Things Beloved: Fiddler on the Roof

My not-yet-two-year-old asked for me to put on some music, a word he pronounces suspiciously like “magic,” by the way. Instead of putting on the same album that I always do because he likes it so much (Dear Wormwood by The Oh Hellos), I decided it had been too long since I’d listened to Fiddler on the Roof.
This was the album I used to play when my son was still an infant and I would nurse him–we had a really rough time nursing those first several weeks and if he nursed for a good portion of the 11 minute intro song (“Tradition” plus that awesome violin solo), I felt like we were in decent shape.
My husband watched the movie for the first time two years ago, even though he’s not really into musicals. He did it on my behalf, because it is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s one of those that always feels fresh to me, always rich, always compelling.
So I just want to talk about some of what makes this a great musical, and a great story.
-First off, Topol. This guy can emote and evoke like no other actor I’ve ever seen (Denzel Washington is a good equivalent maybe? It’s something about the rich inflection in the voice and depth in the eyes) If you ever want to see this phenomenal actor in another setting, I recommend watching Sallah Shabati, an Israeli movie about a Mizrakhi family making Aliyah to Israel, shenanigans ensue. It’s more of a comedy, but certainly worth a watch.
topol
He has a sort of…comedic gravity, or sober smiling. It just makes every last word he says and sings feel real. I mean, even when he’s singing this somewhat absurd song “If I were a Rich Man,” he gets this joke out about being able to say whatever he likes, because people assume that rich people know everything, and then he goes to this almost tear-filled thought about how if he were rich he’d be able to study the Torah all day long, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.
-Secondly: Tension. And not just tension, but the ability to make you feel a cultural conflict that might not even be your own, or anywhere near your personal experience.
The most powerful instance is during the L’Chaim scene, where Tevye and Lazer-wolf are drinking joyfully about their agreement for Lazer-wolf to marry Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel. All the Jewish men are having a big raucous celebration and then…the music changes. In traditional musical vocabulary it would not be a negative change at all–it’s not the steretypical music of impeding doom in any way–but in this case, it is. The music changes from having a Yiddish/Hebraic feel to feeling purely Russian. In just that slight tonal shift, you feel the Russians coming into the room and tightening the atmosphere. Nothing bad has happened, no one is doing anything to anyone…but they could, and in little ways, the story has let you know that underlying danger. The Russians could hurt someone, cause trouble, ruin the joyful event.
They don’t. This time. They join in the celebration. Everyone slowly relaxes, and this time, the Jewish community and the Russian community sing together.
But that tension when they first come into the room, bursting in on the scene with no ill will whatsoever, but with such unspoken capacity to do harm. I don’t even have to watch the movie to feel that tension. Sometimes when I listen just to the soundtrack, I almost suck in my breath when that break/change in the music comes. I feel like Tevye, standing still, not making a move, waiting to see what direction this intrusion will take.
You do not have to be in a Jewish village late 1800s Russia during an era of pogroms to recognize and react to the imbalance of power and the platform for cruelty and oppression. And since you are seated firmly in Tevye’s perspective (and because Topol is FANTASTIC) you feel everything to the roots of your teeth.
-Another example of how this movie puts you in shoes that may not be quite yours: When Chava announces that she’s going to marry the Russian guy (I have never managed to remember his name, for some reason) you (or at least I) feel exactly like Tevye, even if you might not have the same beliefs or restrictions in real life. This is too far. For a daughter to matchmake herself with a good Jewish tailor? Okay, I can deal with that. It’s only one step outside of tradition. For a daughter to marry a rather secular and radical Jewish man, and leave her home to go into danger? A hard thing, on one hand, but “on the other hand” a thing that can be understood and respected.
But for a daughter to marry outside of the faith? To marry ‘the oppressor’? No. “There is no other hand!” And even if you, perhaps, think he’s being unfair with your modern day sensibilities, you are so deeply engaged in his experiences and beliefs, that you feel his breaking point. When he walks her away, waving his hands wildly, he is taking his last stand against all the things that are trying to knock him off the roof, so to speak.
The music is beautiful, the story is powerful, the humor is sweet and grave. This is a wonderful, well-told story. I aspire to be able to write the brilliant, ever-so-subtle moments of struggle and tension that seem so effortless and perfect in this story.
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