“Fiddler on the Roof” was performed last week at the MU Jesse Concert Series as a live production by a touring professional theater company. It was dedicated by the cast to the Ukrainian people suffering from the Russian invasion last month. Their dedication is more fitting than I thought that evening, because there is a village named Anatevka in Ukraine on the outskirts of Kyiv named after the village from the musical. It was founded in 2015 by Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, primarily as a refuge for Jewish families displaced by Russia’s five-year war with Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced even more in the eastern region. from the country.
The 1964 Broadway musical and 1971 film are set in pre-revolutionary anti-Semitic Russia in the fictional village of Anatevka, Ukraine in 1905. The central theme is exemplified by poor milkman Tevye’s struggle to come to terms with his fast-paced world, which includes five girls leave home one by one. The 1964 musical was well received, nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including nine won, and was the first musical to achieve 3,000 performances. The 1971 film won Academy Awards for Best Song, Sound and Cinematography.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is a dark but delightful portrait of an Orthodox Jewish family living in a small community as Russian authorities push them out. The father, Tevye, aims to be true to his religious traditions by asking God for personal direction when the village matchmaker suggests that his eldest daughter marry the older, wealthier town butcher, whom she rejects. Tevye supports her daughter’s wishes and, resisting tradition, helps her daughter marry a man she prefers.
Social change tends to accelerate and Tevye is then faced with the marriage of her second daughter to a man she arranged on her own. His third daughter marries a man he disapproves of because the man is of a different religion. The family’s story ends tragically as the Tsar’s troops expel the Jewish community of Anatevka and they emigrate to Poland or the United States. The story repeats itself.
The timeless popularity of “Fiddler on the Roof” stems from the universal struggle to embrace and accept social change. While the 1960s and 1970s in America were marked by such struggles over the Vietnam War, rock music, and newly discovered social freedoms, all generations face social, economic, and technological change. Smartphones have affected matchmaking, family dinners and parenting. “Fiddler” is very popular in Japan, where social change seems to be particularly harsh.
Last week’s performance was pretty much sold out. Sure, it was an older crowd, but there were a lot of multi-generational families and a few groups of Mizzou students. It was my first live production, but I remember the 1971 movie and the popularity of many songs. “Sunrise, Sunset” must have been played at virtually every wedding in the 1970s and 1980s. I was surprised by the number of specific manifestations of religious faith in “Fiddler.” Tevye regularly asked God for personal direction, and the community song “Sabbath Prayer” is a moving plea for God’s protection and blessings, including Bible references my baby boomer generation would likely recognize. It made me think of the decline of public, cultural, and social manifestations of religion in America today.
A majority of American high school students cannot name the 10 commandments with only 45% recalling the command “Honor your father and your mother”. Belief in God rose from 90% in 2001 to 79% in 2017. A 2022 Marist poll put the question differently and found that overall 54% “believe in God as described in the Bible”, which differs greatly from one generation to another. The poll also found that 69% of respondents over the age of 60 believe in God as described in the Bible, with the percentages dropping among younger generations. Forty percent say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, up from 52% in 2011.
The implications of changing religious beliefs for the future of our society are mixed. Across all demographic groups, 87% of Americans think it’s important to be part of a tight-knit community. About half of the country says their religion plays a role in their personal relationships, with Republicans twice as likely to say so as Democrats. However, 54% say religion plays no role in their political identification. About 70% of Americans think the nation’s moral compass is pointing in the wrong direction, whether or not they practice a religion. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans don’t think you need to be religious to lead a good life.
The durability of “Fiddler on the Roof” may be due to the long menu of memorable songs, but the struggle to maintain traditions in a difficult world is universally captivating and heroic.
David Webber joined MU’s political science department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.