As I child I could not sit through movies or meals. Sitting through a musical was out of the question.
Yet, when I was seven, my parents decided to take me to see Fiddler on the Roof. Looking back now as parent of a seven-year-old, I would not have been so bold.
Since that first experience, I have been I love with this story. I’ve seen the musical four times and the movie at least half a dozen. It’s one of my favorite resources for classes and sermons on Jewish tradition and history.
And I am not alone.
50 years after it first opened on Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof remains popular. It is even beloved in Japan, where very few Jews live.
What explains this universal appeal? What makes a musical about a small Jewish village in Russia in the 1890s speak to millions of people around the world in the 21st century?
1. It’s a story about change and loss: Fiddler on the Roof illustrates the slow collapse of a traditional way of life.
The end of the nineteenth century, much like our own times, was on of fundamental change. The small villages of Europe began to lose their residents to the lure of the bigger cities and the golden shores of America.
Modern ideas began to upend the traditional beliefs and practices. Trade and military service brought people into contact with those they never would have encountered a generation ago.
Change always creates a feeling of loss. No matter how old we are or where we live, we experience change. We can relate to what happened in the Jewish village of Fiddler, even though we never lived there.
2. It’s a story about family bonds: We can all relate to generational conflict. It is as old as humanity. It is even more pronounced in times of great change.
We know people whose marriage defied their parents wishes. We know people who became a teacher when their parents may have hoped for a doctor. Perhaps we are those people.
We struggle to maintain family bonds amidst such change. We feel the father’s pain as his daughters move away. We feel their mixture of excitement and fear as they leave their hometown.
3. It’s a story about human yearnings: Amongst Fiddler’s most treasured songs is If I Were a Rich Man. Dancing around his modest cottage, Tevya imagines the huge house, the adoring friends, and endless privileges he would have.
He pictures the leisure time, the special seat in the synagogue and the different clothes he and wife would enjoy.
Who among us has not dreamed of a different life, at least for a moment? Who among us has not walked through first-class cabin on a plane—or walked by a lavish fancy restaurant—and not thought it might be nice to sit or dine there?
Like Tevya, our yearnings are not simply financial. We yearn for a return to simpler times. We yearn for meaningful relationships. We yearn for a more perfect world.
At its core, yearnings represent the sacred impulse within us. The world as it is is not yet the world as it should be. As long as this is so, Fiddler on the Roof will continue to touch our hearts and souls.