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Tevye Explains It All: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Judaism Can Be Learned From "Fiddler on the Roof"

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

Erev Rosh HaShanah 2021, Temple Chai, Phoenix, AZ


A Fiddler on the Roof?  Sounds crazy, no?  In 1905, Shalom Aleichem published his stories about Tevye the Dairyman, who, along with his wife Goldie, was raising 5 daughters in Imperial Russia.  Jerry Stein, Sheldon Bock and Jerry Bock fell in love with these stories, and, in 1964, the play debuted on Broadway.  It has been an international sensation ever since.

Fiddler was an integral part of my youth.  I listened to the album and read the play so many times that I knew it by heart.  What is the power of this quintessentially Jewish story that it continues to resonate way beyond the Jewish community?  Fiddler on the Roof is, first and foremost, the story of a family, and the story of a family that struggles to adapt to a changing world. It is a story of refugees.   It is a story that expresses enduring hopes and dreams and essential values, even as it reflects gender roles of a bygone era. It speaks to our identity as wandering Jews, as Tevye suggests- we always keep our heads covered because we never know when we will need to leave our homes.

Sadly, the scene of the pogrom at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding is all too reminiscent of the universality of anti-semitism.  No doubt those early audiences saw them through the lens of the Holocaust, and reflected on their own ancestors, some of whom escaped from villages very much like Anatevka, and some of whom missed the opportunity to get out and were among the six million lost.  Perhaps your own family shared those experiences?  How terribly tragic that in America in 2021, we are not surprised at the ongoing attacks on the Jewish community.  “May all your futures be pleasant ones, not like our present ones,” the villagers sing in the epic “L’Chayim,” and we nod our heads in agreement.

I noticed that in classes that I teach, again and again I find myself referencing the words of Tevye and the lines from the musical.  It seems like everything you might want to know about Judaism could be gleaned from Fiddler on the Roof.  Let’s look at some of these themes, beginning our journey through Fiddler with this question-what is it that we want most for our children?  What are the joys and challenges of raising children? It is a poignant moment when the candles are lit in every home, and we zoom in to Tevye and Goldie blessing their children on Shabbat and singing “The Sabbath Prayer.”  All of their hopes and dreams are embodied in that prayer.  Again, though the lyrics reflect a time of gender stereotypes from which we have, thankfully, evolved, we can relate to the desire that our children be protected from shame.  We hope that they will grow to be “deserving of praise,” that they will be blessed to have a good name and suffer as little pain as possible.  We understand that they will make their own choices about religious preferences and decisions about life partners.  Yet, we also hope that they will find much that is meaningful in Jewish life, and be blessed with relationships with caring partners.  (cantor sings a few lines from Fiddler, adapted for gender sensitivity)

Sunrise, Sunset is still commonly played at weddings.  Parents still wonder what words of wisdom they can pass on to their children, and stand in amazement as how quickly children grow into adulthood.  “I don’t remember growing older,” they sing, “when did they?”  Personally I can’t believe that I am a Bubbe with five grandchildren- how DID that happen?  The song ends with a powerful and truthful description of the life the couple will live- “laden with happiness and tears.” (cantor sings a few verses from sunrise, sunset, including this line)

Tevye has 5 daughters and no sons, and he is living through a changing time when women’s roles are evolving.  It’s fascinating that historically men who only have daughters are more open to women’s participation in Jewish life, whether it was Rashi, who in the 11th century taught his daughters to put on tefillin, or Mordecai Kaplan in the early 20th century, whose daughter Judith was the first publicly celebrated Bat Mitzvah.

The girls shock their father by not automatically accepting his choices for their husbands.  Tevye is so pleased with himself at the shidduch, the match he concludes for his daughter Tzeitel, only to be overruled when she insists on marrying her poor beloved, Motel the tailor. (pianist play softly, matchmaker, matchmaker)  In the words of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” the daughters come to understand that their options may be limited, and that, rather than being in a hurry to marry, they may be much better off waiting until Yenta can find “a matchless match.”  They implore her- “Please, take your time.  Up to this minute I misunderstood, that I could get stuck for good.”

Tevye draws the line, though, when his daughter Chava wants to marry a non-Jew.  How much can he bend, he asks, before he breaks? His estrangement from his daughter is one of the most heartwrenching aspects of the play.  We can be SO grateful that our community has evolved to appreciate the blessing that non-Jewish friends and families bring our community.

The relationship between marriage partners is evolving too.  When Tevye asks Goldie, “Do You Love Me?”, she is mystified.  (pianist plays softly do you love me?)

“Do I What?”, she replies.  She explains that for twenty five years she has cared for hearth and home.  Tevye persists and shares how frightened he was when they met, for the first time, mind you!,  on their wedding day.  His parents assured him that they would grow to love each other, and now he is seeking affirmation of that.  In the end, they both, somewhat reluctantly confess that they suppose that they actually DO love one another!  “It’s a new world,” Tevye notes, “a new world- love.” Today we are blessed with the right to marry whomever we choose.  It is, indeed, a new world, and a better world in this respect.

Have you dreamed of winning the lottery?  It’s an ongoing fantasy.  What would you do with all of that bounty?  Well, Tevye knows what he would do, and he sings about it in “If I Were a Rich Man.”  He wouldn’t have to work hard, and neither would his wife.  I love that he doesn’t imagine that he wouldn’t have to work at all.  Jewish tradition values work- it’s right there in the ten commandments.  He would be able to work less, he would have a big home in the center of town, and he would be sought out for advice.  But, again, reflecting the deepest Jewish values, he imagines having time to “. . . sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.”  He’d “discuss the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day- that would be the sweetest thing of all.”  It’s one of the sweetest moments in the play, this beautiful reflection on what matters most in Jewish life- prayer and learning.  An invitation for us to reflect on what are our highest priorities and what would we focus on if money ceased to be a concern in our lives.  When Perchik tries to tell Tevye that money is the world’s curse, Tevye candidly replies, “May God smite me with it, and may I never recover.” (cantor sings a few lines from if I were a rich man)

It’s a hard life in Anatevka.  Threats from the outside world, both in terms of antisemitism as well as changing cultural mores.  Life is evolving rapidly.  Somehow, Tevye is sanguine.  Misquoting the Bible, he is reconciled to the fact that, “Good news will stay, and bad news will refuse to leave.” So he preaches acceptance, and a focus on as much joy as possible.   “God would like us to be joyful,” he intones, “even when our hearts lie panting on the floor. . . And if our good fortune never comes, here’s to whatever comes, drink L’Chayim, to life.”  Challenging advice- to accept, indeed, to rejoice in, whatever comes.

Let’s bring it home.  Temple Chai IS our community, it’s our family, it’s our Anatevka.  We have surmounted SO many challenges as a congregation this year, way beyond COVID.

And yet, here we are!  Ushering in a new year, filled with new possibilities.  A new senior rabbi, planning for a new home for our community.  Our very temple logo forms the shape of a home.  We understand the anxiety of the people of Anatevka as they prepare to leave the only home they have ever known.  We feel it too.  When they ask, “Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?”, we powerfully relate to their concern.  We have shared lifetimes of beautiful Shabbatot on this campus, and it’s unimaginable that they could be equaled anywhere else.

And yet- if we look at our Temple Chai logo,  front and center is a door.  And when we open that door, what do we find?  A community.  A circle of friends who are like family.  Who are there for us whether the news is good or bad.  Who share our commitment to prayer and study and to growing together.  To tikkun olam/making our world a better place.

Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?  Wherever our journey leads.  Because ultimately what makes Temple Chai the uniquely special congregation that we are, is all of you.  Each and every one of you.

Traveling “Far From the Home I Love” is the ultimate theme of Fiddler on the Roof.  The song concludes with the words, “There with my love, I’m home.”  It’s a profound and powerful reminder.  WE are Temple Chai.  Wherever we end up, if we have each other, if we have the people that we love, there, with our loves, we are home.  May we enter this new year with strength and comfort, with hope and joy, with tremendous excitement about where this next stage in our journey will lead.

(conclude with rousing “To Life”)

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