Same Fiddler, Different Roof

By far, my favorite musical has always been Little Shop Of Horrors. But that’s off-Broadway and I’m an off-Broadway type of dude… and a Halloween junkie.

But conventionally, the musical I’ve always loved is Fiddler On The Roof. I never really knew why — I though it was because I listened to the soundtrack countless times with childhood friends who lived caddy-corner to me when I grew up in Albuquerque. They had a mom who was a local actress playing at Popejoy Hall productions, so we listened to whatever musical she was in at the time (Fiddler, Oliver!, Jesus Christ Superstar, 1776, etc.).

I didn’t really see the movie version of Fiddler until years later, and have now seen it a dozen times. I just love it.

Now, I know next to nothing about Jewish culture and religion beyond what I’ve seen in movies and what little I’ve read. It’s always been mildly foreign to me. I’ve read dozens of things trying to find out why such evils as anti-Semitism exist, what the core of that prejudice is, but I don’t feel any closer to understanding it other than it being just some strangely persistent and tragic historical meme of religious hate and Holocaust horror. And while anti-Semitism certainly is an important backdrop in Fiddler, there’s a human universality that’s much much larger, and that’s what is really important.

Last night I happened upon a documentary, Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles, which explores the creation, writing and universality of Fiddler On The Roof. I was really struck by just how far-reaching the musical has been embraced. Its themes have been celebrated over the years by many cultures from Japan, to Mexico, to India… everywhere! That’s pretty remarkable. Its universality is quite huge. Now I know why it appeals to me so much beyond childhood nostalgia.

A father grappling with loss of patriarchal authority and centuries of tradition as change and upheaval challenge them. A father grappling with raising daughters within the confines of religious and traditional templates as they cry out for equality and individualism. A father grappling with the chaotic evolution of culture and society that will destroy him if he remains blindly stubborn.

There’s a lot there. And much of the success of Fiddler has to do with how it deftly honors the deep-seated traditions of its context but at the same time shows the painful and arduous necessity of cleaning off universal soot and baggage that such traditions can smother life with.

The music is nice, too.

Listen, traditions are a good thing. Religions are a good thing. But it’s all in how you learn them, use them, and evolve with them.

Tevye, the dad in Fiddler, has to learn all this in a very short amount of time due to the political and social storm his Russian village is caught in the path of. The world has come to his sleepy town, for bad and good. He rage rages against the dying of the light, but some of that light has become impractical and he must go on, gentle or not, otherwise he will lose everything that really matters: his family, his love.

As things fall apart for Tevye, the only center he ever knew cannot hold. He grapples and must mature and evolve. He must find a new center, a new roof. Stubbornness will only become death, and more importantly, death for nothing — an honor-less, love-less death. Reluctant or not, he wisely chooses love.

The words of men are not Holy, no matter how much some insist they are. They are traditions at best. Traditions are a menu, never the meal. The meal is the Holy. The meal is what matters.

The meal is enlightenment. Now, when someone says “enlightenment” we usually take that to mean some amazing, godly, celestial-type energy coming out of nowhere and blowing our minds into oneness with the universe or some dramatic and cathartic thing like that.

But that’s hardly ever how it really happens. Enlightened just means “realizing” or “seeing.” It is an opening of the mind to a bigger picture beyond one’s self. Sure, it can be a dramatic “WOW, man!” event, but more often than not it’s a sublime happenstance where deeper meaning and understanding are at last, AT LAST!, grasped. The journey to become enlightened might take a bit, but it lasts forever. Things like Zen meditation are a slow-cooked eternal meal.

And since enlightenment is more of a “I never realized that” or “I never thought of it that way” type of knowledge, it is often arrives unexpected as our comfortable traditions are challenged. We are forced to step outside of our little village and see it from the outside in. When this happens, like the brilliant camera shots in the movie version of Fiddler as Tevye is removed far away from his daughters and wife to contemplate alone with God what he should do — away from everyone, away from the village, away from his troubles, away from the drama — then the answers come blissful and pure, sacred (meaningful) and not profane (meaningless), even if he can’t understand them at first.

It is also important to note that this is not ecstasy.

Ecstasy is different than enlightenment. Ecstasy is often the celebration of enlightenment, usually AFTER the fact, but ecstasy is also a feeling in and of itself that may or may not accompany new knowledge. The beauty of a sunset, the majesty of the Sistine chapel, a heart-welling gospel chorus, a beautiful painting… these can all bring on ecstasy which can walk hand-in-hand with enlightenment, but ecstasy can also just be the pure leaping up of joy and nothing else. Sometimes it is just a fun bottle dance.

So even though ecstasy is usually profane, in that it is fleeting, it can often be an effective advertisement, a menu, for enlightenment.

Enlightenment comes from the profound, the sacred. Enlightenment cures a deeper hunger. It cannot be unseen. It can sometimes be ignored and rejected for selfish purposes, but that denial is always inauthentic, cowardly, and flimsy. Meaning and truth are always larger than the vicissitudes of men.

Roofs may change but the fiddler and his/her song remain the same.

So Fiddler’s universal appeal and success overall is that its meaning is sacred. Its setting, its context, its medium may be foreign, but its meaning speaks to everyone. Its musical ecstasy is strong enough to take you outside your small village for a moment or two to have a meaningful conversation with the larger truth.

And that’s the whole thing. That’s the meal. That’s listening to and living in accord with the Holy, the unselfish, the enlightened; embracing the sacred teachings of your God instead of suffocating under words and laws of dead Bronze Age men.

That’s living choosing love.

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Jerry James

Jerry James

husband, father, RN, music lover, kindness fan