Why Fiddler on the Roof Disgusts Me
Pop culture critic Terry Teachout has a piece at Commentary magazine on the half-century anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof. It's behind the paywall, so I won't cite it. Fiddler disgusts me, not because of the cheesy faux-Klezmer score, but because it misrepresents Sholom Aleichem's character Tevye as a lovable schlemihl, a Stetl variant of Seinfeld or Sergeant Bilko. The original stories have their comic moments, but they are not overall cheerful (one of Tevye's daughters drowns herself, an incident excised from the Broadway version, for example). But the high point of the Tevye stories occurs when Tevye faces down a mob of Ukrainian pogromists who have come to burn down his house. At risk to his life, and with high nobility, Tevye demands that the mob consider whether there is a God in Heaven who judges us, and asks whether they believe that God would look favorably on their actions. He speaks with eloquence and desperate courage and persuades the mob to disperse.
Tevye may be an ordinary Jew, but he is capable of heroism inspired by deep faith. Sholom Aleichem may not have been a great writer, but this is a great scene. (The movie version has Tevye telling the Czarist official who has delivered the order expelling Jews from the district that he still owns his land for three days, demanding that the official get off it -- a cheap shot).
The Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse has taken Fiddler to task for distorting the humor of the original. There are other things to object to (for example Tevye's anachronistic tolerance of his daughter's intermarriage: the dramatic issue in the original is whether Tevye will forgive his daughter after she abandons her Gentile husband). But the recasting of Tevye as a clown is unforgivable.
"Normality is overrated," I wrote some years ago. "The normal condition of the nations of the world is to vanish beyond memory. If you want to remain an exception, you have to be a hero." Tevye was a hero. Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal. That's why non-Orthodox American Jews are disappearing.