Fiddler on the Roof: A Nostalgic Portrayal of the Jewish Diaspora

By Janessa Duran

Released in 1971 as an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, Fiddler on the Roof focuses on Tevye and his family living as a small Jewish community in Anatevka, Russia. Set in 1905, this Jewish diaspora struggles to live in their traditional lifestyle that is purposefully separate from the rule of the Russian government and the other Russian Orthodox Christians living in the city. Fiddler on the Roof is successful in portraying Jewish culture through the opening song when their identity is revealed through their traditions, while also at the end of the movie when they are being exiled from their home in Anatevka. However, while the movie sets out to portray Jewish culture and nostalgia, experienced throughout the Western world today, it ends up objectifying the experience of the Jews in Russia, failing to portray the real, raw emotions that many would have potentially felt at the time. This essay will first discuss nostalgia and will then proceed to analyze the themes of identity and exile that appear in Fiddler on the Roof.

Nostalgia is evident throughout the movie; when joyful times arise – like the praising of Jewish traditions – as well as when traumatic experiences take place – like exile; these feelings of nostalgia, although they may resonate with the audience, perhaps overshadow the hard life of the Jewish community in 1905. Nostalgia, as defined by Svetlana Boym, “is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values” (8). It is because there has been a reconciliation in the Western world for the experiences of the Jewish people, that the writer and director were able to create a movie where people can watch and be entertained by traditional Jewish lifestyle. Audiences can watch the movie and see what “real” Jewish culture is like, and Jews can watch the movie and be proud of their traditions. Nostalgia is present because there are few alive today who have experienced this kind of culture, and the movie can only go so far as to portray a picture through the nostalgia that the writer and director feel when exploring this subject.

Though the movie tries to portray the hardships of the Jewish experience in 1905 through an emphasis on nostalgia, Edward Said says “exile is neither aesthetically nor humanistically comprehensible: at most the literature about exile objectifies an anguish and a predicament most people rarely experience first hand” (138). Exile is such a traumatic experience, that a movie like Fiddle on the Roof may attempt to portray actual events that took place, but will ultimately be unsuccessful. The members of the community feel nostalgia towards Anatevka, and the audience is able to feel sympathetic towards them, however, the nostalgia used can minimize the actual hardships that Jews suffered by suggesting that their point of exile could be the beginning of their success.

When watching Fiddler on the Roof, nostalgia is easily recognizable as the identity of this small Jewish community is established through the opening song, “Tradition.” This scene describes the Jewish laws for living: “how to eat, sleep, work; how to wear clothes,” and the list goes on. This song is important because it sets up the identity and culture of the Jews in this movie; it shows who they are and what role they play within their own society. However, though they had these traditions, it was just regular life to them. In fact, the life that they lived was a difficult one. In the introduction to “Tradition,” Tevye even compares the entire community to a fiddler on the roof, “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune, without breaking his neck.” So, though they did not live a glamorous life, their identity and traditions are portrayed with nostalgia and this feeling can, at least partially, be attributed to “the rapid pace of industrialization and modernization [that] increased the intensity of people’s longing for the slower rhythms of the past, for continuity, social cohesion and tradition” (Boym, 16). People, now, see how the Jews used to live and they can conceive that lifestyle to be secure, pleasant and peaceful. Nostalgia encompasses the Jewish identity because it portrays their lifestyle in a way where people in and outside of the culture can feel a longing for a past that was seemingly more simple than life right now. There is a sense of longing for a time where the rules that governed everyday life were more straightforward and collectively agreed upon. As Tevye mentions, “everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Though the movie does an excellent job at portraying the identity of this Jewish community, the element of nostalgia that is present throughout, glorifies their lifestyle, perhaps making it seem like a happier time to live than now.

Nostalgia is also present when the exile of the Jewish community takes place; this is evident in the vicarious feelings of longing for the time of the actual event and the minimizing of the trauma, culminating in the eventual success of Tevya’s family and other members of the community. During Russia’s anti-Semitic era of pogroms and expulsion, all the Jews in Russia were forced out of their homes. When the community is exiled from Russia, the nostalgia that many of the Jews suddenly feel for Anatevka is evident because “instead of aspiring for the universal and the progressive [they look] backward and [yearn] for the particular” (Boym, 11). The last song in the film begins with the villagers complaining about Anatevka, “well it hasn’t exactly been the garden of evil,” and “someone should have set a match to this place years ago.” However, later in the song, they begin to pay tribute to Anatevka, making this experience symbolic to the idea of nostalgia. They begin to idealize the “greatness” of Anatevka before they have even left; they begin to miss their home and feel nostalgic for the life they led before it was even interrupted. Through the community’s feelings of nostalgia, the audience begins to feel sad for them, and longs for the happier parts of the movie when they were singing joyfully without fear of exile. The nostalgia that the Jewish community feels for Anatevka is in some way, transferred to the audience viewing the film, almost as if they were a part of the Jewish community’s experience.

Nostalgia is an underlying factor used to portray the Jewish life and this is especially true in the scene of exile where the characters help turn their trauma into the moment they were able to come to America. When the community is exiled from their home in Anatevka, the melancholic scene is brightened with the prospects of finding a new home. Yente the matchmaker decides to finally make her pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Laisr Wolfe the butcher is going to live in Chicago with his brother-in-law; and Tevya and his family will migrate to New York. Though they seem sad to leave, they find some hope in going elsewhere. The exile could be interpreted as a moment of salvation instead of the moment of ruin, and this can serve to minimize the trauma felt by the Jews. From a present day standpoint, “nostalgia, like progress, is dependent on the modern conception of unrepeatable and irreversible time” (Boym, 13). The exile appears to be sad, but the film cannot truly portray the sorrow it possibly stirred, and the idea that this could never happen again makes one look at the event as something that is not so tragic because only good came out of it. The final song is melancholic, but there is a sense of triumph felt by the audience because they know that these people endured suffering, that they are in a position to look back and be proud of overcoming such tragedy.

Though many Jewish people living in the Western world did endure and overcome such traumatic events, the journey of many to present day success was horrific, to say the least. There is much to be learned from the history of the Jewish diaspora; through the numerous diasporas that exist in the world today, theirs is still one of the most well-known and archetypal. Fiddler on the Roof is a microcosm for the stories of countless Jews throughout history, especially the community in Russia during the early 1900s. They were a diaspora that lived simply, held on to their tradition and religious values, and were displaced because of their culture and reputation. Fiddler on the Roof retells their story through the portrayal of identity, tradition and exile, all filtered through nostalgia for a lost way of life.

References

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Fiddler on the Roof. Dir. Norm Jewison. Perf. Chaim Topol. The Mirisch Production Company, 1971. Film.

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unnamedJanessa Duran is a second year student double majoring in Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies and Diaspora and Transnational Studies. Janessa grew up in Southern California before moving to Viña del Mar, Chile at age 17. After eventually making her way to Toronto, in light of her international and multicultural upbringing, Janessa decided to pursue an education at the University of Toronto in order to deepen her understanding of the world’s complex conflicts. Thus far, Janessa has interned at the US Consulate General in Toronto, and she is currently Fulbright Canada’s 2016 Killam Fellow and a representative of the Department of Computer Science, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, and Oxfam U of T. Her areas of interests are Latin American development and politics, human trafficking issues, and the nexus of human rights and technology.

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