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I went 26 years without watching ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ My first viewing was underwhelming — until it wasn’t

Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago, on Nov. 3, 1971, the movie adaptation of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ premiered. In honor of that anniversary, this week we are publishing a series of article about the impact of ‘Fiddler’ and its legacy. You can read more of the stories here

When the Forward’s culture desk met earlier this year to plan coverage for the 50th anniversary of the movie musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” I had to divulge a painful and long-protected secret.

I’d never seen “Fiddler.”

Not the movie, not the play. Not on Broadway, not in a school auditorium, not on my own TV. At work, I have nodded sagely to many an allusion to Tevye or Golde or Motel the Tailor, but their names meant nothing to me. For most of my life, Anatevka might as well have been in Kansas.

I thought I might get fired. Instead, I was instructed to watch the movie posthaste, take copious notes and see what a late-in-life viewer could glean from a beloved tradition. (Tradition!)

So it was that I recruited my brother (also a “Fiddler” newbie) and my very tolerant roommate for a screening. As we set up the projector, I was well and truly pumped to partake of a Jewish experience second in importance only to my bat mitzvah. I watched eagerly as Tevye, a comically bumbling dairyman, showed us around Anatevka, his hometown in Czarist Russia. I listened as he introduced us to his three headstrong daughters, determined to marry without his say-so, and to the mustachioed Russian constable who will eventually spell doom for the Jews of Anatevka. And I realized something: If you really want to love this film, you need to schedule your first viewing before the age of 26.

Every musical number in the movie, which follows Tevye as filial mutiny and violent antisemitism escalate in equal measure, felt like it took 30 minutes. I couldn’t stop fidgeting through the schmaltzy digressions of Yente, the local matchmaker. Loath though I am to publicly agree with Philip Roth, while I watched Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, the three daughters in question, twirl around with the laundry, I sympathized with his description of the original musical as “shtetl kitsch.”

As a grown woman who has lived most of her life in the 21st century, I found it hard to feel for Tevye as he struggles for control of his daughters’ futures. And it was especially frustrating to see that the ultimate affront the movie can imagine is an interfaith liaison between an independent Jewess and a gentle Gentile who likes to talk about books, an arrangement that (minus the cows and pogroms) mirrors my own parents’ marriage rather neatly.

Intellectually, I understood that the movie is about an impossible project of maintaining traditions in an ever-changing world, not one benighted paterfamilias losing his authority. I knew that “Fiddler” is a cultural touchstone with incalculable influence on the way American Jews perceive themselves and are represented in the broader culture. Emotionally, I couldn’t help comparing it to my personal ne plus ultra of movie musicals, “The Sound of Music,” and finding it lacking in dirndls and sexy bobs. I much preferred reading other people’s essays about “Fiddler” to watching it myself.

So did the rest of my watch party. “Intermission?!” my brother asked when the first act ended. He unplugged the projector and went off to bed; the screening was over, at least for the night.

The following Monday I settled down with a burrito bowl to watch the rest of “Fiddler” at my fluorescent-lit desk, hoping that the second act would provide me with some less grumpy observations. I begrudgingly acknowledged the emotional heft of Hodel’s departure to marry her radical lover, Perchik, in Siberia. I gritted my teeth as Chava took up with the non-Jewish Fyedka and was promptly disowned. I nibbled unhopefully on my chorizo and beans while Tevye kvetched about what a good girl his daughter was before she had the nerve to marry wrong.

Then, two hours and 37 minutes into the movie, that pesky constable arrives with a gaggle of henchmen and some very bad news: By order of the Czar, the Jews of Anatevka are expelled from the village. In a minute, their lives change unalterably — and for me, so did the movie.

In the last 20 minutes of “Fiddler,” all the quirks that had annoyed me — the agonizingly slow pace, the maudlin speeches, the characters’ habit of breaking into song at every opportunity — revealed themselves to be secret cinematic strengths. In case you’re fuzzy on the details (or just haven’t seen the movie! #endfiddlerstigma), the movie ends with a long and surprisingly painful pastiche of dispossession. Set to “Anatevka,” the best number on the soundtrack, the scene follows the villagers as they reluctantly pack their belongings, say their goodbyes, and march away from home into the wintry slush. We watch minor characters trade uncertain addresses. We watch the men make a final minyan before boarding a decrepit ferry. We watch Tevye take up the yoke of his own wagon, once a (mildly) funny posture and now a tragic one.

Yes, it’s a sappy and stylized scene, with little claim on realistic representation. It’s shtetl kitsch. But in forcing us to stay with Anatevka’s villagers as they submit to their mundanely awful fate, it’s also incredibly affecting — in many ways, more powerful than the hyper-realistic violence with which so many contemporary films seek to represent historical atrocities.

As I watched Anatevka’s rabbi take a final look around the synagogue sanctuary, where the walls are covered with colorful illustrated panels, I remembered a story I reported in May about a new memorial to the 1941 mass killings at Babi Yar. There, an architect created a fabulous synagogue modeled, much like the one in “Fiddler,” on the colorful wooden structures that once dotted the Pale of Settlement. An intricate homage to Jewish folk art with a fairy-tale air, the synagogue initially seems to have nothing to do with the massacres that happened nearby. In fact, its unworldly beauty is its most haunting quality. Reimagining an artistic tradition that has been largely destroyed, it forces us to reckon with what was lost at Babi Yar.

“Fiddler” takes place long before Babi Yar was even conceivable. But as I watched the townspeople process out of Anatevka, I didn’t need a critical essay to remind me that the show debuted in the wake of the Holocaust, that it was one of the first attempts to make art about a way of life that had been recently and completely eradicated. In that sense, the film’s final minutes constitute their own kind of memorial, capturing the beauty and horror of the shtetl, the nostalgia and revulsion with which so many American Jews envision their ancestors’ lives in Europe.

I imagine it’s that ending that makes devotees of so many “Fiddler” viewers. I’ll never be one of them, but for 20 minutes I understood.


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