55 - Fiddler on the Roof
The last of the great MGM musicals, Fiddler on the Roof is set in Czarist Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution. Jews and Russian Orthodox believers tolerate each other in the tiny village of Anatevka, buying homemade cheese, cream and milk delivered by the very likable, but always struggling Jewish milkman Tevye, played by Israeli actor Chaim Topol in his most memorable role.
Tevye is the hard-working father of five daughters, a Jew who can never get ahead in an age when a dowry is vital to securing a good husband. Even so, he remains hopeful, narrating much of the film in one-sided conversations with God.
In the opening scene, he muses, “Without our traditions, life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” as a skinny violinist perched high on a steep gable launches into the film’s stirring theme song, performed off-camera by the incomparable Isaac Stern. “How do we keep our balance?” asks Tevye, “That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”
“Sounds crazy, no?” he muses as he walks along his dusty delivery route at sunset. “But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof: trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy.”
Back in the barn, Tevye lectures the cows that if money is the world's curse, then, "May the Lord smite me with it! And may I never recover!” Looking heavenward, he asks, “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize there's no shame in being poor, but –” and he imagines in the classic “If I Were a Rich Man” what he would do if he were wealthy.
The heart of the film deals with the courtships of his three eldest daughters – and their challenges to the traditions that he holds precious. When a penniless tailor pleads for the hand of his eldest daughter, Tevye muses heavenward: “On the one hand, he has absolutely nothing. On the other hand, things could never get worse for him, only better.”
After their wedding reception is wrecked by hooligans, Tevye looks to God, asking, “I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can't You choose someone else?”
Fiddler on the Roof marked the line between my childhood and adulthood. My best friend couldn’t understand anybody wanting to go to college. After all, nobody in our families had ever graduated from anything more than high school. Puzzled at my choice, Richard drove me hours away to school, helped me move into my dorm, then we went to see an afternoon matinee of Fiddler on the Roof.
I was stunned to realize most of the film was spoken to God – something I had only begun to do. In the last scenes, the Jews are forced to leave Anatevka – some going to America, others to Israel, and others not knowing where they will end up. Moments later, my best bud and I shook hands outside the theater – neither one of us knowing where life would take us.
He left and, feeling just a little unsure, like Tevye and his family starting anew, I began a new life – at college, independent for the first time, still very new at seeking the guidance, provision and protection of that same Almighty Father to whom Tevye spoke so confidently and trustingly.
~ Rob Kerby