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!
(Opening lines of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Norman Jewison, script by Sholom Aleichem, music by Joseph Stein)
Tradition. I can’t hear that word without superimposing a Russian/Jewish accent onto it. Indelibly carved into my brain is the image of the actor Topol standing, legs apart, arms spread, extending that word in song for what seems like an eternity.
Tradition. The movie, and I assume the play as well, Fiddler On The Roof has as one of its themes the intrusion of modern life into a small Jewish farming village, or shtetle as they were known in Yiddish, in pre-communist Russia. With these intrusions come conflicts between what has always been done, tradition, and increasingly liberal attitudes.
Tradition, we are told from the beginning, via the song of the same name, is the glue that keeps the fabric of the community together. It is our instruction manual and blueprint for leading the good life. The song asks, without traditions where would we be?
Tradition tells us who we can marry, what we can eat, how to treat our neighbours, and how to pray. From the moment we are born, our feet follow in the steps of our forebears, without deviation. With tradition as our guide, we can’t go wrong.
What happens when tradition and want come into conflict? When is the time for tradition to bend and be flexible? When does tradition stop being the beautiful tapestry of our past, illustrating life, and become the shackle that ties us into backwardness and bigotry?
Tevye is faced with increasing demands upon his willingness to bend with the times, until he is no longer able to do so, and snaps. His tests come in the form of his daughters and their choices of husbands. In the case of his eldest, it is simply her desire to marry for love instead of following the dictates of the matchmaker. Although it means surrendering his dreams of wealth, he is able to bend with grace and allow her to follow her heart.
It’s the youngest two daughters that bring things to a head. The middle child falls for a secular Jewish communist. He cannot abide the thought of his daughter marrying a non-believer. He only reconciles with her when, after her husband is arrested, she must move away to be close to where he is imprisoned.
The third daughter does the unforgivable and marries a Russian soldier. She is disowned and never spoken of again. Not until the whole village is forced to pack up and leave for the New World, and she and her husband join them, is there any sign of reconciliation. Tevye sees that his beloved traditions have not held back the other great tradition that buffets Jews. Their welcome wears out, and they have to move on.
Traditions are handed down from generation to generation. They are transmitted in forms ranging from the oral stories told by tribal people that import survival and moral lessons; to texts like the Old and New Testaments, and The Qur’an, (Koran); and epic poetry like Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Valmiki’s Ramayana.
The problem with writing things down is that it gives them the power beyond their words. Once something is on paper, it is equivalent to being carved into stone for all its flexibility. Relevancy becomes an issue. In the thousands of years since some of these stories have been written the world has changed.
We have learned more about the nature of why and how things happen and came into being then were known by our forebears. An occurrence that was once explained away as magical or an act of God is now known to have logical explanations. Ideas that were once universally accepted, like the earth being flat and the sun and planets revolving around the earth, have been refuted.
Does it not follow logically than that the stories we use as guidance for living should not also be adapted to our current world? Don’t they need to change with our understanding of the world in the same way we no longer believe we will sail off the edge of the world?
Stories that are teachings need to be relevant to the people reading them. Native American writers like Thomas King continue to use traditional characters like Coyote from their past, but incorporate them into present-day native realities. This type of integration keeps a culture from stagnating.
If we continue to be hidebound by the past, we end up retaining elements that may have been appropriate to another age, or may never have been appropriate at all. Attitudes towards women have changed in society, yet certain traditions continue to oppress them and treat them as less than chattel. That’s not something we should encourage, so we need to adapt our stories to reflect changing attitudes.
It seems like segments of Christianity and Islam (not meaning to pick on those two, but they are the obvious examples) are very resistant to this concept. Adherence to traditions that are out of step with the realities of today’s world is the cause of some of our worse conflicts.
Without archaic beliefs to fortify them, do you think we would have the proliferation of suicide bombers that we see today? How much better off would the world be if proper birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases were available in the developing world? With both Muslim and Christian backed governments imposing their beliefs through aid packages conditional upon non-involvement in anything resembling family planning, the likelihood of that happening soon is slim.
Tevye discovers that tradition can be a comfort, but it also can be a curse. We need to learn that lesson. We need to stop letting traditions pull us into the past, but start bringing them forward with us, into the future.