Monday, December 16, 2013

"The Essential Question In 'Fiddler On The Roof'"

Fiddler on the Roof was my favorite musical I ever saw.  I didn’t get it when I first listened to the album.  The songs, for the most part, seemed disconnected and not distinctive.  Then I saw the show on stage, and saw how the music and the dancing and the flow of the production all fit together, and I was entranced.

A complaint against Fiddler on the Roof is that it’s lightweight entertainment, with its Borscht Belt (lowbrow comedy) sensibility and schmaltzy (cheaply sentimental) manipulations. 

Maybe that’s true and I don’t care, because I have no trouble Borscht Belt and schmaltzy.  But somewhere during its development, Fiddler on the Roof ran into an eternal and resonating truth, the unavoidable and deeply serious question at the core of the show’s concerns.  Not “How can I get out of Russia without getting pogromed up the wazoo (ethnically singled out for unfortunate treatment) by Cossacks?”, although that’s an important question too. 

The question at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof is…well, they assert it in the opening number:  “Tradition.”

“Because of our traditions,” explains Tevye, the protagonist of the proceedings, “everyone here knows who they are, and what God expects them to do.”

I shall set aside the second part of that sentence, after the comma, beginning with “…and what”, because, well, I’ll leave that for the religious blogs to hash out.  But the first part,

“…everyone here knows who they are…”

When you think about that question, as they say in the “Hokey-Pokey” – ‘That’s what it’s all about.’”   
“Who am I?”  (Not coincidentally, also a song in Les Miserables.)  That’s a challenging question.  And not just for displaced Jewish peasants in Russia, but for all of us.  Even for Cossacks.

“I ride on a horse real fast, swinging a big, curvy sword at people I’ve been told are religiously inferior.”

What if you refused to do that?

“What kind of Cossack would I be then?”

You do something; you don’t do something.  Why?  You do it because you have determined, “That’s me.”  You don’t, for the same reason, only backwards.

“That’s not me.”

“What if you let them go?”

“Are you brain damaged?  I’m a Cossack!

In Fiddler, Tevye has three marriageable-aged daughters, whose selection of mates all challenge his traditional beliefs.  The eldest picks a husband without the assistance of a matchmaker.  “Unthinkable!  Absurd!” rants Tevye, in a musical soliloquy.  But in the end, he relents.  The next daughter gets engaged without first asking her father’s permission.  Again, Tevye is thrown into an internal, singing tug-of-war.  But once again, he gives in.  The third daughter falls in love with a non-Jewish Russian.  Teyve’s reaction?  You can only bend so far, and then you break.  So, no.

“Who am I?”

“I am not that.”

So be it.  For Tevye.  Who even himself ultimately leaves the door open a crack for a possible reconciliation.

Like other hardcore religions, Orthodox Judaism, as I learned despite great personal resistance at the Toronto Hebrew Day School is “It’s this and that’s it!  I once got a month’s detention for sneaking off campus and eating a non-kosher hamburger at the nearby Carousel Restaurant at lunchtime.  They claimed I was being punished for leaving campus without permission.  But it was clear it was for defiling my now unclean palate.

My mother kept a kosher home, meaning she did not prepare unkosher food, nor did she allow any into the house.  But other Jews we knew, even some of my classmates’ parents, did not.  (Big Picture:  Kosher food excludes pork and its byproducts as well as shellfish and bottom feeders.  On a more intricate level, it also involves the separation of meat and dairy (requiring separate sets of dishes and cutlery) and a particular method by which beef animals and chickens are ritually slaughtered.  There may be other restrictions as well, but you can get by on knowing just that.  Unless you encounter an Orthodox rabbi, in which case, he will just smile politely and pat you patronizingly on the head.)

What always amused me were the “sliding scale” contortions that Jewish people I knew would go through to accommodate the delicacies they adored, while still claiming to be Jewish.  Everyone seemed to have devised their own un-crossable lines concerning religious, dietary limitations, hair-splitting distinctions, as exemplified by the following:

(A Helpful Note:  “Traif” means “non-kosher food.”)

“We eat kosher everywhere.”

“We eat kosher at home, but traif ‘out.’”

“We eat bacon at home, but everything else – kosher.  Except sausages.”

“We eat kosher at home except for the leftovers we bring home, but we eat them right out of the ‘take-out’ containers or on paper plates.”

“We eat spare ribs, but not pork.”  (“I want the government to keep its hands off my Medicare.”)

“‘Suckling pig’ – no.  ‘Pigs-in-a-blanket?’  It’s like a hotdog.  And it’s such a cute name.

“We eat ham but not ham hocks.”

“Sometimes meatballs have pork in them.  But we pretend that they don’t.”  

“We eat pork in tinned beans.  I mean, how do you get it out?”

“We eat shrimp cocktail but not lobster.”

“We eat shrimp cocktail and lobster, but not clams, crabs, oysters or squid.”

“We don’t eat catfish.  But if they call it something else, what are you gonna do?”

“Snails – Never!

“Sea urchins?  Really?  You eat that?”

“I eat everything, but I’m still Jewish.  God doesn’t care what’s in your stomach, only what’s in your heart.”

You just, probably inadvertently, quoted somebody.  Do you know who it was?



It’s a tricky question,  “Who am I, and what’s the line I won’t cross?”  Though it just occurred to me that if you cross every line, that’s who you are.  You’re a “line-crosser.”

On second thought, is that really a category? 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I try to keep separate my idea of who I am from the things I do. Life has a lot more possibilities that way.

My father's family was Jewish, but my mother's was not, and I was raised an agnostic. I have one friend who does the whole two kitchens routine and rigorously observes the Sabbath. We got into an argument because the light in their living room was on in broad daylight on a Saturday and I wanted to turn it off.


"I can turn it back on again."

"Wait. Was your mother Jewish?"


"Oh, all right, go ahead, then."

With all the rules and loopholes - the 11-mile eruv around East London, the dairy and meat separation, etc. - it often seems to me that Jewish culture provides the origins of both bureaucracy and lawyering.


Canda said...

Earl, this post told me more of who you were, than who you are.