‘Fiddler on the roof’ is vantage point to see social change

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 25, 2022

“The Fiddler on the Roof” was performed at MU Jesse Concert Series last week as a live production by a traveling professional theatre company. It was dedicated by the cast to the people of Ukraine suffering from the Russian invasion this past month. Their dedication is more appropriate than I realized that evening, for there is a village named Anatevka in Ukraine on the outskirts of Kyiv named after the village from the musical. It was founded in 2015 by Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, primarily as a refuge for Jewish families displaced by Russia’s five-year war against Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced even more in the country’s eastern region.

The 1964 Broadway musical and the 1971 film are set in antisemitic pre-revolutionary Russia in the fictional village of Anatevka, Ukraine, in 1905. The central theme is shown through the poor milkman Tevye’s struggle to accept his rapidly changing world, which includes having five daughters leave home one by one. The 1964 musical was well received,  nominated for 10 Tony Awards, nine of which it won, and was the first musical to achieve 3000 performances. The 1971 movie won Oscars for best song, sound and cinematography.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is a somber but delightful portrayal of an Orthodox Jewish family living in a small community as Russian authorities are moving them out. The father, Tevye, aims to be true to his religious traditions by asking God for personal direction when the village matchmaker suggests his eldest daughter marries the older, wealthier town butcher, whom she rejects. Tevye supports his daughter’s wishes and, resisting tradition, helps his daughter marry a man she prefers.

Social change has a way of speeding up and Tevye is next confronted with his second daughter’s marriage to a man that she arranged all by herself. His third daughter marries a man he disapproves of because the man is of a different faith. The family’s story ends tragically as the Czar’s troops evict the Jewish community from Anatevka and they emigrate to Poland or the United States. History repeats itself.

The timeless popularity of “Fiddler on the Roof” stems from the universal struggle to adopt and accept social change. While the 1960s and ‘70s in America were full of such struggles because of the Vietnam War, rock music and newly discovered social freedoms, all generations deal with social, economic, and technological changes. Smartphones have affected matchmaking, family dinners, and parental authority. “Fiddler” is very popular in Japan, where social change seems to be particularly hard.

Last week’s performance was practically sold out. To be sure, it was an older audience but there were lots of multi-generational families and a few groups of Mizzou students. It was my first live production, but I remember the 1971 movie and the popularity of many of the songs. “Sunrise, Sunset” must have been played at practically every wedding in the 1970s and ‘80s. I was surprised by the number of specific demonstrations of religious faith in “Fiddler.” Tevye routinely asked God for personal direction and the community song “Sabbath Prayer” is a moving request for God’s protection and blessings, including biblical references that my baby-boom generation would probably recognize. That got me thinking about the decline of public, cultural, and social displays of religion in America today.

A majority of American high school students cannot name the 10 Commandments with only 45% recalling the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Belief in God declined from 90 percent in 2001 to 79% in 2017. A 2022 Marist Poll asked the question differently and found that overall 54% “believe in God as described in the Bible” differing a great deal by generation. The poll also found that 69% of respondents over 60 believe in God as described in the Bible with percentages declining in younger generations. Forty percent report attending church services at least once or twice a month, down from 52% in 2011.

The implications of changing religious beliefs for the future of our society are mixed. Across all demographic groups, 87% of Americans think it is important to be part of a close-knit community. About half of the country say their religion plays a role in their personal relationships, with Republicans twice as likely to say so as Democrats. However, 54% report that religion plays no part in their political identification. About 70% of Americans think the nation’s moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction, regardless if they practice a religion or not. Overall about two-thirds of Americans do not think being religious is necessary in order to live a good life.

The durability of “Fiddler on the Roof” may be due to the long menu of memorable songs, but the struggle to hold on to traditions in a challenging world is universally gripping and heroic.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.