From Jacob to Tevye to Today - We Are All Fiddler's On the Roof©

From Jacob to Tevye to Today - We Are All Fiddler's On the Roof©
Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Vayishlach

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!  (Fiddler on the Roof, act 1, scene 1)

Who in here is not instantly transformed to a different place when you hear this line? 

Fiddler on the Roof opened up on Broadway on August 26, 1964 – it’s hard to believe, but Fiddler is 52 years old.  American Jews in the 1960’s until today have flocked to this famous play, an adaptation of a story from the famous Yiddish writer, Shalom Aleichem.  But it’s not just in America that people flock to Fiddler – the show has been translated into many different languages – including Japanese.  In fact, people in Japan wondered how Americans could understand a story that was so Japanese! 

I was actually in a production of Fiddler on the Roof – I was Fyedka, the non-Jewish Russian who marries Tevye’s third daughter Chava.  When my parents found out, they said, “Hmmm…makes sense, you don’t look Jewish.” 

American Jews flocked to Fiddler for a sweet taste of the world of tradition. The irony is that Fiddler on the Roof is not about tradition. Fiddler is about the radical changes that destroyed the world of tradition. In that sense, it really is the story of our origins as modern Jews and the birth of the complicated identities we inhabit.  Fiddler is not as much a story of the shtetl as it is a story of the tearing down of the shtetl walls, and the realization that rapid change is approaching. 

Everyone of us after all is a Fiddler – balancing ourselves on a roof – trying to keep that balance, of tradition and change. 

In this week’s parashah, VaYetzei, we are confronted by a story of what happens when the walls come down, and the family is confronted with a change in tradition. 

The story of the rape of Dinah found in Genesis 33.

“Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. 2 Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. 3 Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. 4 So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife. 5 Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home. 6 Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to him. 7 Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done.  8 And Hamor spoke with them, saying, “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage. 9 Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves: 10 You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you; settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”

Before this moment, Jacob gets a new name – Israel – someone who struggles with the divine.  Now, he faces yet another struggle.

It’s the same struggle that Tevye had with his three daughters.

Tevye has three daughters that represent three ideas.  His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, whom he arranges a marriage for with an older man, Lazar Wolf, steps into the modern age by choosing her own spouse, a religious Jewish tailor named Muttle.  As his daughter says to him, “Papa, times are changing.”  His second daughter wants to marry a revolutionary and leave the town.  Again, he struggles – but ultimately he agrees. The happiness and love of his daughter forces Tevya to change tradition.  But his third daughter, Hava, who intermarries, is a different story.  He says to her, a fish and a bird are equally lovely creatures, but where are they going to live?  And in the end, it is too much for him.

Some things I cannot, I will not allow – one little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop, where does it stop. 

Tevye makes a decision – he rejects his daughter – so what will his ancestor Jacob do in the same situation? 

Shechem goes on to tell Jacob: 

11 Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. 12 Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”

Still, Jacob does not react – his sons do – they come up with a compromise, circumcise your men, and you can join us together.  But the reason they do this is so they are vulnerable – they attack Shechem and Hamor, and destroy them. 

Finally, Jacob speaks – he condemns his sons, but we don’t know what he really thinks because he does not speak.   

Why were Jacob’s sons so sure of what they had to do and he wasn’t? 

At this moment, Jacob was like a Fiddler on the Roof – trying to keep his balance like Tevye.  Right before this episode, we read the story of the unification of Jacob and Esau.  Before they reunite, Jacob wrestles with an angel and gets a new name – Israel – for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.  This is what Jacob does, he struggles. 

Tradition – Change – two forces that oppose each other – and yet, this is what life is all about. 

In Anita Diamont’s book, the Red Tent, she imagines Dinah not as a victim of rape, but as a Juliet like character who loves the prince of Shechem, her Romeo.  It is a story of a forbidden relationship for the time – but a relationship that their families were trying to navigate. 

This is more the world we live in – a world of freedom, and yet, the other side to that coin is responsibility – an imposed restriction. 

We are all Jacob, we are all Tevye – we are all fiddlers on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck – trying to keep that balance. 

What would Tevye do today if Hava came to him to tell him that she was going to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish?  What would Jacob say if he could finally speak to Dinah?  This is our challenge – to keep tradition, and yet, to bend enough to allow us to live in an open and glorious world. 

We know how Tevye’s story ends.  They are kicked out of Anatevka – Tevye and his family go to New York, Lazer Wolf, whom he finally makes up with moves to Chicago – and they lovingly say – we are going to be neighbors.

But before Tevye leaves, he sees his daughter Hava one last time – the daughter whom he said Kaddish for – and he acknowledges her – and in a way, he accepts her. 

We are all Jacob, we are all Tevye – just Fiddlers on the Roof, trying to keep our balance – this has always been our challenge, but it is also our opportunity. 


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