. “Have you swept the floors? Have you set the table? Have you made the beds?” Finally, the exasperated daughters respond to her with the title line of the up-tempo song that was intended to introduce the play: “We haven’t missed a Sabbath yet!”

As Harnick told it, Harold Prince, the legendary producer of the show, wasn’t happy with the opening. When all is said and done, he asked, what’s the show about? Harnick responded that the show is about tradition: traditions that are beautiful and sustaining, traditions that are being challenged by an emerging modernity, and ultimately, traditions that will be bent if not broken, along with a few hearts. Prince responded that if the show was about tradition and its attendant challenges, then that’s what the show should open with– a musical number that, while charming, will also frame the show’s happiest and saddest moments in a manner true to the deepest meaning of the story.

Fiddler opened in 1964, but even all these years later, one might fairly say that the central tension that informed the show, as Sheldon Harnick articulated it, is even more an issue for us today than it was then.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have presented our Jewish Tradition (capital T intended) with an unending series of challenges. Issues related to feminism, gender roles, sexual orientation and assimilation and intermarriage continually force us to decide with which of Fiddler’s cast of characters we most closely identify, and at what price. Are we Tevye, who holds on to his cherished traditions with all his might until he has no choice but to bend, continually exhorting those around him to remember that without those traditions he’d/we’d be lost? Or do our sympathies lie with his daughters, who one by one continually test the outer limits of what is permissible? And even Golda, Tevye’s long-suffering wife, looked like she was enjoying that new-fangled touch dance with Tevye just fine until the Cossacks reminded her, and all of Anatevka, that nothing in their lives was secure.

The tension between tradition and change is not a new issue, but rather a dialectical tension woven into the modern Jewish experience. Each pole of the dialectic unendingly pulls at the other saying “yes, but in an unresolvable dynamic that plays out in ways both seen and unseen. Where we find ourselves on that dialectic is a pretty accurate barometer of how we define ourselves as Jews in the modern area, and what denomination of today’s Judaism we feel most comfortable in. Some regard allowing newer values to in any way alter ancient traditions as anathema, kind of like Tevye. Others would suggest that ancient traditions have to change in order to remain fresh and vibrant, able to resonate with a generation that is far removed from the Anatevka mentality of Fiddler.

I tend to straddle the middle with all my might, trying desperately to hold on. I certainly feel that new ideas and understandings whose times have clearly come have to interact with our time-honored traditions, because that is the way Judaism organically evolves. It always has, and it always will, and sometimes the change that it generates is not only not a bad thing, but also a moral one.

But as I sat at the wedding last weekend and watched a bride and groom very much of the twenty-first century go through the paces that Jewish brides and grooms have done for thousands of years, I could almost hear Tevye singing, and his voice was loud and clear.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.