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In ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ Chava is a hero. But she wasn’t always.

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

Given the vaunted position of “Fiddler on the Roof” in American Jewish life today, it’s hard to imagine that the production team behind the musical was worried it would be too Jewish. Though ‘Fiddler’ was based on Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s short stories about an Orthodox shtetl-dweller, the show’s creators frequently downplayed the Jewish elements of the show for fear of alienating mainstream audiences.

“It never entered our minds that it was Jewish,” said Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the musical’s lyrics. Joseph Stein, who wrote the script, had a similar sentiment: “These were stories about characters who just happened to be Jewish.”

According to Alisa Solomon, author of “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof,” Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer, had a complicated relationship with his Jewish identity, “embracing Jewish practice at arm’s length” throughout the show. He wanted to get the details right, avoiding the caricatures that often defined Jewish theater in the early 20th century; he attended weddings in Williamsburg to inspire the choreography. But he also tried to forbid Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, from kissing the mezuzah, because doing so seemed too old-world. (Robbins lost that battle when Mostel made the sign of the cross instead.)

Ultimately, the musical made Sholem Aleichem’s stories palatable not only to American Jews but to American gentiles. In those alterations, the production team changed the ambiguous moral of the original Tevye stories, which can never quite decide if they’re on the side of tradition or modernity. But in “Fiddler,” change is presented as progress.

These changes are seen most often in the characterization of Tevye’s transgressive daughter, Chava. In the movie, when Chava, the third daughter, marries Fyedke, a non-Jew — the ultimate act of assimilation and the biggest affront to tradition — Tevye eventually accepts her marriage, wishing her well before he and his family literally leave the Old World to move to the New.

But Chava’s marriage didn’t always go so well; in every previous version of the stories, her marriage caused trauma and even death.

Chava the estranged

Sholem Aleichem — a pen name for Solomon Rabinovitch — was a renowned Yiddish writer in the late 1800s and early 1900s; “Fiddler on the Roof” was born from serialized stories, which were written and published over the course of several decades; they concerned a dairyman named Tevye, a tragicomic character with many daughters and a tendency to misquote the bible.

Sholem Aleichem, circa 1907 Image by Forward Association

All of Sholem Aleichem’s stories reflect a tension between modernity and tradition, one likely felt in his own life. Born in a shtetl in present-day Ukraine, Rabinovitch received a traditional Hasidic education until high school, when he switched to a Russian secondary school and began a largely secular life. Yet his stories, particularly Tevye’s cycle, continued to puzzle through the relative merits of each lifestyle, poking fun at the quirks of religious life without ever condemning it as backward.

“Each of Tevye’s daughters falls in love with and/or marries a man who can be said to embody a distinct historical force or mood,” wrote Hillel Halkin in the introduction to his translation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories. “Tevye himself is the very incarnation of the traditional culture of the shtetl,” he continued. “Every one of its episodes illustrates another phase of this culture’s helpless disintegration.”

In Chava’s chapter of the Tevye cycle, this challenge is intermarriage; when she falls in love with a non-Jew, then soon converts and marries him, the family sits shiva for her, cutting her out entirely.

But Tevye can’t quite condemn his daughter’s choice: “What did being a Jew or not a Jew matter? Why did God have to create both? And if he did, why put such walls between them,” he wonders.

“Tevye himself is the very incarnation of the traditional culture of the shtetl.”

Chava’s tale originally ended there. But, in the early 1900s, after the Tevye stories had already been collected and published, Sholem Aleichem heard about a resurgence of blood libel in Kiev. Horrified, he wanted to make a stronger statement than he had thus far, so he wrote a new, final chapter.

In this last installment, “Lekh Lekho,” Tevye and his remaining family are driven out of the shtetl by a half-hearted pogrom — the rampaging villagers drink tea with Tevye and allow him to break his own windows on his way out. Before the family leaves, Tevye sees Chava again, and is consumed by both love and rage; Chava is his child, after all, but she’s also abandoned them, missing births and deaths and years of their lives.

The story ends without him quite saying whether he forgives her — instead, he asks the reader what they would do in his place.

Chava the prodigal child

“Tevye,” a black and white Yiddish film from 1939, was filmed in Long Island and based on a script written by Sholem Aleichem himself. Though it stars Maurice Schwartz as Tevye, the true focus of the film is Chava; in fact, every daughter but Tsaytl has been written out.

Though the broad strokes of Chava’s marriage remain much the same as they were in the stories, the framing is changed; the antisemitism of the villagers is glaring, and the wedding is a calamity. Filmed as Hitler invaded Poland and war escalated, the movie eschews the ambiguity of the original stories to make a somewhat heavy-handed statement against the dangers of trusting non-Jews.

When the film opens, Chava and Khvedke, as her beau is called here, are already in love; Chava is idealistic, telling her father that everyone should be equal and love conquers all.

But her father doesn’t trust Khvedke — not just because it’s a sin to marry outside Judaism, but because gentiles are dangerous. “The holy Torah commands us to love all people. But Amalek, who tortured us, we must never forget,” says Tevye. “Take the magistrate and the village elder — they’re our friends, right? But if a ‘celebration’ breaks out — I mean a pogrom — they’d also throw rocks at us.”

Yet soon Chava is in the priest’s house in her wedding finery. This is when things begin to go sour; Golde and Tevye arrive to try to bring her home and, though Chava desperately wants to see her parents, Khvedke holds her back. During her wedding, she is near tears as oblivious villagers dance around her.

Life begins to go wrong in the wake of the wedding. Golde dies while Chava peers through the window, sobbing in the rain. Chava slaves away in Khvedke’s parents’ home, ignored by the family. To add insult to injury, it’s Khvedke’s father who incites the pogrom against Tevye, raging at anyone who defends the Jewish family.

As Tevye is forced out, some villagers shake their heads sadly, saying the family could have stayed if only they would have converted, while others cackle over how cheaply they bought the family’s most-prized belongings. But Chava, horrified, flees home; she never truly converted, she tells her family, and she fasted every Yom Kippur.

“Nobody can take me from my father’s home again!” she declares when Khvedka comes to get her. “It’s impossible. We’re from different worlds.”

As the movie ends, Chava makes its message painfully explicit: “I thought everything of theirs was better, prettier than ours,” she tells Tevye. “I was wrong. Your old belief is truer, deeper.”

Chava the role model

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 1939 message is completely erased; here, Chava’s marriage is the source of understanding and open-mindedness. The 1964 Broadway show, written by Joseph Stein with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, and the 1971 Norman Jewison movie use nearly identical scripts, and both paint shtetl life as somewhat repressive, and certainly not a source of great truth.

Zero Mostel as Tevye, glaring intensely to the left in a checkered shirt and vest with large, dark beard and newsboy style cap.

Zero Mostel as Tevye. Image by Wikimedia Commons

In “Fiddler,” Chava’s love for Fyedke is a groundbreaking romance, the sort of fairytale true love that, at least in the movies, must always triumph. That means that, though Tevye is certainly not the villain of “Fiddler,” the fact that he stands in the way of Chava’s love gives him an aura of cruelty that is not as present in previous iterations of the story.

Even Chava is briefly accused of discrimination for standing against Fyedke, who we first meet when he defends Chava against locals who were harassing her. When she is still hesitant to speak with him, he tells her she is as bad as her harassers.

“Why? Because I am not Jewish? You feel about me like they feel about you? I didn’t think you would,” he scolds. She relents and soon they are in love and married; just as before, Tevye and Golde disown her.

Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof.

But in this version, Tevye is in the wrong. At the end of the movie, as the family flees the village, Chava tells him that she and her husband are leaving too, out of moral solidarity.

“We can’t stay among people who would do such things to others,” explains Fyedke. “Some are driven away by edicts, others by silence.” He is implying that Tevye’s refusal to speak to Chava is a hate just as bad as the villagers’ pogroms.

The guilt works, and Tevye relents. “God be with you,” he calls after them, an implicit blessing of their relationship.

But it’s not just the ending that’s different in “Fiddler on the Roof”; the entire landscape of values has been flipped. Chava’s trust in the good intentions of gentiles is aspirational instead of hopelessly naive, the way it is in the 1939 film. She is an example to her family instead of a betrayer.

It’s all very American, speaking to audiences with the quintessentially 1960’s ideal of a country without barriers or discrimination, full of possibility and freedom for immigrants.

“These were stories about characters who just happened to be Jewish.”

This desire to assimilate and fit in defined American Jewish identity for many in the wake of World War II, with the children of Holocaust survivors, trying to shake off the traumatic inheritance and pressures that had been placed on their shoulders. This is what defined a lot of Jewish media of the era; Philip Roth and Woody Allen, for example, both grappled with the weight of tradition and expectations, yearning to simply fit into a Protestant, modern America.

“Fiddler” is a product of these same desires, and presents the New World ways as full of love and hope; in leaving the Old World, Tevye finds hope and forgiveness. The message seems to be that modernity and assimilation — and Christianity, via Fyedke — brings true happiness.

“Fiddler” feels, in many ways, very Christian, urging its Jewish characters to see and accept the good intentions of the many good gentiles around them, even as they are persecuted by other gentiles. It can feel like it is implicitly urging Jews to be less Jewish, to leave behind their old-fashioned beliefs, which are already obscured in the musical — orchestral music plays over Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding, for example, so we can’t hear the Hebrew blessings.

An impressionistic rendering of “Fiddler’s” main family. Image by Courtesy of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, Patricia Zipprodt

Yet despite all of this, the film actually gestures at a deep hope for Jewish continuity, albeit in a different, more flexible paradigm. Tevye’s words show that he hopes Chava will remain with God, and thus with her Judaism, even as she goes to Krakow with Fyedke. Perhaps, Tevye’s blessing implies, intermarriage doesn’t have to precipitate the end of Judaism. It might be an inevitable result of modernity, yes, but one that’s only destructive if it results in rejection by the community. Instead, Chava can remain Jewish even in her non-Jewish marriage as long as her Jewish family still welcomes her.

“Fiddler” might reject the old-fashioned ways of the previous generation, painting it as close-minded and repressive. But underneath all that, it still sees the beauty in Judaism, even if it’s not quite the same orthodoxy of the shtetl — a rigidity and lifestyle that Mostel, Robbins and Harnick had all struggled against in their own lives.

Through all the versions of his story, Tevye himself remained more or less the same crotchety man doing his best to muddle through a complex, changing world. But the moral of his story shifted around him, each adaptation of the original stories trying to convey a stronger message than the ambiguous original.

Throughout all of the changes however, Tevye remained as curious about modernity as he was devoted to his heritage; he wanted to do what was best, for himself and his family without losing God and Judaism. And he succeeded — Tevye’s stories have gained such fame and importance that they have become a Jewish tradition unto themselves, one through which generations of Jews connect to their Judaism. Traditions may have changed, but Judaism is alive and well — and so is “Fiddler.”

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