When the Fiddler Falls off the Roof

Being a fiddler on the roof is no doubt a precarious role. Every time I see the movie or attend a theater adaptation of Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, I wonder what if the Fiddler falls? This eternal question is part of what draws me to the Fiddler’s character. He is an enigma; his music is mysterious – both distant and close. The Fiddler always leaves me wanting more.

I recently attended the current Broadway revival that will apparently close December 31, 2016. The production was as meaningful and enjoyable as each of my previous encounters with the story, albeit with some subtle and less than discreet changes. The title character began perched on a roof and at another point was hoisted through the air — something I do not recall from prior adaptations. There’s also the framing of Tevye, dressed  in a red parka without a head covering at the beginning and end of the play. This aspect received a fair amount of attention in 2015 when the play opened. Spoiler alert: The curtain opens with Tevye dressed in a modern red parka, which hides his small prayer shawl (tzitzit). His head is uncovered and, at the conclusion of the play, he joins those leaving Anatevka again wearing the red coat and without any head covering. At the time, reviewers offered this was a nod to contemporary times.

This is where I would go a little deeper. Tevye, no doubt a little different in the current Broadway revival, has a difficult relationship with God. Just as he changes, so too, has the Fiddler’s character undergone a transformation. Once upon a time, there was a delightful scene in which Tevye and the fiddler appear dancing opposite one another, getting closer and closer. The Fiddler’s steps, intentionally mirroring Tevye’s, draw closer in a front of flirtation that one hopes they might touch or exchange words. Yet, their intimacy is beyond consummation. The interchange, or lack there of in the current production, shows how far the Fiddler (dare I say God?) is out of Tevye’s reach. What has changed in the courtship between these two main characters? The scene that I just described, which is not in the current play, is just as meaningful and relevant today. There are many today for whom their faith is as ripe as their frustration.

Maybe Tevye’s character is different. He is portraying, or at the very least shuffling toward an audience that is struggling with many aspects of Jewish identity. The dancing, the shaking, and Tevye’s throwing his hands into the air in despair and love remains as pervasive as the distance between Tevye and God. Tevye wants God, even if only for a single moment, to pay him one simple measure of attention. That Tevye does not appear to achieve his goal is as painful as ever, especially as his anger and frustration grows as he gradually loses control of his family. Note: Tevye blessed (albeit reluctantly, the engagement of his two eldest daughters as was his jurisdiction. In a moment over which he has no control – his third daughter proclaims her love to a man outside of the Jewish faith – Tevye tries to exercise more power by disavowing her.

As Tevye appears to be losing his grip on his family and faith, he finally embraces the reality of Anatevka. When he seems to be done fighting and struggling, he faces a moment of rest and resolution placing his hand on the shoulder of the person in front of him. The shoulder of none other than the Fiddler on the roof who has descended and joined the villagers. Appearing like every other member of Anatevka, the Fiddler is no longer distant and diametrically opposite to Tevye. He is real and he is touchable.

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Cohen is the director of admissions for The Rabbinical School and the H. L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he loves to guide prospective students in discerning the path of their Jewish commitments and assisting them in gaining the experience they need to successfully prepare for lives of sacred service.
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