TEVYE: 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. . .how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof is among the most well loved shows in American musical theater. It’s based, of course, on tales about Tevye, a 19th-century Ukrainian dairyman, written by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, known to the world by his wonderful pen name, Sholem Aleichem – wonderful because it’s an attenuated version of the Hebrew phrase that means “Peace be with you.”

Rabinovich was born and grew up in a town not far from Kiev. He had, to put it delicately, a checkered career in the old country, before immigrating (fleeing, might be a better word – from religious persecution and creditors) with his family to New York. He then moved back and forth between the United States and Switzerland, where his wife and children were living, before they all settled in New York for good. (His second daughter, Lyalya, would marry a Russian immigrant, Mikhail Y. Koyfman, who would change his name to Michael Kauffman, and their daughter Bel would write Up the Down Staircase, the 1965 bestseller about a dysfunctional inner-city school.)

Sholem Aleichem wrote in Hebrew, Russian, and, most importantly, Yiddish. Tevye the Dairyman (or Tevye and His Daughters), now his most famous work, was first published in Russia in 1894. In America, he became known as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” because of the similarity – by somebody’s judgment, anyway – of their naturalistic styles. (Twain once told a mutual friend: “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”) The Tevye stories were adapted for the Yiddish theater by Aleichem and produced three years after his death in 1919. A movie followed in 1930, and a musical version was produced Off-Broadway in 1950.

1964’s Fiddler on the Roof, however, was mostly unrelated to that theatrical history, and was based on an original adaptation by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Hal Prince produced and Jerome Robbins both directed and did choreography – everybody in the production hated him, especially Zero Mostel (Tevye), who considered Robbins a “closeted” Jew.

And the title didn’t come from Aleichem, Stein, Bock, or Harnick but from the decision to base the musical’s stylized sets on the work of artist Marc Chagall (born Moishe Shagal), especially the painter’s 1912 work, “Le Violoniste.” Critic Robert Hughes called Chagall “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” Chagall’s journey was not unlike Aleichem’s, bouncing back and forth between Russia and France, settling in America during WWII, and living out the remainder of his life on the Côte d’Azur, where he died in 1985 at the age of 97. As cosmopolitan as Chagall became, the content and color of his work was usually pure shtetl, the poor Jewish quarter he knew as a boy. It’s true even of his depictions of Christ.

“Le Violoniste” by Marc Chagall, 1912 [Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]
“Le Violoniste” by Marc Chagall, 1912 [Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The 1971 film of Fiddler, directed by Norman Jewison (a Christian who is almost always assumed to be Jewish), reflects some of the early criticism of its Broadway precursor, which Philip Roth had called “shtetl kitsch.” Jewison’s film has half a mind to be a “feel-good” movie, and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that (L’Chaim!), especially given how much beauty and joy there is in Jewish life, albeit mixed with great, great sadness. At our annual Passover Seder, my Jewish wife describes the feast as: they tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat! But even in Jewison’s Fiddler the specter of persecution looms and takes the film from early sunny skies and bright earth to late shadowy clouds and murky mud.

For her birthday this month, I took my beloved to see the revival of Fiddler on Broadway; it was the best musical theater experience we’ve ever had. It may also be the darkest production of the musical ever done. There’s nothing in the world wrong with that, history being what it is.

And Jewish history is unique: to be God’s chosen people, yet marked for extinction practically from the beginning of the Covenant.

And from Fiddler’s first song, the justly famous “Tradition,” I felt sadness descend – and not just in expectation of the wave of pogroms that are foreshadowed or because of Tevye’s daughters’ rebelliousness against folk ways, or even because of anything to do with Jewish history.

Tevye says: “Tradition. Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

“Because of Tradition,” he says, “everyone of us knows who he is. . .and what God expects him to do.”

And I’m thinking, yes: true for Jews and for Catholics, too. Chesterton called tradition the “democracy of the dead,” which gives voice to the wisdom of our ancestors and “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

When Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize, he described Yiddish as the language of ghosts. “Ghosts love Yiddish,” he said, “and as far as I know, they all speak it.” He also said he believed in resurrection, so a dead language can never be considered wholly lost. “Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.” I once saw Singer in a “dairy restaurant” in Manhattan.

It was also the place where, in 1978, an elderly waiter served me blintzes. He wore his shirtsleeves rolled up. I saw the six-number tattoo on his forearm.


The 2015 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway), is directed by Bartlett Sher and stars Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as his wife, Golde.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • Chris in Maryland

    I love “Fiddler on the Roof.”

    A few weeks ago a man commented at TCT or some other Catholic site that as a Catholic father of some 60 years, he feels like Tevye, watching “innovators” in the “contemporary Church” dismantle and reject the tradition we were taught as children, and which was beloved by the faithful. When I read that…I marveled at how precisely he had described our experience.

    The “contemporary Church” is “culturally bound” to the “1960s – 1970s.” This “contemporary Church” has a shelf life, and in many places I have lived and heard Mass, it went stale quite some time ago.

    The Roman Catholic Church and its culture is a living thing, it must grow…and growing…its appearance must change accordingly, as an ancient living vine spreads and sprawls across hundreds and thousands of years.

    Yet as learned Catholics have observed, it cannot remain itself if it severs itself from the living ancient stock.

    So we are left with this question: “If we are Roman Catholic people, then what is our Tradition?”

  • PCB

    I enjoyed this essay very much! The Jews depicted in “Fiddler” certainly are survivors because they are people of tradition, but also because they are people of extreme resilience. It’s been years since I saw the play or movie, however, one of my favorite scenes is when Tevye, after having maintained time and time again how wonderful their little village is, when finally forced to leave, tells his wife (paraphrasing), “this village really isn’t that great anyway”. – In saying so, he isn’t demonstrating hypocrisy or fickleness, but the resilience necessary for survival of a people, of a religion. Catholics also are people of tradition and of resilience – even if we forget sometimes that the place we find ourselves currently in, really isn’t that great, anyway.

  • Rick

    “Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”

    -Bruce Lee

    The Catholic Church used to be a rock, now it is like water. At my parish, we are called upon to celebrate ecumenism (The Taize)…thanks to V2.

  • DollyT

    I saw it on Broadway with Zero Mostel (Tevye). I loves it and the Movie has been added to may Classic Movie Collection. I will see it again at the Welk Theater her in San Diego Area.

  • Romulus

    “Stetl kitsch”.. That’s good. Fiddler’s a terrific show, but the “who, me?” attitude about the connection between communism and pogroms is not exactly ingenuous. The troubled relationship between a younger brother and an older brother who refuses to “enter the house” is far too complex to unpack in a popular entertainment for tourists and tired businessmen. Jewish/Christian relations are troubled for good reasons that go all the way back to that incident outside the Jerusalem walls. Nostra aetate and subsequent documents aren’t helping by papering over everything.

    • Leonard Kramer

      Why not list those good reasons! The Jews killed Jesus? Do you want to tell me who else was around at the time. Jews and Christians have so much more in common than you might wish to admit. For starters, I’m not aware of a single thing in Jesus’ work that distinguishes him from a rabbinical Jew (other than claiming to be the Messiah and even that is equivocal).

      • Alicia

        Jews killed Jesus ?
        Jesus was a Jew, His mother, Mary, wad a Jew, St.Joseph wad a Jew, the apostles were Jews, the disciples were Jews, etc.
        Next to our high school, St. Gabriel’s HS (Sisters of Charity), there was a synagogue, which could be seen from the classrooms on that side. I’ve never forgotten, in freshman year when our homeroom teacher, a nun, asked us : if Jesus and Mary came to New Rochelle today, where would you go to see them ?
        After several guesses, she pointed to the synagogue and said “There, because they were Jews, and never forget it.”
        I never did.

        • LawProf61

          I teach at Notre Dame, and frequently point to the Golden Dome and say, “See the nice Jewish lady standing there?”

          It throws people every time. They all seem to think she’s Catholic.

          • barnabus

            It should throw them, because she is no longer Jewish. Everyone in Heaven is Catholic, including the BVM.

      • Romulus

        No, this is not about the Jews killing Jesus. Not directly. I am thinking more of the animus that drove the killers of Stephen, which drove Saul of Tarsus and the authors of the Babylonian Talmud. It’s useless to pretend the contempt and bitter hated were all on one side.

        For the record, what was intolerable to the Sanhedrin was not Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah; it was his claim to be divine. It was his repeated teaching that in his Kingdom there would be a re-ordering that would utterly overturn mainstream Jewish expectations. The Jews as a nation would no longer enjoy God’s special favor; indeed, many (though not all) Jews would find themselves on the outside and disinherited. Christians read the younger brother/older brother typology of both Testaments as references to the disinheritance that would befall the Jews as a nation. Christians — the decent ones anyway — see Cain as a type and prefiguing: the fratricide who’s alienated but nevertheless marked by God for protection and not persecution. Similar types are Ismael, Esau, the older sons of Jacob, and the older sons of Jesse. Throughout Scripture the Lord overturns conventional expectation by settling favor, blessing, and inheritance on the younger son — not necessarily because of the younger son’s merit, either. Sometimes, as in the parable of the prodigal son, it’s notwithstanding the older son’s superior moral standing. Happily, Scripture gives us good reason to expect an eventual reconciliation between older and younger: they are estranged but not enemies forever.

        • barnabus

          It’s my understanding, all Jews must converted before the Parousia is to happen.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    I was told by my agnostic brother in law and another more reliable source I pontificate. At that risk, Brad Miner makes warm analogy to a cold truth. Tradition has irreversible significance in transmission of faith, morals, and sacraments. To our Anglican respondent Rev Richmond know that I have fond memory of Rev Ronnie an Anglican I taught with in Malawi. That said there was a hiatus [approx 4 years] in 1552 when Cramner eliminated form and matter from the Ordinal. Leo XIII in Apostolicae Curae 1896 consequently declared Anglican Orders invalid ending controversy. Controversy reoccurred when the USCCB issued a 1990 text “Evolving Context”. Insofar as that semi-heretical Card Willebrand’s influenced text Apostolicae Curae 16 notes “Custom is the best interpretation of law.” Once a definitive break happens an ecclesial body [national church] reinstitution cannot occur unless it is made through the Institute the Catholic Church that it seeks inclusion with. The strength of Apostolicae Curae is Apostolic Tradition reaffirmed by the Fathers of the Church and extends beyond Orders to every dimension of Catholic Christian life. Irenaeus: In order that the full living Gospel might always be preserved the Apostles left bishops as their successors giving them their own teaching authority. Cyprian: By adhering to this heritage Deposit of the Faith the entire holy people remains always faithful professing the faith that has been handed on. Gregory the Great: From the preaching of those who have received, along with the right of succession of the episcopate, they [laity] receive the sure charism of truth. I too enjoyed Fiddler on the Roof.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      It should be added that Queen Mary I 1553-58 Henry’s daughter a Tudor and Catholic [not Mary Stewart Queen of Scots] engaged Rome to reinstate Catholicism in England including the Ordination of priests and sacraments but her attempt 1555 failed due to numerous discrepancies in ordinations and invalid episcopal succession. A main cause cited is the Cranmer Prayer Book 1549 that purged Catholic doctrine including the Ordinal. Following Queen Mary Queen Elizabeth persecuted Catholics, priests were summarily executed. Attempts by Anglicans to restore sacramental ministry were insufficient due to lack of form. Also as alluded to above once a formal break with the official body [the Catholic Church] occurs the break away segment [England] relinquishes the power to restore sacramental ministry.

    • olhg1

      What? Are you trying to say that there are varieties of “Tradition” like priestly celibacy, or that the Blessed Virgin Mary never married? And the tradition of fasting from midnight before going to Holy Communion that day, or the Holy Father wearing white clothing?

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Simply and accurately stated Apostolic Tradition encompasses definitively all that man is called by Christ to believe in and live.

  • Marie Eleanor

    “Fiddler” is the first play I saw (as an adolescent). Thank you for imparting this fascinating background info.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Rarely are words for love of daughter and music as eloquent leaving me with sadness for not having the experience.

  • Thomas

    I also have seen the revival and agree with Mr Miner’s assessment. I was also saddened that the violence against Jews has often been committed in the name of the Church.

    Whenever I read the phrase about the “hermeneutic of continuity” of Vatican II, I think of the Church’s relationship with the Jews. In this regard, the Council followed a most profound hermeneutic of discontinuity and threw a chunk of tradition overboard. As a result the Church has recovered an ancient part of its own identity. Popes now visit synagogues and have rabbis as close personal friends. Thank God. Jesus was a Jew.

  • Bernard Fischer

    Tevye the Dairyman is a wonderful and joy-filled book. Very different from the play and the movie, which is also wonderful. Tevye is a model for facing life’s troubles with faith and joy.

  • Robert A Rowland

    Thank you for your very interesting discussion about tradition which now seems to still be under assault from the dissidents of Vatican II who are still trying to change infallible doctrine.

  • Beth

    Thank you so very much for this essay. Fiddler is my hands down favorite story, musical, movie and has been for years. I have read Tevya the Dairyman and laughed, cried, sobbed really. For me, the daughters and their perspective spouses represent faith, hope, and love. (Weird, but I can’t explain) The soundtrack is more lasting than most realize. I wish I could pinpoint only one quote from the movie (I am known to quote several) but if I had to pick one, it is this: “Because of Tradition,” he says, “everyone of us knows who he is. . .and what God expects him to do.” THIS is what we have lost–knowing our place in the world. LOVE, love, love Fiddler. Turning on the soundtrack right now. Thanks again and Mazal tov!

  • olhg1

    In the movie, I was impressed with the father talking-familiarly-to the Deity. Out in the open air, about the issues that pressured him, using his own words, not those of an accomplished saint from a cloister.