#2 Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof is a story about Jews in Russia. How does this relate to a Christian in America?
I have enjoyed Fiddler for years without getting anything really “Spiritual” out of it. It has fantastic characters, an epic story, and songs that will stick in your head for days on end. Like “Jesus Christ Superstar” it took an offhand comment from my dad for me to see it in a deeper way.
My dad once mentioned how he loves that the main character, Tevye, is always having conversations with God. That’s when it struck me “Oh yeah! He does that!”
It happens so naturally, both in how the movie presents the idea and how Topol plays the character of Tevye, that it actually took me a moment to realize “Yeah.. people don’t really do that.. especially in movies.”
Fiddler on the Roof appeared in theaters in 1971- the same year that “Jesus Christ Superstar” hit Broadway. I find it fascinating that the film versions of both these musicals were directed by the same man- Norman Jewison. They are completely different- but they share an interesting similarity. The characters ask God questions.
But Fiddler goes beyond just asking questions of the Almighty. The way Tevye interacts with an unseen, unheard Lord is very casual. Throughout the narrative, Tevye chats with God about a variety of subjects, his work, his poverty, the politics going around him, his daughters and their prospective husbands, even bringing up such “trivial” things as his horse’s lame foot.
People always pray in “Christian films” but do they ever talk to God? Tevye doesn’t use flowery words, he converses as though to a friend. A very close friend too, one who he becomes angry with, but always respects and admires. He insinuates that God often teases him, giving him five daughters and making him poor- but he doesn’t ever seem to resent God for these things. He asks God for help, and direction. Spiritually and literally.
Another pet peeve of mine in “Christian” films, is that once someone is saved- everything goes right for them. They get that job/relationship/thing that they didn’t have before. It really perpetuates the whole “Vending Machine God” misconception. Following God- even a God whom you love, is extremely difficult.
Now, before I go further, we should go into the blaring fact that neither Tevye or any of the protagonists in Fiddler are Christians. In fact, a huge plot point is the discrimination between the Jewish faith and Protestant religion. How can I admire Tevye’s relationship with God, if we believe different things?
Tevye is a Jew and does not profess to believe in Jesus like I do. But his God, and my God? I believe they are one and the same.
This is another thing I respect about Tevye, he gets some things wrong. He misquotes Bible verses and has to be corrected. He truly believes that because his youngest daughter marries a non-Jew, that in order to be faithful to his God he must shun her. And he does.
Wow. Big stuff. Hard stuff. This is what following God is all about. The entire film can be taken as a series of tests that God allows Tevye to go through. Each of his daughters and their relationships begin to poke at Tevye’s beliefs about what is unchangeable in his world. The first two challenge tradition, but the third pushes the envelope when she decides to marry outside the faith. It makes him really question what is important.
In the end, he chooses what he believes to be right over his love for his child. Although I do not believe in the rules of the Jewish religion- I know that I might be faced with similar heartbreaking decisions because of what I believe.
I find a lot of hope watching Tevye wrestle with those big questions. He is faced with difficult things- he knows God loves him, but he argues with his human feelings. At the same time, he puts those feelings aside and follows God as best he can. Sometimes he screws up, sometimes he doesn’t understand- but he’s going to follow God anyway.
If ever there were a model of how I want my relationship to be with God- Fiddler on the Roof presents it. If you ever see me driving down the road apparently talking to myself- don’t call the men in the white jackets just yet! Tevye and I have a mutual friend, and I like sharing jokes with Him too.