(Illustration/Forward-Nikki Casey)
(Illustration/Forward-Nikki Casey)

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

When the Forward’s culture desk met earlier this year to plan coverage for the 50th anniversary of the 1971 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.

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.

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.

Irene Katz Connelly

Irene Katz Connelly is a staff writer at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.


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