You may ask, why only watch the first half of Fiddler on the Roof? After all, it’s not like the second half doesn’t have any good songs in it. All right, so “Far from the Home I Love” and “Anatevka” are sad. Nu,1 why should I have a problem with sadness? To live is to experience all sorts of emotion: gladness and joy, certainly, but also sadness and pain, may there be less of it. And, you might say, the first half of Fiddler is so long. Already, you commit nearly two hours of your time to the movie—now you won’t finish it? What, if you were eating a cholent2 and found out halfway through that it was actually left over from last week, you wouldn’t finish it? Look who’s wasting food!
As you may well know, Fiddler on the Roof is a classic work of Jewish cinema, a musical directed by Norman Jewison. What do you mean he’s not a yid?3 Anyway, in his little story of the village of Anatevka, Mr. Jewison—may his days be blessed and his mother have nachas4—depicts a clash of cultures, lo aleinu.5 Tevye is a poor dairyman, though he would have no problem being a rich dairyman. He sells his milk and he talks to Hashem.6 Not as if Hashem talks back to him, though He does have mysterious ways. Where was I? May he live and be well, Tevye has, kenayna haro,7 five daughters—and through the three oldest daughters’ relationships, he faces challenges against communal tradition, religious tradition, and the very law he subscribes to. So I’ve been told. The second half is not for me.
As the good book says, if there is no man, it must be you, and Tevye (Topol) is a man of his place. He may not be the most learned man, but he can quote a passage when need be, or even, truth be told, when need not be. He says kiddush,8 washes netilat yadayim,9 observes Shabbat,10 honors his Aishet Chayil.11 Okay, he might not always honor Golde, but he respects her. Maybe not always respect, either. But they have an understanding.
Yes, Tevye is a man of his place, and indeed, of his time. His remarks about women would, nu, not be well accepted nowadays. That’s alright. Time, like a man who’s been sitting in the same deli booth for two hours, must go on. As the good book says, everybody does what he does, there are no rules! Tevye wears his tzitzit,12 he says kiddush—no, no, I already said that one. He is an admirable man. He has convictions. Kindness. A cup of milk, even for those who, lo aleinu, are not able to pay. Is he gruff? Sure. But in the world of Anatevka, you must have heart. Danger is at the door; like Purim and Chanukah all at once, some want to take our lives—Rachmana l’tzlan13—and others, worse yet, want to take our beliefs. Who knows, maybe there’s something left for others to take. Is anybody looking to steal our intellectual property?
Arms outstretched, chest becoming gradually more revealed over the course of the movie, Tevye bares himself to everyone. As the good book says, go on the straight and narrow path and be honest, if you wouldn’t mind. He doesn’t hide himself. Tevye is Tevye to everyone, including his good friend, Hashem. Sure, Hashem doesn’t speak back in words, but that doesn’t mean Tevye stops talking. Topol is the Israeli sort of Jew—barrel-chested, hair sticking out, the general ability to be loud and talk over you if he needs to make a point—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Introspective, sure, but not quiet. While singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” he shimmies and stomps enough to shake the dust from the floor. Later, he turns a man into a mouse—if I can use an expression here—overpowering his daughter’s love, Motel the tailor, with his thunderous voice and looming physique. He is Tevye, what else can you say?
Reb14 Tevye has the kind of luck he would wish on his enemies, if Hashem would listen to such prayers. His horse is weak, so of course, it also injures its foot. He comes upon a windfall of a future son-in-law, so of course, Tevye loses him in exchange for a poor tailor. In the midst of celebration, may we be zocheh15 to such things in our future, he faces down the threat of death and pogrom, may we not be so zocheh. As the good book says, and Noach forgot his umbrella. It’s nice that Tevye so often has the words of the good book, so often has something to say, even in times of trouble. After all, there’s always a bright side. Probably.
* * *
Have you ever heard of Nachum Ish Gamzu, zecher tzaddik l’bracha?16 I imagine you’ve guessed he passed away. He was called Ish Gamzu17 because he always said gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the best. Or maybe because he was from a place called Gamzu—I’ll let the rabbis fight that one out. Either way, he still said gam zu l’tovah. Something bad happens? Too bad, Nachum doesn’t mind. It must be for a good reason. One time, lo aleinu, the Jews had to appease the goyish18 ruler of their era, so they sent gorgeous gemstones like you’ve never seen—a whole boxful. On the way to the ruler, Nachum slept in an inn and had his gems stolen right out from under him! Like Rav Kahane after him, l’havdil,19 there was somebody in the bedroom who shouldn’t have been there. As the good book says, put a guardrail on your balcony and a deadbolt on your door.
And so, unfortunately, Nachum had his gems stolen and replaced with dust. He didn’t notice. When Nachum arrived at the palace and offered up a box of dirt, the ruler, as many rulers do in these kinds of stories, got very upset. He said we oughtta kill this Jew. Not a very nice guy, this ruler. And Nachum said gam zu l’tovah. You might say he said it just because that was what he always said, sort of like a catchphrase, but he actually meant it every time. He truly believed that everything Hashem did was for his best. Miraculously, Eliyahu HaNavi20 appeared, the story goes, and told the ruler to throw the dirt in the air—maybe it was from the magical dirt of Avraham Avinu.21 And lo! Behold! He throws the dirt, and nissim v’niflaot,22 the dirt turns swords and arrows into straw. Beautiful. Of course, the ruler used this to defeat his enemies. Less beautiful. That’s what happens when you stick around for the second half.
In the good book, Moshe Rabbeinu23 asks Hashem, can I see you? And as if they’re playing some odd game of peek-a-boo, Hashem says no, but I’ll show you my back. I heard it once in a drasha24—I must not have been fast enough to sneak out with the rest of the crowd—that this actually means that Hashem said, nu nu, you’re not going to be able to understand what I do when I do it, but go ahead, you can figure it out with hindsight. Some people go to great lengths to give a lesson, and Baruch Hashem,25 Hashem is one of them. Not that He’s a person, though I don’t think you were really thinking that.
Where was I going with this? So nu, there’s the people like Nachum, who accept, okay, I’m going to be in the dark here about the process. And there’s the other people, not that I’d name any names, who have a little bit more trouble in the dark. It’s not like I keep my shoes by the door and a bag packed, or anything like that, but it’s not like I didn’t grow up being warned not to get too comfortable in any one country. That is to say, luck changes, as we Jews know, may we not have to be proven right very soon.
* * *
Where’s the gam zu l’tovah, the “this, too, is for the best” of Fiddler? I’d love to tell you, but I don’t know. As the good book says, suffer with a smile. Tevye is a Jew—he knows he should suffer. He’s just trying to keep his balance right now. So he peddles his milk, pulling the cart if need be, because he keeps his head down and his heart hoping. Do you know what the Jewish definition of suffering is? I’ll tell you. It’s reaching into your pocket to take out three coins and only taking out two, lo aleinu. Sounds funny, but who am I to disagree with the rabbis?
If Tevye had two coins in his pocket, he might understand, but unfortunately, he suffers too much to know what suffering is. And while Tevye does suffer in the first half of Fiddler—through the horse that can’t pull a cart, the rich son-in-law who his daughter doesn’t marry, the family members who just won’t listen to his great wisdom—it’s manageable. It’s not unhandle-able, as one might say. And besides, it’s not like I don’t know what’s coming. It’s not like I’ve never seen the full Fiddler. I just don’t want to anymore. Because I do know what’s coming. Chas v’shalom,26 we should never know. I don’t want to know. The second half can stay where it is, thank you very much.
You know, I have a favorite song from Fiddler—who wouldn’t?—but it’s not from the movie, or even from the original Broadway production. It got cut. I’m like the schmendrick27 in the kitchen, asking if I could have a bite of last week’s kichel,28 while the good stuff’s out on the table for everyone. “Rabbi,” the song begins, “wouldn’t it be a nice trick now, if our Messiah came along when we need him? Coming along on his white horse—wouldn’t that be a clever trick?” Nu, what’s the point? Alright, I’ll tell you.
Our tradition basically tells us there’s three parts: before, now, and after. Our ancestors, of blessed memory, lived when things were good, or at least not bad. Then, the Beit HaMikdash29 was destroyed, and our other ancestors, of blessed memory, lived through the bad times. We’re still in those bad times, may they end b’meheira b’yameinu,30 amen. And at some point, somebody called Mashiach31 is going to tell us it’s all over. You ask, okay, why not name all of our children Mashiach, and we’ll have a better chance of going to the third part? I couldn’t tell you the answer. But we’re still waiting for this guy, and let me tell you, I’m glad we didn’t wait to start on our soup without him.
The deleted song, “When Messiah Comes,” tells the imagined story of Mashiach happening: “I apologize that I took so long; / But I had a little trouble finding you / Over here a few and over there a few. / You were hard to reunite, but… / Ev’rything is going to be alright.” It’s sweet. Joel Grey sings it in the version I listen to most, his tender, reedy voice aching with the pain of a friend who just wishes they could help. I so wish I could have it in Fiddler because it would be a sign that things are going to get better. That’s what Mashiach does best: offer hope that part two isn’t the end. And things are going to get better. We’ll understand why everything happened the way it did. Soon enough.
* * *
There’s more than one Tevye out there, you know. Maurice Schwartz’s Tevya from 1939 adapts the same classic Yiddish stories as Fiddler, just, you know, a bit less of the singing. Not everybody needs to sing so much, what’s the problem? Schwartz, may his mother aleha hashalom32 have nachas from her son’s memory, directed and played the title character, a man with even more to say than Topol’s Tevye. He always has something to say to his family, Hashem, the horse, the goyim. This Tevya has a relationship with the village priest, which he summarizes in his words, “About this world, let me worry, and about the next world, the same thing.”
There’s a sense of mutual respect, or maybe bemusement, or maybe just plain politeness between the friendly dairyman who hasn’t done anything wrong and the village priest, whose bad side is not a very good side to be on. As the good book says, authorities, shmauthorities, but don’t say it to their faces. Tevya recognizes the precariousness of their relationship. He talks about if a “celebration breaks out,” then clarifies it: “I mean a pogrom.” Oy, oy, oy, what troubles. I’m sorry to say, Golde—Tevya’s wife—doesn’t survive this one. Tevya’s hair turns gray from woes. And when he has to leave his home, may we not suffer as such, Tevya’s eviction is delivered to him directly—not as one of many, but as an individual. If you’re going to kick me out of my home for being Jewish, you couldn’t kick out the other Jews, too?
At the conclusion of Shabbat, Tevya recites the traditional Havdalah33 service, and reads the phrase Layehudim hayta orah v’simcha v’sason v’ykar (for the Jews there was light and happiness and joy and wealth) kein t’hyeh lanu (so may it be for us). The recital echoes with the reverberation of Jewish memory, a familiar Yiddishe delivery that evokes a time long gone. It is the music of the alte heim,34 and in the hope he expresses, we know there is, sadly, no light, nor happiness, nor joy, nor wealth waiting for him. Not anytime soon. I couldn’t keep watching to see Tevya sell his belongings. Travel far to who knows where, hoping not to find hostile goyim there. I just can’t handle these part twos.
* * *
Nachum Ish Gamzu’s story continues further. A part two where he loses his eyes and his hands and his feet and gets boils—and that can really ruin your whole day. How about instead, I just tell you about a student of his, Akiva ben Yosef? The one who, like Tevye, dreamed of learning Torah, sitting by the Eastern wall, so to speak. He was 40 years old and didn’t know a word of Torah, and then he was able to turn his life around, may we have such chizzuk.35 Akiva ben Yosef became one of the great sages of Jewish tradition, Rabbi Akiva. He studied under Nachum Ish Gamzu for 22 years. And he had his own “this, too, is for the best” story.
What can I say? He was traveling along the road, as many sages did in these kinds of stories. He arrived at a town, couldn’t find a place to sleep, and nobody would let him in. What could he do about it? He said “everything Hashem does is for the best,” and slept in a field with his donkey, rooster, and candle. Why did he bring these? Well, before they had cars, alarm clocks, and night lights, they had donkeys, roosters, and candles. First, the wind blows out the candle. At least he has the donkey and the rooster. Then a cat eats the rooster. Well, all’s not lost, Rabbi Akiva has the donkey. Oh, sorry, a lion ate his donkey. What did he say to cry out? Nothing. Kal d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid: everything Hashem does is good. I’m not sure I’d say the same thing if a cat ate my alarm clock.
In the morning, with the benefit of hindsight, Rabbi Akiva saw Hashem’s back. Which is to say he heard about the marauding army—there were a lot of those back then—that didn’t capture him with the rest of the town (because he had been sleeping in the field), and hadn’t noticed him because the light was out and the rooster and donkey were silent. What a nice story. Makes for a good drasha about being willing to accept what seems bad, shkoyach.36 Rabbi Akiva had a part two also. I don’t want to talk about his execution at the hands of the Romans. I don’t want to talk about the flaying. It’s a part two, and I just want to skip it.
I started skipping part two of Fiddler when I was watching it on the eve of the fast of Shiv’a Asar B’Tammuz.37 You know, the day we mourn the Babylonian siege of Yerushalayim,38 the later Roman destruction of Yerushalayim’s walls, and the public burning of a Sefer Torah,39 among other things—another part two. I’ve seen the full Fiddler, but it’s been a while. I remember the broken glass—another echoing, reverberating bit of the Jewish experience (besides hearing our prayers sung in the right tune). I remember imagining I was watching a Holocaust movie. Like I was watching the night of shattered glass, Kristallnacht, just in a different time and place. It was a familiar sort of pain.
In the 2018 National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production of Fiddler in Yiddish, Joel Grey’s direction has the same scene play out in an even more visceral way: just before the act break, a cossack grabs the backdrop of the set that’s been hanging since the beginning—brown, paper, unadorned aside from the word Torah—and tears it in two. I remember feeling a chill run through the audience. There’s a part two coming. It always feels like it. The destruction of our homes, barreling toward us, unceasingly. Lo aleinu.
The first real moment where you can feel the part two coming in the 1971 Fiddler is when Tevye gets caught by surprise in a moment of joy. Who doesn’t like the chance to sing and dance and celebrate? And he bumps into his friend, the constable. Maybe you could call him an acquaintance. The constable wishes a Mazel Tov.40 Tevye says thank you. The constable’s sorry to say, there’s going to be “a little unofficial demonstration.” Don’t worry, Tevye. “Not too serious…just some mischief.” In this moment, Topol, the great brash gibor41 of a performer, full of movement and power, is stopped dead. Fiddler is defined by the thunderous presence of its lead—Topol fills the screen no matter how he’s framed. Now, beads of sweat dot his face, and he stares at the constable, his face a blank slate. The floor has dropped from the movie, the moment, the chance that everything’s going to be alright. What a joke. I prefer to be the constable, yemach shemo.42 To not have to see the gravity. To be able to laugh and say “That’s what I like about you Tevye: you’re always joking.” To not have to worry about part two. Must be nice.
We Jews know better. Our part two has been ongoing for over 2,000 years. We make friends, we find niche jobs nobody wants, we become as much a part of the community as we’ll be had. And then. Pogroms, blood libels, stones thrown, Jews attacked. Just some mischief. Expulsions, inquisitions, kidnappings, the challenge to convert or die. Not too serious. Sometimes we have to be Tevye. Make a joke, quote the good book, try to enjoy what we have while we have it. Before part two.
* * *
There’s one more Tevye I should tell you about. The original. In Sholem Aleichem’s stories,43 this Tevye is an even more extreme version of what you see on-screen. Where Topol would quote one verse, this Tevye would quote three, and a Rashi44 to boot. He always has a line for something. Always, always. Tevye comes home one day and finds the entire village of goyim at his door. The mayor, Ivan Poperilo, says to him, “We have come here, Tevel, to beat you up.” It’s time for the second part. And Tevye responds, “Mazel tov to you, but why did it take you so long to get around to it? In other places they’ve almost forgotten about beatings!” Even in the face of life turning upside down, there’s a line.
In a letter to his friend Shalom Aleichem, the author of the story, Tevye compares his case to Lech L’cha,45 the story of Avraham Avinu’s journey to who knows where. “Get Thee Gone,” he translates it. “We will go wherever our eyes take us, wherever all Jews go! What will be for all the children of Israel will be for us.” There’s another deleted number from Fiddler—“Get Thee Out”—which includes the line, “It’s a pity to send you packing; you’ll be desolate no doubt. Woe is you, woe is you.” And Tevye gets out.
Some time before all that happened, Rabbi Akiva was walking along with some sages to the place of the Beit HaMikdash, a pile of ash and cinder where once stood the center of Jewish life, Rachmana l’tzlan. When they arrived, they saw a fox crawl its way out of the Kodesh HaKodashim.46 His colleagues, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, and Rabbi Yehoshua began to weep. For good reason. As the good book says, I’ll give you a reason to cry! But Rabbi Akiva stood and laughed. Laughing? At the desecration of the holiest place in the holiest place, the symbol of the downfall of the Jewish people? He said we know that there are two things that are supposed to happen: Yerushalayim will be plowed like a field, and the Jewish people will return to better times. If the first doesn’t happen, the second can’t. So of course I’m laughing—things can only get better!
What makes someone a Tevye? It’s not just the name, though it might be hard to call yourself Tevye if your name isn’t Tevye. A Tevye is full of life. He argues, counters, stands firm. After all, he has his tradition to support him. A Tevye may bend, but he does not break. And a Tevye is always bending, facing some sort of struggle. Family, society, poverty, cruelty. Maybe he reaches his hand into his pocket to take out three coins and finds the pocket’s already empty. A Tevye always has something to say. In the story of “Get Thee Out,” Tevye apologizes to Shalom Aleichem, “forgive me for filling your head with so many words. It will give you something to write about.” I’m trying.
A Tevye faces the world and always has a response, no matter what it throws at him, no matter how likely he is to lose, may we be zocheh to not need such responses. For about 2,000 years, the Jewish people have been exiled, evicted, attacked, distrusted, and otherwise ostracized and harmed, just for being who they are. It’s easier to have a joke than to think about what’s coming. It’s a better life to live, not having to think about part two. “In a figurative way,” Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.” So you say a quote or three, crack a joke, put on a voice. You add little prayers and hopes—like Baruch Hashem, lo aleinu, may it be your wills—because you’d like to think that maybe you could have a say over whether or not your home stays your home. You go out into the world—looking like, sounding like, being a Jew—and you recognize the precarious balance, hoping the next time there’s a little bit of mischief, it’s not you getting hurt.
To be a Tevye is to keep going, may we have the strength to do so. May we have strength. It’s not just a story—part two is a reality. As my favorite Fiddler song says, “Many times, many men, took our homes, took our lives. Kings they were, gone they are. We’re still here!” We are still here—that’s our gam zu l’tovah. I’m going to stick to part one, enjoy what’s good while we have it. In part one, there was light and happiness and joy and wealth. Kein t’hyeh lanu.
- stew (a traditional Jewish dish, often based on barley, beans, meat, and potatoes)
- pride, often from children
- pride, often from children
- God (literally: the Name, it is a colloquial means of avoiding profaning, while still referencing God)
- may the evil eye not be invoked
- sanctification of the day, made upon wine
- purification of the hands through washing
- beloved wife (literally: woman of valor, a reference to Proverbs)
- referred to in the movie as a prayer shawl, but specifically refers to a 4-cornered garment adorned with strings (there are more requirements, for which there is no room here)
- God help us
- An honorific of respect for a fellow Jew
- may his righteous memory be blessed
- man of Gamzu
- let us make a distinction so as not to imply that the two are truly comparable (as it would be an insult to the memory of Rav Kahane)
- the prophet Elijah
- the patriarch Abraham
- miracles and wonders
- thank God (literally: blessed is Hashem)
- Heaven forbid (literally: mercy and peace)
- Sweet cookie
- Holy Temple
- speedily in our time
- of blessed memory
- literally: separation, a service of distinction between the sanctified and the mundane
- old country (literally: old home)
- strength/mental fortitude
- nicely done
- a summer fast, one tier of importance below Yom Kippur and Tish’a B’Av (its name literally means the 17th of Tammuz)
- Torah Scroll (a sacred item in Jewish tradition—even dropping it would require the Jews who witness it to fast for 40 days)
- congratulations (literally: a good sign of luck)
- strong man (literally: hero)
- may his name be erased
- translation by Aliza Shevrin
- 11th Century commentator (a Rashi would mean a teaching by Rashi)
- literally: go for you/to you
- Holy of Holies, the place where only the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was allowed to enter, and only once a year, on Yom Kippur