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Yet despite the vastly different social standing of Tevye and Lord Crawley, it will be the Jews, not the British aristocracy, who are the more successful in bringing the core of their traditions intact through the crucible of the remainder of the 20th century and into the next one. In today’s Britain, the aristocracy survives, but its power is largely broken. The Jews, meanwhile, though horribly cleansed from the villages and cities of Eastern Europe, have adapted, and the Jewish people flourish.
And not only in America. The small, green shoots of rebirth can be seen even in places where a half-century ago, Judaism was pronounced dead. British viceroys, by contrast, are not coming back to India. Or, for that matter, to Palestine.
When to resist change, even at the risk of breaking, and when and how to adapt to it? This is as intensely a personal question as one of clan, class or country. Tom Branson may be the model of the modern answer, bending enough to become a valued senior manager for a large organization — that is, the Downton estate. In doing so, he returns to the roots of his own upbringing while being true to his late wife’s.
The appeal of rootedness is rooted deep within us. The Crawleys’ fierce dedication to their family estate is obvious, but even Tevye and his neighbors admit an emotional attachment to Anatevka. Nonetheless, in both “Downton” and “Fiddler,” the message that adaptation is essential to survival reverberates loud and clear.
Our ambivalent feelings about what is called “progress,” whether sociological or technological, lie at the heart of both dramas. It is why “Fiddler” had one of the longest runs in Broadway history and it is why “Downton” is one of the most successful BBC television dramas.
The vital lessons the younger generation teaches in “Downton” and “Fiddler” are ones that the elders of all societies constantly struggle to absorb. Traditions are precious, but not all traditions have the same value. Discarding old ways that have outlived their usefulness plays a critical role in preserving the traditions that are essential. There is a constant balance between traditions that bind us to the past and those that fortify us for the future. It is a lesson that Tevye and Lord Grantham — and we — continue to learn.
Michael L. Millenson, a Highland Park, Ill.-based writer, looks and lives more like Tevye than Lord Grantham.