Theatre Thursday

Tradition! Lessons Learned Working on Fiddler on the Roof

A highlight in the 2018-19 school year was working on Fiddler on the Roof. This show is a dream show for my co-worker, Jeff. The trick is, you need a Tevye. And we had a Tevye!

Due to concert season (elementary schools and the Christmas season) rehearsals began in the cafeteria. The set/prop builds started early too. There were lots and lots of things to build. Tables and benches to be painted, a standing up bed for the dream scene, a background, a house, a sewing shop, a giant puppet and a cart. My husband took on the cart. I found a plan on the internet and we altered it to fit our space. It took him a couple of weeks, but he did a nice job on it. A couple of kids and our choreographer took on finding and creating props. Parents and students took on following my plan and building the massive background structure. Jeff’s only request was that the cast could surround the set with candles for the Sabbath Prayer scene. Done!

I wanted the background to be multi functional. I wanted it to be the village front with working doors, I wanted it to look like a run down farm yard. I wanted it to give levels. I also wanted the structures to be see through. I wanted the lighting to go through the walls. I wanted the set to be barren, cold, drafty, patched, drab, and fading to dust. I wanted the set to reflect their meager lives that were barely holding together. I wanted the set to reflect how the traditions of their fathers left them empty and without a sure foundation.

I didn’t want the vegetation to look healthy. I really wanted the bare look of birch trees. So we created a couple using giant cardboard tubes and smaller tubes… and duct tape… lots of it.

Fruma Sarah was super fun. We were able to borrow a giant puppet frame and a parent created an awesome costume and mask for the puppet. I put it up on a rolling platform. The actress climbed inside to do her part. It was super effective.

We spent some time learning about the Jewish culture and history. Many of the students were surprised to learn of the hardships suffered by many when “cleaning” is forced on communities because of fear. They were surprised to learn that people were, and are, being treated in this way. Eventually we were ready to rehearse on stage. Then the magic truly began… the magic found in the fictional story of Tevye and his family and their struggling community. The people of Anatevka live in an uneasy peace where there is sponsored violence. Our discussions helped the students to see a message of tolerance powerful enough to wrench the gut, sear the heart and pierce the soul.

We also discussed how the story was more than a mere rebuke of racial prejudice. We discussed how the story is a commentary on the sad state of human affairs and the cruelty of men towards each other. We learned that Fiddler is a story about life, a tapestry of human experience seen through the lives of simple Jewish people.

It’s a simple story on the surface. Tevye is a Jewish milkman who has five daughters. He tries to make sure they are all married and provided for, while dealing with the changes in his life that are brought on by the Russian Revolution and the Jewish pogroms. Throughout the play he talks to the audience (and God), including them in his thought processes as he muddles out what is best and what God expects him to do.

A fiddler on the roof… Sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune, without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, “Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?” Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: TRADITION!

There are so many lessons to be learned from Fiddler on the Roof. One such lesson is BALANCE. Like a fiddler on the roof, who could fall if he leans too far to one side, as life advances, the world must balance between acknowledging tired traditions and allowing growth for our “vulnerable” youth. We live in an ever changing world where parents and children may very well conflict over old ways and traditions.

Tradition. Every family, every culture, has traditions. Admittedly, some traditions are odd, maybe even weird, and make no sense. However, traditions give us a sense of belonging, of “togetherness.” Traditions are the glue that keeps society and families together through common ties, whether they are social, cultural, or religious in nature. There is something comforting about knowing what to expect. Traditions stabilize us and gives us a sense of routine.

To us and our good fortune/ Be happy, be healthy, long life/ And if our good fortune never comes/ Here’s to whatever comes…

Anatevka provides a measure of insulation form the forces raging in the outside world. Changes come nonetheless.

And who has the right as master of the house/ To have the final word at home?/ The papa, the papa!/ Tradition!

Tevye’s three marriage-age daughters have different ideas. One daughter is pushed into a marriage to a man she doesn’t like because he is rich, bringing a promise financial security for herself and her family. Tzeitel unexpectedly refuses to go through with the marriage. This sudden flare of independence ruffles a few feathers. Eventually, the family patriarch relents and embraces the new choice in a match within the faith and community.

Daughter number two falls in love with a radical who envisions a society where traditions linked to accident of birth – gender, economic status, religion – no longer define one’s life. He practices are dangerous. Hodel defies the family tradition by declaring she won’t be asking for permission, but she will seek her father’s blessing. Prodded by the women in his life, Tevye, the “Papa,” gives in.

Chava does the unthinkable and runs away with Fyedka, a non-Jew. Here, tradition breaks. What now? Tevye’s heartbreaking song, so sad and so loving, brings us all to tears.

Tevye fantasizes about being rich… but Tevye’s real worry is losing what he already has. To cope, Tevye learns to adapt. He learns that adaptation is essential to survival.

Fiddler on the Roof is a story of a simple man, his family, his people and his God. In the midst of severe trials and in the face of tragedy, we see the resilience of a man with power and faith and love. WE see an affirmation of life. Hmmm. Fiddler on the Roof is a “modern” story of Job.

I don’t remember growing older, when did they? Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze… What words of wisdom can I give them? How can I help ease their way?

One thing I would want these kids to remember is to respect their parents and grandparents, They have walked where they now walk. They have experience and wisdom to pass on, advice they can give that may prevent kids from making the mistakes they once made. Odds are they are super proud of how they have grown and what they have learned. They know that life doesn’t get easier. They know where to find strength and wisdom. When your parents start in on “back in the day,” stop and listen. You may gain valuable life tips and gain a better understanding of your parents, grandparents and your roots.

Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I will break.

Sometimes trying new things is a very healthy and beneficial practice, but sometimes you shouldn’t compromise your values. Changing drastically on something so vital to who you are can actually make you snap and you lose yourself in the mess.

The final lesson learned is that love is the most important TRADITION. Tevye realizes that you can’t control love. He learns to trust his daughters. He learns that some traditions focus on the way things are done, but on the WHY we do them. The why is LOVE.

Sometimes I find myself trying to make sense of all the chaos in the world and in my life and I reflect back on this experience. Like a fiddler on the roof, we are all trying to get our act together. Life can be funny at time; life can be frustrating and agonizing at times. What holds us together? TRADITION! Listen to the beautiful music we are making together. Focus on the traditions that matter… the traditions of family, faith and LOVE.

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