Herbert Belkin
Hert Belkin is a historian who lectures and writes on modern Jewish history.

Tevye and His Daughters

UNSPECIFIED – circa 1970: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Zero MOSTEL; As Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

The musical, Fiddler on the Roof, has been applauded all over the world with its setting in the distinctive Jewish culture found in Eastern Europe. This unique way of life was unknown to most audiences, but the story of a rooted tradition that was subject to change was universal and could be identified by appreciative audiences everywhere.. The story of Fiddler revolves around Tevye the milkman as he tries to cope with mounting changes to his traditions and way of life. The author of the Tevye’s stories, Shalom Aleichem (real name, Solomon Rabinovich) uses the marriages of Tevye’s three oldest daughters to illustrate the social and political changes that were sweeping through Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.

Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and her marriage to the tailor, Motel, would appear at first glance, to be the very model of a traditional shtetl marriage. Good daughter that she was, Tzeitel was marrying a nice Jewish boy, a hard-working tailor. But Tzeitel broke with the centuries-old tradition of having her marriage arranged by her parents with the help of a marriage broker. Tradition called for parents, not romance, to arrange shtetl marriages, covered by the saying, “marriage first, love later”. Tseitel upended tradition by asserting her independence and marrying the man she loved. Tradition here may not have been broken, but it was strained.

The marriage of Tevye’s next oldest daughter, Hodel, did break with tradition. Not only did Hovel completely disregard parental choice of a husband, but the man she married, Perchik, was a revolutionary who stood for the upheaval of both shtetl culture and the Czarist regime. Hovel’s marriage not only separated her from her family but plunged her into the precarious life of a political prisoner as he was imprisoned, in the words of the play, “far away”,

Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, represented a shattering of her religion, her family and any semblance of a Jewish life. Her marriage to the Christian, Fyedka, and her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy was a betrayal of everything Tevye held sacred. To accept Chava’s apostasy would mean his rejection of his life as a Jew. As a heart-broken Tevye said in the play, he could “bend so far before he broke“. Shattered by Chava’s marriage to a Christian, Tevye did what Jewish law required and declared Chaya dead to him and to his family.

The play does not cover the lives of Tevye’s two youngest daughters, Shprintze and Bielke; yet they, too, represent a drastic change from shtetl life. Tevye, his wife Golde, and their two youngest daughters emigrated from Anatevka to a new life in America. It was in America that the two youngest daughters received something that was denied their older sisters and challenged Tevye’s tradition – an education. Free, public education would change the lives of these young Jewish girls and end a 400-year-old shtetl tradition that limited their lives as a balabusta, a Jewish homemaker. With an education, there were possibilities for a life outside of the home that never existed in the shtetl. Secular education for girls would bring new opportunities in a new land, but it also meant a challenge to tradition and, for Tevye, how far he would have to bend before he broke.

About the Author
Historian Herb Belkin writes and lectures on the epic events of the last two hundred years of Jewish history. His field of study covers Zionism, the Jewish Diaspora and the critical struggle for a Jewish homeland. Herb has taught courses on modern Jewish history at Brandeis, Tufts and Salem State University. He is a columnist for the Jewish Advocate and was a speaker for the Israeli Consulate of New England.