Fiddler on the Roof

Over the past couple evenings we’ve watched the movie version of a musical I had never seen before, in any form: Fiddler on the Roof. I was aware it was a big-hit musical, back in the 1960s or ’70s, in roughly the same era as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. The main thing I knew was that it included a couple three memorable songs, in particular “Sunrise, Sunset,” a moving, even heartbreaking song about parents observing how quickly their children grow up. It’s been on my list of favorite sentimental songs (stub list here) for years. Here’s the wedding scene with the song:

Aside from that song… the story was very interesting, even significant, telling. It seems to be set in what we now call Ukraine (… it’s set in 1905, says Wikipedia), in a small town of Jews. The theme comes in the very first song: “Tradition!” The villagers are mostly illiterate, and those who can read are obsessed only with the Torah. Marriages are arranged. The story is about a poor man, Tevye, with five daughters, and how his plans to arrange marriages for them (that’s tradition!) are derailed by their own desires: they want to marry for love. Perhaps they are hearing a bit about the outside world, via the occasional bringer of news who passes through town.

And so here is a story about the grand course of history: change, including the intermixing of cultures with other cultures. In particular, tradition vs. change. How carefully tradition needs to stand, like that fiddler on the steep roof at the very beginning, to maintain its course. The Russians move in, and insist the locals evacuate their town: inevitable change. And Tevye, increasingly squeezed between faith and tradition, finally chooses faith. He disowns one of his daughters. And yet, his whole village is moving elsewhere, with further changes unknown. And at the end, the fiddler walks behind, down a flat, if muddy, path.

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