Last week I was privileged to watch the play Fiddler on the Roof.  It was directed by a friend and performed by The English Theater Club here in Paris.  http://thang.enst.fr

Any opportunity afforded to me to experience English entertainment is a gift.

The performers did a commendable job acting and singing the familiar tunes.  This was not the first time I have seen this play performed professionally, but the themes spoke more profoundly to me.  It could have been that earlier in the week I spent time at the Marc Chagall exhibit and journeyed through his personal and spiritual reflections about the plight of Jews and the nature of human suffering.  It could be that one of the key themes in Fiddler has become a recent polarizing political debate here in France.

Regardless, the play had relevant meaning.

The basis synopsis is as follows:

Fiddler on the Roof is a musical set in Tsarist Russia in 1905. The story centers on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his family and Jewish religious traditions while outside influences encroach upon their lives. He must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters. Each one’s choice of husband moves further away from the customs of his faith.

In the pre-revolutionary Russia, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka. The poor milkman Tevye lives there with is wife and five daughters.  When the local matchmaker Yente arranges a match between Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel and the old butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees.  However Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil. They beg Tevye to give them permission to get married.  Tevye’s second daughter Hodel and the revolutionary student Perchik then decide to get married without Tevye’s permission.  When Perchik is arrestet by the Czar troops and sent to Siberia, Hodel decides to leave her family and homeland and join him there.

When Tevye’s third daughter Chava and the Christian Fyedka get married too, Tevye cannot accept it and considers that Chava has died.  Meanwhile, the Czar troops evict the Jewish community from Anatevka.

So much of the music and lyrics by Jerry Bock is fantastic and memorable.

However, the song “Tradition” perhaps is the best known, as it also begins the story.

If you have a few minutes you can watch and listen to the song from the movie.

The main character Tevye is a likeable character with devotion to God and an uncanny ability of misquoted Scripture (in a humorous way).  The audience is meant to like Tevye and appreciate his tradition, context, internal and external struggles he faces as Jew living in a non-Jewish country and also as a husband and father.  He displays remarkable compassion and understanding throughout the story….up to a certain point.

Tevye realizes that times are changing and his tradition can be overlooked for the sake of love; the love he has for his daughters and the love they have for the men they desire to marry.  In three compelling scenes Tevye is praying and weighing the options of insisting on the traditional arranged marriages and allowing his daughters to freely choose whom they will marry.  “On the one hand….” and “on the other hand….” become funny and witty ways of negotiating with God and self.  In the case of his first two daughters, Tevye finally agrees to give his permission and blessing.  Though not the men others would have chosen for his daughters he is confident that they love one another and the men will care for them properly.  Oh yeah…..both men are also Jewish.

This then becomes the rub in the story when his third daughter falls in love with a Christian.  In dramatic fashion Tevye prays for guidance and asks  how can he lose his daughter but also says, “On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try to bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand… No. There is no other hand.”

His decision is made and firm and while the very end of the play might suggest a reconciliation one day, our last images are of his daughter crying and begging her father to accept her, welcome her, and embrace her.

This is what rigid adherence to “tradition” can cause, especially when religiously motivated.  One would hope that this side of tradition no longer happens today but sadly it is an all too familiar experience of many.  The reasons may vary but the results remain.

For my grandparents generation, religious affiliation was extremely important.  My grandmother grew up Italian Catholic and when she announced her intended marriage to a Protestant from Alabama, her family reacted much the same way as Tevye.  Eventually most moved past that difference and excepted my grandfather as family, although never fully coming to the conclusion that his “religion” was in fact part of their own.

In more recent years as globalization has connected our world and generations traveled more freely, it become common to actually marry outside of one’s faith tradition.  For Christians this include Buddhists (especially after Vietnam), Hindu’s (during the Hippie movements) and of course people of Jewish and Islamic faith.  Some families welcomed these new additions while others could not reconcile.  This was more difficult for families who fervently followed their faith as you would imagine. Such was the case of Tevre and his honest belief that to accept his daughter’s marriage to a Christian would in fact to be disowning his very faith and disobeying God.

Today, times have changed as predicted and while religion is still a divisive social and familial issue, for many people of faith, sexuality has become the boundary line that are unwilling to cross.

I have dear friends who recently found themselves in a similar position to Chava, on their knees with tears streaming down their faces pleading with their mother and father to welcome and accept them.  Sadly for so many, their prayers and pleaders go unanswered and bitterness fills the void left by unity.  In a simple moment of truth I have witnessed a father’s “unconditional” love for his child turn towards denial and resentment, thus showing the true nature (and condition) of his love.

It begs the question of how health is one’s faith if adherence to that faith leads towards hostility and not hospitality, especially towards one’s own flesh and blood. When legalism trumps compassion, condemnation over mercy, and exclusion over embrace, religious tradition can become an enmity with God’s will for people.

Are we willing to lay aside our traditions and even religious convictions for the sake of the other?  What are the necessary borders that should not be crossed for fear of abandoning our faith?  Should there be a difference between strangers and family?  Is it possible to embrace without accepting?

These are indeed difficult questions to answer.  This does not mean changing our personal views on particular issues necessarily, but I do wonder which is the greater “sin”: adjusting and expanding one’s views for the sake of love and inclusion or exclusion for the sake of maintaining righteousness and correct belief.

As I alluded to early, the final scene of play offers an ever-so-small foreshadowing that Tevye might welcome her daughter back one day when he offers a quite blessing. We never know of course if they will ever be reunited or reconciled but are left with the question of what would we have done.  And so, now with two children of my own I am forced to ask myself a similar question and ask you the same:  Is there anything my child could decide or do to change my love?


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