It has been 50 years since the production the Fiddler on the Roof. Til this day it stands as a unique artistic phenomena explaining the old world Jew to the contemporary American audience. In her great article on the subject Professor Ruth R. Wisse brilliantly explores some of the challenges presented in the theatrical and film adaptations of Tevye and his Daughters (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by Sholem Aleichem. Like others Professor Wisse thinks they went too far in rewriting Tevye to make him more accommodating to the new world. While this might be true, the idea of adaptation itself was part and parcel of the original conception of the character of Tevye. How will the simple old world Jew make his way in the emerging complex new world?
These issues are themselves explored in renaming the work as the Fiddler on the Roof. The title stems from Marc Chagall surreal paintings of Eastern European Jewish life which often including a fiddler.
In the play Tevye says:
A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!
The Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyousness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance. While life beyond Anatevka might be much more pleasant and simple, it seems that here America in relative security we are struggling to keep our tradition.
I remember when I was little I was climbing on the roof of the garage. My mother came yelling,”If you fall off there and break your leg I will smack you”. I was thinking about this and Dr. Wisse’s great article when reading Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:
When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:8)
Obviously their architecture was different at that time and they actually used their roofs, but still I have to ask, who would be stupid enough to go on a roof? Well, the Torah wanted us to take precautions even for the person who might end up on the roof. How might we preserve this sacred balance as we try to maintain our tradition in the 21st century?
This makes me reflect on the first teaching in the Perkey Avot. There we learn, ” Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.” ( Avot 1:1) If we are “cautious in judgment” and work in the service of universal justice and not just “what is good for the Jews”, we will not have to worry about continuity. Simply put we will have “many pupils”. When we have many pupils will have many different interpretations. While this is exciting it might ultimately erode our sense of having one community to marshal a more just world. To this ends we need to build a fence. I realize that everyone will have different notions of what these limits are, but we can all agree we need them. With theses fences in place each of us needs to find our own way to become that Fiddler on the Roof.