Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Fiddler On The Roof: A Very Jewish Movie

I recently stumbled across 'Fiddler on the Roof' and decided to watch it, I was aware that there was a particularly Jewish musical by that name but I'd always avoided it because I dislike musicals. Today, however, an entirely Jewish musical set in Russia shortly before the Russian Revolution has much to offer to the dissident Nationalist mind. 
 The history of the Jews in Russia, the 'Pale of the Settlement', the animosity toward the Russian aristocracy and the rise of revolutionary Marxism, is a vast area of exploration and a post such as this could easily spiral out of control, so for the sake of brevity I'll try and keep this within the context of the Fiddler on the Roof movie, readers might want to check out ''Solzhenitsyn's Forbidden Book'' which deals with the Jewish involvement with Bolshevism and the Occidental Observers series on the 'Pale of the Settlement'.

 So, Fiddler on the Roof, then, is the Hollywood version of the hugely popular Broadway musical which was itself based on the books of  Sholem Aleichem. We can dispense with ((parenthesis)) and pointing out who is and is not Jewish here, the entire production, writers, actors, studios, history and source material is Jewish. Fiddler on the Roof is quite possibly the most Jewish production ever made(!).

The drama is set in the fictional town of Anatevka in 1905, Anatevka might not be an actual place but it is supposed to be within the Pale of Settlement inside the Russian Empire. 

 Anatevka is a rural backwater which is majority Jewish, the Jews of Anatevka are humble farmers, tailors, butchers and salt of the earth types working the land. Our main character, Tevye, played by Chaim Topol, is a milkman with five daughters. The drama in Fiddler on the Roof centres around Tevye's attempts to find suitable husbands for his daughters, in accordance with Jewish traditions.

The name ''Fiddler on the Roof'' is metaphorical, the Jewish diaspora in Russia are the Fiddler on the Roof and like the Fiddler,  their existence is  rather parlous, they could fall off or be 'pushed' off at any minute. The movie opens with Tevye explaining that what prevents the Jews from falling and losing themselves is their dedication to their own traditions, he then bursts out in song about it:

Personally I found Tevye to be a bit of a shady character, he speaks in nods and winks to the audience and regularly berates God, he comes over as shifty and untrustworthy, and he's supposed to be the moral heart of the film which is rather problematic.
A face you can trust

After the initial introduction Tevye guides us through the village introducing us to the Jews toiling and sweating, sowing crops and working hard as he delivers milk, seemingly for free. One group of men stand huddled together in heated discussion over a newspaper, we then learn that the Jews in a nearby village have been expelled by the Tsar, no explanation is provided for why this happened, but in the previous scene the local rabbi stated that they would be blessed if the Tsar would stay well away from the Jews.

 A strange statement given that they live in Russia, but stranger still is that as the men are discussing the Jewish eviction they are approached by a young Jewish man, Perchik, who berates them for doing ''nothing but talk''. It turns out the young man is a Marxist revolutionary who's studying at Kiev, he tells the Orthodox Jewish yokels that ''great changes are coming to Russia'' and explains to Tevye that ''Soon enough, the wealth of the rich will belong to us''. Tevye reacts to this by offering Perchik a job tutoring his daughters.

Having invited a revolutionary Marxist into his home as a tutor for his daughters, Tevye then belts out another song, the most famous song in the Fiddler of the Roof canon, ''If I were a rich man''.

The central plot of Fiddler on the Roof then comes into play, choosing husbands for Tevye's three oldest daughters. The Orthodox tradition was to arrange marriages via a matchmaker, in Fiddler an old crone called Yente performs that role. Teyve's eldest daughter, Tzeitel, who looks like a young Barbara Streisand, is set to be married to an elderly but wealthy butcher. However, Tzeitel is actually in love with a young poverty stricken tailor . After more songs and kvetching Tevye gives in and allows Tzeitel to marry the tailor, his problem now is how to explain this to his wife, Golda.
 The shifty Tevye then tells his wife an elaborate lie, he pretends to have a dream in which Yente's long dead grandmother visits him to warn of death, pain and misery if Tzeitel does not marry the tailor. With his wife suitably tricked Tevye gives the audience a sly wink and giggles himself off to sleep.

 Fiddler on the Roof features a local policeman who's not Jewish but Russian, in the movie the policeman is rather sympathetic to the Jews, however, in  Sholem Aleichem's book he was not, in the movie he is summoned to St Petersburg and ordered to carry out a pogrom against the Jews, he only does so reluctantly, in the books he did so with far more enthusiasm. Once again, no explanation is given as to why the Russian government would order the Jews to be persecuted, but at any rate a gang show up at Tzeitel's wedding celebrations and trash the party for no reason. 

 Meanwhile, Tevye's second daughter, Hodel, has fallen in love with Marxist revolutionary Perchik. The drama here is not that Perchik wants to violently overthrow the Russian state, but that he hasn't asked Tevye's permission to marry Hodel. Perchik himself wooed Hodel by way of Marx as romantic poet, explaining that marriage was nothing more than a ''Socio-Economic Partnership''. 
 Unfortunately, before the happy couple are married Perchik is arrested by the Tsar's men for attempting a coup, his punishment is to be sent to Siberia, Hodel decides to meet him there and promises Teyve they'll get married as soon as they can. Tevye explains that there'll probably be a few imprisoned rabbis in Siberia to marry them. Yes, Tevye, I'm sure there will be...

The beautiful Tzeitel and her husband

Tzeitel and Hodel may well have caused Tevye stress and heartache, but ultimately Tevye was able to come to terms with a slight bending of traditional Jewish values, with his third daughter, Chava, Tevye's patience run out. Chava has committed the most grievous offence of all, she's fallen in love with a gentile, an ethnic Russian!. This Tevye cannot accept, in an interesting monologue Tevye once again addresses the audience, Chava  is making him choose between his people and his daughter, the problem is, if it became the norm for Jews to 'marry-out' then they would disappear. Tevye explains that he would ''have to bend so far I would break''.  

 The Chava story-line is easily the most engrossing of the three centred around Tevye's daughters, and it raises a few questions about Fiddler on the Roof , it being an extraordinarily Jewish production, namely, who was this film being made for?. The overwhelming majority of people who watch Fiddler will be non-Jewish, and so if Tevye rejects his daughter is that not signalling a Jewish rejection of the gentiles who are watching? on the other hand if Tevye accepts his daughters marriage is that not signalling to Jews that, in the end, love conquers in-group loyalty?

 Whatever the answer to that is, Tevye declares his daughter dead and casts her out of the family, despite her begging and beseaching him to accept her marriage. 

 Having disowned his daughter for falling love with a non-Jew, things are about to get worse again for Tevye, the Tzar's men arrive with an order telling the Jews they have three days to leave Anatevka or they'll be forced out by the army, as usual no reason is given and we're simply expected to believe that the Russian government hates the Jews without cause. But did they?

 So did the Russian government have a legitimate reason to be worried about the Jewish community in Anatevka? the answer would have to be a resounding YES!

 Anatevka is a village where a Marxist revolutionary can wander about and openly brag that he's plotting to destroy the Russian government and then share out the entire wealth of the Russian aristocracy, Tevye is quite happy to allow his own daughter to marry Perchik while at the same time disowning another daughter for wanting to marry a Russian. From the perspective of the Tsar, the Jewish community in Anatevka were a hostile out-group plotting to destroy him and his country!. Strip away the songs and smiles and the Jews of Anatevka are the 1905 Russian equivalent of Muslims in Malmo or Bradford today.

 Fiddler on the Roof ends with the Jews packing up and preparing to wander the earth once again, some are heading to the 'Promised Land', the majority, including Teyve's family, are heading to America, where, no doubt, they would continue to live as simple country folk tilling the land and keeping to themselves, respecting the traditions and politics of that great land....and Perchik will be meeting them there..... 

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