By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire
“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say 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. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”
Of all of my favorite springtime traditions, the high school spring musical is amongst my favorites. Don’t worry — Passover still holds the number one spot, but the time-honored tradition of the transformation that can happen on the stage of a high school auditorium stage is a close second. Growing up, being a part of my own high school’s annual production was sacred: a ritual in itself, from the first audition to the final bow on closing night. Looking back now, I can see how each show was itself a lesson in community building and storytelling, both on and off stage. How fortunate I felt then to be invited to support this year’s spring musical at the Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington as they began the rehearsal process for Fiddler on the Roof.
The story of Fiddler on the Roof is iconic and layered, based on the stories “Tevye the Dairyman” written in the late 19th century by the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, and then transformed into the famous Broadway musical by Jerry Bock and Joseph Stein in 1964. The story of Tevye, his wife Golde, and their five daughters living in Anatevka is a timeless meditation on the themes of tradition and modernity, and joy amidst suffering. The fictional village of Anatevka is a composite sketch of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement in 1905, inviting us into the life of this family living during times of great upheaval and threat when Russia was still an empire ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, head of the dictatorial Romanov dynasty. The administration of Tsar Nicholas was instrumental in releasing a great deal of anti-Jewish propaganda. This propaganda incited fear and hatred of Jews among many non-Jewish citizens, and often led to violence. The three-year period from 1903 to 1906 was a particularly terrifying time for Russian Jews, as one pogrom after another raged in Western Russia. In 1905, the year in which Fiddler on the Roof begins, there were at least six pogroms in Imperial Russia, occurring in such major cities as Kishinev (capital of present-day Moldova), Odessa (in present-day Ukraine and the site of a catastrophically huge massacre of Jews in World War II), and Minsk (capital of present-day Belarus). In all, these pogroms claimed the lives of no less than 1,500 Jewish citizens, a total of four for each day of that year. Most of these pogroms occurred within an area referred to as the Pale of Settlement, the area of Russia in which Jews could legally settle. Shtetls such as Anatevka, the fictitious village in Fiddler on the Roof, began to disappear as discriminatory laws against Jewish citizens forbade them from living in rural areas, or in towns of less than 10,000 people. Indeed, as Fiddler begins, the people of Anatevka have just received word of the Tsar's edict, which will shortly evict them from their homes. By the musical's end, the people of Anatevka are packed up, some moving to America, many others to Krakow (in modern-day Poland), for what they hope will be a new and better life.*
To travel from 1905 Pale of Settlement Russia to Great Barrington in 2023 would take some work, and I was grateful to be invited by director Dave Edson to spend time with the cast as a dramaturg of sorts: to share more of the story, to create a thicker understanding of the historical, social, religious and literary context out of which this beloved musical emerges.
In thinking about how to best support the cast and crew of Fiddler at MMRHS, I spoke to my friend and teacher Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, who served as the rabbinic advisor for the 2016 Broadway cast of Fiddler on the Roof, which starred Danny Burstein as Tevye. His advice “Illuminate the details for them [the students]. That’s what will bring the story to life, that’s where the beauty of the story is.” Truly, the details of the story that unfolds as soon as we hear those infamous opening notes lilting on the fiddle are where the beauty is: and in sharing those details with the teen actors and crew, I was reminded of how powerful those lessons can be for us all.
And so, a few lessons from Anatevka.
“God would like us to be joyful, even when our hearts lie panting on the floor”
First, the lesson of joy. It’s a mitzvah to be joyful, even amidst suffering. Evident especially in the original Sholem Aleichem stories is the influence of Hasidism, a movement within Judaism founded in the late 18th century that emphasized joy as crucial to Jewish practice. Tevye would have been affected by this kind of Jewish belief and practice. When Tevye sings “Be happy, be healthy, long life. And if our good fortune never comes, here's to whatever comes. Drink, l'chaim, to life!” – he really means it! Tevye believes God wants him to be joyful — it’s a mitzvah! The human condition is about learning how to live with suffering: this spiritual posture saves generations of Jews from despair.
“Times are changing, Reb Tevye”
The very first song in Fiddler on the Roof sets the stage for the core tension in the show: tradition is central to their way of life in Anatevka.
Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything... How to sleep, how to eat... how to work... how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, "How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell you.
Before the Enlightenment, Jewish life looked very different for Jews across Europe and Russia. Before the impact of modernity, Jews are beholden only to the social and cultural norms of their Jewish community, and to the legal ones as well. You need legal advice? Go talk to the rabbi! But with the Enlightenment comes change: suddenly Jews become citizens of a nation-state, first in France. Now, we’ve got paperwork that now makes us question: are we Jewish Frenchmen, or French Jews? Enlightenment means rather than staying close to home and studying in the Beit Midrash all day, young Jews want to go to the cities and study in universities and sit in cafes. In the specific context of Eastern Europe and Russia, modernity means revolution, as Jews become politically active in national movements, as well. Fiddler reflects a story of Jewish life that was already changing by 1905: Tevye and his family are hanging on tightly to something that has begun to slip away even before Tsar Nicholas’ regime and the pogroms.
The changes taking place in society are reflected on a micro-scale in Tevye’s family. Traditions around marriage and family are suddenly slipping away as each of his three eldest daughters make choices that would have been unimaginable to Tevye and Golde. Each of the changes that we see reflected through the three daughters is one more step away from tradition. And yet, as a modern reader of the text, I can’t help but cheer Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava on: each daughter forces us to wrestle with our sense of autonomy.
The cast and crew of Monument Mountain’s production really took these ideas to heart as they brought the story to life on stage. As I sat in the audience on opening night with many members of our community, I was once again reminded of the power of the stage. Suddenly, the group of students I met back in February had transformed into a family, and into the community of Anatevka, as they brought these themes to life with heartfelt storytelling and song. Midway through the first act, the stage became a home on the eve of Shabbat, with a table beautifully set with candles and challah and wine. Actors lined the theater, holding their own Shabbat candles, and they offered us this blessing: “May the Lord protect and defend you. May the Lord preserve you from pain. Favor them, Oh Lord, with happiness and peace. Oh, hear our Sabbath prayer. Amen.”
Rabbi Jodie Gordon is a rabbi at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. She cohosts (with Rabbi Jen Gubitz) the OMFG Podcast: Jewish Wisdom for Unprecedented Times (episodes available at omfgpodcast.com, and Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and other platforms that host podcasts).
*Gratitude to the Gertrude C. Ford Center for Performing Arts for this concise explanation as accessed on http://fordcenter.blogspot.com/2010/10/history-in-fiddler-on-roof.html.