The Issue of Tradition in Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof, is an award-winning Broadway musical that has also been featured on the screen.

It tells of the story of Tevye — a poor milkman with five daughters — who abides with his pride and tradition in all matters of life.

As Tevye depicts, traditions keep the stability of their (the Jews’) way of life for centuries in Anatevka. Tradition, symbolized by the fiddler, was introduced at the beginning of the story, weaving through all happy and sad episodes of Tevye’s life, and following Tevye down the road when his family and other Jews of Anatevka were forced out by the czarist government.

The fiddler’s “Tradition” tune was played at the beginning and the end of Tevye’s story, presenting the strong will and mindset of Tevye the Jew in cleaving to his tradition.

However, as times change, Tevye’s way of life and stability are threatened.

First, none of his daughters would marry in the traditional way, i.e., marriages arranged by the matchmaker. His eldest daughter Tzeitel pleaded with him to breach “marriage agreement” with Lazar Wolf the rich widower, so that she could marry her childhood sweetheart, Motel Kamzoil the poor tailor. His second daughter Hodel, who was in love with Perchik the revolutionist, decided to marry without his permission. His third daughter Chava entirely shattered Tevye’s sense of control when she eloped with her love Fyedka, an Orthodox Christian. Though shaken by the choices of his unconventional daugthers, he gave his blessings to all of them, including showing signs of forgiving Chava for marrying outside Judaism — “God be with them,” he said.

Second, Tevye’s tradition could not give him any direction or hope during the rise of revolutions and pogroms in Russia. The old way of life was good and functional. However, the generations old tradition might not necessary become a legacy for generations to come. Also, however hauntingly beautiful a tradition is, if it doesn’t have a saving hope in it, it could not hold life together, neither could it assures a promising future. As a man-centered institution backed by human authority, human tradition is ineffective in pointing anyone to the way, the truth, the life… Jesus Christ, of whom no one could adhere to the Heavenly Father except through Him (John 14:6).

Hence, if we are to choose our allegiance, Christ or tradition?


About Florence Kuek

Was lecturer and researcher at a state university. Currently serving as Head of Student Services at a college. Has a pastoral heart for people. PhD candidate, Chinese Studies at University of Malaya.
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