‘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.

Russian invasion of Ukraine is jolt of history

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 5, 2022

The U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution “steadfastly, staunchly, proudly and fervently” in support of Ukraine the day after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech.

The Senate is likely to adopt a similar non-binding resolution as it negotiates a supplemental funding bill that would expend about $6 billion for military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

That’s all well and good, especially if it includes members of Congress educating themselves and their own constituents about the real dangers of today’s international climate and motivates them to reduce their partisan rhetoric. Doing so will give Americans a clearer view of the risks and consequences of the Russian invasion.

The world is rightfully shocked by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin invading a neighbor and ordering nuclear forces to be on alert. He presents the world a clear and present danger to international order and peace.

A nuclear war can never be won, and Biden and NATO leaders have no other choice but to take a cautious, indirect response of economic sanctions that will take longer than anyone wishes to have an effect. Even then, the Russian people are more likely to be hurt than is Putin.

One of the blessings bestowed on the United States is that we are largely geographically protected from foreign invasions, allowing us a level of security not known in most other countries. Along with it has come a limited understanding of human history.

War and disease have plagued human history, but we have embraced global economic networks and national sovereignty without vigilance and skepticism. So here we sit in 2022 with a superpower invading a neighbor amid a global pandemic.

I, and most baby boomers, thought the U.S. had brought Cold War threats pretty much under control since World War II ended. Yes, America dealt with the Vietnam War, several Mideast conflicts and decades of pursuing the Taliban and ISIS, but conflict with Russia seemed to have disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR on Dec. 25, 1991.

Or so we thought.

We thought we won the Cold War; Putin apparently viewed it as only halftime.

Putin’s indiscretions in the 2008 war with Georgia and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, related to Ukraine’s political instability and street protests in Kyiv, as well as his sending Russian troops into Syria in 2015 in support of Bashar Assad’s regime drew some international condemnation that now seems mild. In hindsight, we should have done more. Several presidential administrations and hundreds of congressional leaders missed opportunities to send clear signals to Putin, and the Russian people, that Putin’s imperial expansion would be confronted.

One key tenet of U.S foreign policy in the post-World War II era, is the benefit of “mutual assured destruction (MAD).” This is the doctrine that a country, knowing that an adversary can instantly retaliate in-kind against a nuclear attack, would refrain from launching a nuclear attack in the first place. Mutual assured destruction assumes that all adversaries are rational actors, not mad. Now we are discussing if Putin qualifies as a rational actor. His aspiration to restore the greatness of Russia is likely to have the opposite result.

A popular idea among international observers is often referred to as the “democratic peace.” This is the widely confirmed argument that democracies never fight each other. The implication is that if Russia was a full-blown democracy and not under the thumb of a tyrant then the invasion of Ukraine would be inconceivable.

A democratic Russia would have hundreds of citizen organizations that would have objected to sending their sons and daughters, or themselves, to die in a foreign land for the sake of Putin’s expansionary vision. American “soft power” should have been used to convert more Russians into democratic activists so that political protests would be a force constraining Putin.

In that light, Russian violations found by drug testing of Olympic athletes, for example, should have been upgraded and increased, and all Russians should have been prevented from competing. The governing bodies of the world and European soccer games have excluded Russian teams from this year’s championships. By allowing individual Russians to compete as the “Russian Olympic Committee” without official Russian affiliation circumvented a path for citizens expressing their views to their government.

Because Putin has ordered the destruction of purely civilian targets such as schools and hospitals, the International Court of Justice needs to prosecute Putin for war crimes. A small gesture, for sure.

Reportedly, economic sanctions and businesses, such as Apple, withdrawing from Russia is having an economic impact on Russia. The single most effective thing American citizens could do to support Ukraine is to refuse Russia oil and gas. This will of course increase the price of gas at the pump because of the simple, wrong-headed way we calculate inflation. A gallon of gas from a dictator should not be measured the same as a gallon of gas a trusted friend.

It is unclear how the Ukraine military invasion will end, but it won’t be good for either Ukraine or Russia. It is hard to imagine Putin will give orders to turn his troops around. What is likely is millions of horrors and atrocities, including possible nuclear waste released from existing nuclear plants, leaving behind a desolate Ukraine and a totally impoverished Russia. I expect Ukraine will be virtually wiped out, leveled, and Russia to be stone cold poor for generations.

Congress and American citizens need to learn once again that the world is a dangerous place and recognize that a democratic peace requires a strong democracy at home that “steadfastly, staunchly, proudly and fervently” supports democracies against tyranny around the world.

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.