The Fiddler on the Roof and Chanukah


Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov accompanying Mr. Bikel at his meeting with the Rebbe


Yankel was a merchant Chassid who lived in Moscow and came to the village of Lubavitch every year to spend the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with his Rebbe.


He came dressed as a Chassid, although all year he dressed in the attire of a Russian merchant.


One year he came to Lubavitch dressed as a Russian merchant. “Rebbe, I don't want to deceive you anymore,” he said. “All year long I dress like a Russian merchant. I wanted to come dressed as I always dress. I didn't want to keep fooling the Rebbe by dressing up as a Chassid when I come to visit.”


“I always knew you dressed one way here and another way there,” the Rebbe said with a smile. “I was sure, though, that your intention was to fool them.....”


One of the plays that has most popularized, both realistically and in caricature, the life of the Shtetl, is undoubtedly Fiddler on the Roof, based on Shalom Aleichem's play, Tevie der Milchiger, or Tevie the Milkman.


Theatrical and cinematic interpretations of his work have gone through various iterations, reflecting the spirit of the times, adapting the messages to be more “politically correct”. I am sure that now, fifty years since it first came out on film, it will be thoroughly analyzed by experts in Yiddish, theater and film. There are many sharp and provocative phrases that have parked themselves in Yiddish slang and culture, such as, for example Tevie’s rhetorical question: “A bird may fall in love with a fish, but where would they build their home together?”


I want to reflect here on a specific word that, thanks in no small measure to Tevie, has become very much part of Jewish life and thought, although often misunderstood: T-r-a-d-i-t-i-o-n! Tradition!.


What is the role and value of Jewish tradition? Does it make sense to cling to past behaviors just because that's how my ancestors did things? Why stay stuck in the past and not move forward, taking advantage of new opportunities that come our way? Tevie's definition is not very convincing to the modern mind. He says he doesn't know how the traditions began, but that they are what give us clarity as to our identity and our roles, and if it weren't for those traditions we would be as insecure and floundering around like a “fiddler on the roof”.


There was a time, yes, when our traditions were enough to help keep us from wobbling with regard to our Jewish identity: “things are this way because they always were this way.” In today’s mindset, this argument will not cut it. We live in a world in which no one does things simply “because that's the way it was done…”. So how does Judaism plan to continue if “tradition” is not a valid answer?


The answer lies in understanding the true role of tradition in Judaism and what it is there for. While there are customs that we observe out of respect for our tradition, sometimes without knowing their origin, it is not the reason why we observe most of the things that make up Judaism.


Why do we eat matzah on Pesach? Why do we wear Tefillin every weekday? Why do we observe Shabbat? Just because it is our tradition to do so?


No.


We eat Kosher, we put on Tefillin, we observe Shabbat and we eat Matzah at the Pesach Seder, not just because our ancestors did so; there are so many things they did that we no longer do today. We do not subscribe to the Amish philosophy of not making any changes to our lifestyle.. We do all of the above because G-d asked us to do them. How do we know what G-d wants from us? That information came to us through our unbroken millennial chain of tradition that began when G-d revealed Himself to us at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah.


The Meir behind the “Tevie”


Meir Hakohen (Theodore) Bikel [1] was an actor famous for the role of Tevie that he played on Broadway in over 2,000 performances of The Fiddler on the Roof. I remember when, in 1981, he came to participate in the Farbrengen [2] celebrating the Rebbe's 80th birthday, may his merit shield us. My father introduced him to the Rebbe during an interval, when those present would sing and “say l'chaim” to the Rebbe and to one another. “You are a Kohen,” said the Rebbe. “So you can bless me with Birkat Kohanim.” [3] Indeed, Mr. Bikel went on to bless the Rebbe with the blessing, intonation and accent learned in his childhood. [4]


That episode made a deep impression on me. Most everyone, when they would see Theodore Bikel, would automatically see “Tevie”. The Rebbe ignored the façade of “Tevie” and saw as well as made sure to show Mr. Bikel, those who witnessed the encounter and those who would hear about it, that first and foremost, after all as well as all throughout, he is Meir Hakohen. His true greatness lies not in his ability to assume and express a fictitious identity, but in his essential status as a Kohen and, as a result, in his divinely given power to bless others, including the Lubavitcher Rebbe.


I believe that these two reflections can help us appreciate something of the Rebbe's myriad contributions that can make our lives as Jews so much more meaningful. The Rebbe gave us the tools to help us understand who and what we really are, both collectively as well as individually, and what the role and relevance of our age-old traditions are even —especially— in such a different and constantly changing world.


On Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the “Meir Hakohen” Maccabees in their battle against the “Tevie” hellenists of their times. As we observe and listen to the flames of the Menorah, it is a great opportunity to reassess our “Tevie” and “Meir Hakohen” personas and to realign them according to their true roles.


Happy Chanukah!


Source: Editorial Kesher Magazine No. 77, published by Jabad Uruguay


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  1. 1924 – 2015

  2. Yiddish for chassidic gathering.

  3. The special Biblical blessing given by and through the Kohanim (priests).

  4. www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY7L8z8R_LE​​