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In the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Norman Jewison, the theme of traditions is prominent. The movie takes place in a small Jewish village in Russia. It follows the life of Tevye a poor milk man with five daughters. In the opening number, “Tradition”, Tevye, the main character, proclaims that, “Because of our traditions we’ve kept our balance for many, many years.” Which suggests that following traditions to the T is the only way to keep balance. However, the film seems to question if traditions should be followed, and how much they are allowed to differ to keep up with changing social cultural. Each of Tevye’s family members has differing views on traditions. His three eldest daughters stray further, further, and further away from tradition to ensure their happiness. They all decide to take this step, to stray from tradition, when it became evident the town matchmaker will not find them an acceptable match. Golde, Tevye’s wife, sees no point in staying happy if that means leaving tradition behind. Tevye, as a father and as a man of faith, struggles with finding balance between his daughter’s happiness and maintaining traditions.
Tzeitel, the eldest daughter, sticks the closest to traditions. She only defies tradition when she refuses to marry the man the matchmaker picked for her. When Tzeitel learns the matchmaker matched her with Lazar, the town butcher and a man 40 years her senior, she begs Tevye to let her marry whom she wants. She also tells him that it is impossible for her to marry this other man because she promised Motel that she would marry him. Tevye struggles to accept this information.Tevye rages that this is impossible because, “. . .We [ Tevye and Lazar] made an arrangement,” so she must marry Lazar. Tzeitel bites back and questions if “. . . An arrangement is more important than [her].” Tevye reflects on this question; “. . . Did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? . . Well yes they did and it seems these two have the same one.”
Tevye agrees to this new marriage because he seems to believe that he honoring his religion. He now struggles to find a way to tell his wife.
Golde, like many other Jews believe that, “. . . Survival [of the culture] has been based on . . . tradition.”(Diamond) Tevye knows this, however, he is also aware that Golde believes that dreams have important meanings; meanings that should be applied to everyday life. This leads Tevye to manufacture an insane story about a dream. In the dream Golde’s mother comes back from the dead to congratulate Motel on his marriage to Tzeitel. He also depicts Lazar’s dead wife their threatening to him if he continues to warrant the wedding between Tzeitel and Lazar. Based on Tevye’s dream and Motel’s heritage she accepts the marriage. By Tzeitel marrying whom she desired, she showed that traditions need to have room to grow and allow for personal happiness.
Hodel, the second oldest daughter, strays from tradition in various ways. First of all she dances with Perchik, a scandalous act because dancing with the opposite sex is forbidden in this village. At first Hodel refuses to dance because, “actions will be a reflection of . . . our culture.” (Diamond). Hodel questions Perchik and where he gets these outlandish ideas. Perchik informs Hodel that dancing with the opposite sex is very common in Moscow, where people can be seen dancing in the streets. He also tells her that nowhere in the bible does it forbid dancing with the opposite sex. After Perchik is done explaining his ideas, Hodel agrees to dance with him. Later on at Tzeitel and Motels wedding the Rabbi decrees that it is acceptable to dance with the opposite sex. Nobody is trilled with new thought; once Tevye and Perchik encourage the crowd everybody is dancing. It does like a strange occurrence for the Rabbi to change this religious law considering it has been forbidden for a few generations now. However, altering rules and traditions based on social or political change isn’t uncommon; it’s a very normal practice because,” every religious law, every divine prophecy is open to modification because it has human roots.”(Rothstine) A simple dance shows how easy it is to change a traditions in relationship to religion. It goes to show that religious text can be interpreted in various ways under different circumstance.
Hodel strays the furthest away from tradition when she becomes engaged to Perchik. Perchik didn’t ask for Tevye’s permission, he is not an orthodox Jew, and is a communist. When Hodel and Perchik announce their engagement to Tevye he immediately lashes out. He is outraged that they didn’t have a matchmaker, nor ask for his permission. Tevye questions how far they will stray from tradition since they where already the matchmaker will they be, “The bridegroom, matchmaker, and guests in one? I suppose you’ll perform the ceremony, too?” However, when Perchik declares his love for Hodel, he clearly hits one of Tevye’s soft spots. Tevye ponders, “Love is a new style, but the old style was once new, no?” After this realization he gives Perchik and Hodel his blessing. Golde does not take the news of her daughter’s engagement well; she yells and throws things a Tevye, who delivered the news. Golde is highly disappointed with her daughter because even though Perchik is Jewish he is not a like thinker; because he is a radical thinker he would be considered, “just Jewish,” and not, “An orthodox Jew,” like the rest of his soon to be family (Nieburh). Furthermore, Golde is angry because her daughter didn’t seek the guidance of the matchmaker. It is assumed she accepts Hodel and Perchik’s marriage. Hodel’s marriage shows that traditions can be pushed to the side when they encourage new ideals of society, if they don’t pose a threat to the foundation of a culture.
Chava, the middle daughter, completely disregards traditions; she elopes with a Catholic man. Chava first meets Fyedka when she is bombarded by young men who want her hand in marriage. Fyedka demands the men leave when he notices that their advances are unwanted. Chava seems uninterested in conversing with Fyedka, but he is persistent. She becomes interested in him when he gives her a book so they will have something to talk about. When Tevye discovers that Chava has come to admire Fyedka, Tevye reminds Chava that,“As the good book says ‘Each shall seek his own kind’. In other words, a bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?” However, Chava ignores her father and continues to visit with Fyedka and eventually falls in love with him. Eventually the two elope in the middle of the night, after Tevye forbids them from marrying.
Chava’s absents that night does not go unnoticed Tevye goes all over town looking for her. He even goes to the Catholic Church the next town over, to ask the priest if he has seen her. When Chava returns she confesses that she married Fyedka. Tevye demonizes her for betraying him, their faith, and their culture. He tries to talk himself to a calm, “Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter?” The more Tevye studies the situation the angrier he gets. He eventually puts his foot down and draws the line, “On the other hand…No…there is no other hand! NO, CHAVA!! NO!!” Tevye like 80% of orthodox Rabbi’s view interfaith marriages as the downfall to Jewish culture. Also Tevye is comparable to the 51% of Jewish parents find it unacceptable for the non-Jewish partner to be unwilling to convert to Judaism (Niebruh). Tevye, outraged by his daughter’s actions that he disowns her. Golde is disappointed in Chava’s actions; she, like Tevye, believes that Chava should’ve married a Jew. However, she is disheartened that Tevye disowned their daughter. Golde is well aware that Chava broke tradition but begs Tevye to let Chava back into the family. When Golde makes this request, Tevye becomes upset because he is the head of the house; which according to tradition, his word is law. Chava’s marriage demonstrates that some traditions are to deep rooted to change, and by changing them could water down a culture.
Should traditions be followed? Fiddler on the Roof seems to suggest that traditions need to be followed, but need room to evolve. This is made evident by Tevye’s efforts to maintain tradition and keep his daughters happy. By attempting to maintain balance Tevye unknowingly allows for the next generation to be apart of Jewish culture and not feel outcasted for breaking one tradition. Fiddler also suggest that traditions need to evolve in a manner that will not water down a culture. If the traditions grow under the careful watch of religious and change sociocultural environment. However some traditions must stay to ensure that cultures must stay intact. This is made evident when Tevye disowns Chava for marrying a man who is not Jewish. The movie suggest that interfaith marriages diminish a culture. However, under the correct circumstances an interfaith marriage could flourish and help create a new wonderful culture. In the end Tevye keeps up the balancing act by accepting change.
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