Every one of our families got bigger in 1964 when Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, and Joseph Stein brought Tevye, Golde, and their daughters onto the Broadway stage and into our lives. Over fifty years of history have gone by, and it’s time to remind us what Sholom Aleichem intended and what ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ revealed about the lives of Jews in Czarist Russia and America, now that desperate immigrants are once again trying to save their families from forces they can’t control.
Toward the end of the 19th century in Czarist Russia, the educated, modern, and thoroughly secular Russian-speaking writer Sholom Rabinowitz saw the inevitable collapse of the shtetl world of the Pale of Settlement under the reactionary Czar Alexander III, and decided it was time to tell the story. In fact, he wanted to tell the story to the shtetl inhabitants themselves; so he used their own language: Yiddish. He took a name that every Jew would recognize with affection: Sholem Aleichem!
The world of Sholem Aleichem was ultimately destroyed in the gas ovens of Nazi Germany. But before its final destruction, Tevye and his fellow shtetl inhabitants did all they could to protect their Mishpoche from the inroads of modernism: the overwhelming attraction of Marxism that led Pertschik to Hodel, and Fyedka to Chava. The love of husband replaced love of parents; the love of ideology replaced love of Torah. In the end, the future won out over the past.
Sholem Aleichem, the secular writer, chronicled the ultimate fate of millions of Tevyes and Goldes, who tried desperately to build a wall around the shtetl, but failed. There were two walls: one built by the Czarist reactionaries who wanted to keep the Jews confined to their shtetls; and a second, built by the shtetl inhabitants who wanted to prevent the outside world from penetrating, undermining their traditions, and stealing their children’s hearts and minds. But, even before Marx broke through the walls, love had undermined the parental authority. When Tzeitl begs her father not to marry her to old Lazer Wolf, a normal shtetl father would have beaten her; but not Tevye. Sholem Aleichem created him to be compassionate, understanding, and in possession of the seeds of his own destruction. When Mottl Kamzoil comes with a proposition to marry his oldest daughter, the normal shtetl father would have dragged him off to the rabbi for disciplining. But not Tevye, who, unlike the average shtetl father, loves his children openly and shows affection. He laughs with them, and cries with them. He loves too much and can do nothing to prevent the inevitable betrayal of their affections.
Hodel leaves home: unthinkable. Chava married a gentile: the shame of it all! And the neighbors look at the humiliated Tevye and Golde and ask themselves: How could parents let such a thing happen? Tevye turns to his God and in the best Chassidic tradition, complains and asks for an explanation.
And, yet, the old couple go on, continue their lives, with these liberated children giving them pain and pride, even as Chava is declared officially dead. Who were the real-life Hodel and Chava? Perhaps Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg and Golda Meir, once three young girls in Orthodox shtetl families who told their fathers that it was a new world with a new Torah, and a new Moses named Karl Marx.
Some stayed in Russia to make revolution; others went to Europe for the same purpose. Many came to the United States to serve the socialist cause. There were Hodels and Chavas everywhere in the trade union movement in the United States. They could have been among the young girls who died in the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire; or created the typists’ unions. Their great-grandchildren may be working for Bernie Sanders right now…
Tradition… and change…
Sol Gittleman is a retired provost and professor emeritus from Tufts University in Medford.