Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Foundational Power of Story

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… a fiddler on the roof!” -Tevye

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Fiddler-Movie-Poster-200x300Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is one of the most beloved dramas of the stage and screen. [1] On Broadway (1964), Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  The Hollywood version (1971) lost the Academy Award Best Picture nod to the more cutting-edge The French Connection, but still managed a box office of over 365 million dollars (adjusted for inflation), making it the 9th highest grossing musical of all time.[2] After four Broadway revivals, three London runs, and countless high school and community theatre performances, Fiddler became one of the more influential cultural works of the late twentieth-century.

The film also provides a beautiful illustration of  the adaptability of worldview at the upper levels: 1) Actions/Decisions and 2) Rules of Life/Culture. Fiddler chronicles the life of a small Jewish community seeking to maintain their cultural balance (like a fiddler on the roof) in the Gentile-dominated Czarist Russian village of Anatevka. The story’s protagonist, Tevye, is a poor dairy farmer seeking to scratch out a meager existence with his wife Golde. It is a task made all the more difficult by the fact that God has blessed them, not with economically viable and socially valuable sons, but five daughters.

Tevye (Topoland Golde’s (Norma Crane) three oldest daughters—Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small)—provide the storyline that so clearly illustrates all four levels of worldview:

(1) the visible Actions and Behaviors of our day-to-day decisions, and

(2) the Rules and Roles of personal strategies and cultural conventions that form the ‘scripts’ we follow in most of our decisions without ever thinking about—as well as the resiliency of worldview at its deepest levels

(3) the Beliefs and Values that form the and presuppositional principles of our belief system, and especially

(4) the foundational Stories and Myths that form the authoritative “scriptures” for both the macro-worldview of the society we live in, as well as our more personalized micro-worldview (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AMFrom the four-level construct perspective, Tevye’s worldview is a set of stories from the foundational Scriptures of The Torah (the “Holy Book” or “Good book” in Tevye’s language) of how God has revealed himself and his law to his people Israel (Level 4), from which generations of Rabbinic scholarship have drawn key theological beliefs and ethical values (Level 3), from which synagogue and societal leaders have constructed cultural conventions and rules for daily life (Level 2), from which the residents of Anatevka live out their faith in their daily behaviors and moral judgments (Level 1).

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Some of Anatevka’s strongest cultural conventions surround the roles and rules surrounding the institution of marriage. Over the course of the film, Tevye’s three daughter’s confront him with more and more counter-cultural views of marriage, which in turn drives Tevye to explore his worldview at deeper and deeper levels. When using Fiddler to teach worldview, I use six scenes to trace the transformation of the upper levels of Tevye’s worldview, and his ultimate resistance to change at his worldview’s deepest level (Scene times in parenthesis are from the downloadable ITunes version.)

1) Tradition!

Tradition! Tevye and the cultural rules/conventions (Level 2), theological principles (Level 3), and authoritative story, Torah (Level 4), that undergird his life (Level 1).

Scene One: Tradition! The first scene (1:40–12:00 on ITunes version of Fiddler) introduces the protagonist, Tevye, and the cultural conventions that govern his daily decisions through the song, Tradition.

I ask the class to use the four-level worldview construct to organize the elements of Tevye’s worldview described in the film. Students easily pick out see the rules, conventions and role conformity that govern the social relationships of his culture (Level 2), and that this culture is based upon the authoritative story of the Torah (Level 4). It normally takes them a little longer to flesh out the principles (theology and philosophy) that undergird the conventions. They also quickly see that many of Tevye’s assumptions are unexamined.

Tevye: Because of our traditions, we've kept our 
balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, 
we have traditions for everything... You may ask, 
"How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell 
you! [pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition... 
and because of our traditions... Every one 
of us knows who he is and what God expects him 
to do.

See movie clip of various roles here.

2) Traditional Marriage Culture

Golde and Yente the matchmaker arrange the marriage, before Tevye seals the deal with Lazar Wolf

Scene Two: Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Construct of Marriage. In the second scene (1:04:09–1:07:30) Tevye informs Golde that he has successfully arranged a marriage for their oldest daughter, Tzeitel. What’s more, the groom is the richest widower in the village, Lazar Wolf.

I ask students to watch the clip and to use the four-level construct to flesh out Tevye and Golde’s worldview in regards to marriage. It normally takes a bit of prodding to help them see that what they view Tevye’s actions in arranging the marriage (Level 1) as virtuous and in the best interest of Tzeitel, because the father is in the best position to arrange a marriage (Level 2), because marriage is essentially a business/social contract (Level 3), based upon the village’s “story” that happiness is tied to increasing one’s prosperity and social standing (Level 4).

3) A Non-Traditional View of Marriage

Tzeitel and Motel make a counter-cultural pledge, but reason for permission from solid business logic

Scene Three: Tzeitel and Motel’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage. In scene 3 (1:07:30 –1:14:42), Tzeitel & Motel (Leonard Frey) object to Tevye’s decision (Level 1), precisely because they disagree with Tevye’s belief that marriage is primarily a business arrangement. They believe that marriage is best based upon romantic love (Level 3), and therefore propose a different convention for arranging a marriage—a pledge between lovers (Level 2). After all, while the father is in the best position to make a successful business arrangement, the couple is in a better position to arrange a marriage based on love. For Tevye, a pledge is well outside the plausibility structures of his worldview.

Tevye: They gave each other a pledge? Unheard of... absurd!
They gave each other a pledge?  Unthinkable!

 

However, Motel is a good negotiator. While his own worldview provides romantic love as the basis for his pledge to Tzeitel, he ultimately appeals to the Anatevka’s prosperity/happiness myth (Level 4) to try to convince his would-be father-in-law:

Tevye: You are just a poor tailor!
Motel: That's true, Reb Tevye, but even a poor tailor
is entitled to some happiness! [He places his arm around
Tzeitel.] I promise you, Tevye, your daughter will not starve.

 

(View clip of Tevye’s final decision here.)

While it often takes awhile, students are normally able parse out the these worldview levels (although I often have to point out level four.)  What is really interesting is helping them examine Tevye’s reasoning in allowing Tzeitel & Motel to wed. Students are normally able to discern that Tevye’s worldview has not actually changed as much as it appears. “Papa” is still making the decision based on his daughter happiness (Level 1). While he is breaking with convention to allow the couple’s pledge to stand (Level 2), he is not really buying their notion of romantic love (Level 3) as its basis. To him marriage is still a business arrangement (Level 3), and he approves only once he is convinced that Motel is capable of giving his daughter enough financial security to satisfy the village prosperity myth (Level 4).

4) Pushing the Boundaries

Hodel and Perchik ask only for Tevye’s blessing of their love-based engagement forcing Papa to delve into the story level Torah of his worldview

Scene Four: Hodel and Perchik’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage: In scene four (1:57:23 – 2:03:53), Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, and her love interest, Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), escalate the worldview conflict. Hodel and Perchik also believe that marriage should be based primarily on the principle of romantic love (Level 3). However they further break with village conventions by choosing to become engaged without consulting their parents (Level 2). They ask only for Tevye’s blessing (not permission)—a blessing Tevye is not anxious to grant.

From a worldview perspective, the scene is absolutely fascinating. Tevye’s reason for allowing their engagement to stand reaches well beyond the village’s prosperity/happiness myth and into the authoritative worldview stories of the Torah (Level 4).

Tevye:  On the other hand, our old ways were once new,
weren't they? ... On the other hand, they decided without
parents, without a matchmaker!... On the other hand,
did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker ?... Well, yes, they did.
 And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker!

 

By reorienting his worldview around a new principle of love (Level 3) derived from a new insight into the authoritative story from Scripture (Level 4), Tevye is able to embrace a counter-cultural convention for marriage. He is undergoing a significant paradigm shift. Students can nearly always connect with this transformation and “get” the worldview transformation issues.[2]

5) Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Shift

Their daughters’ counter-cultural challenge causes Tevye and Golda to reinterpret their own marriage around the principle of love

Scene Five: Tevye and Golde’s Paradigm Shift: Scene five (2:03:53—2:09:05) is a touching portrayal of Tevye seeking to apply (Level 1) his new understanding of love (Levels 2-4) to his own marriage. He asks Golde a question made possible now only by the new probability structures of his transformed worldview: “Do you love me?”

This revolutionary question evokes a wonderful interchange on the true meaning of marriage, complete with a back and forth exchange between Golde’s conventional understanding and Tevye’s deeper counter-conventional challenge inspired by their daughters. It concludes with a paradigm shift on Golde’s part as well.

Tevye: Then you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too
Both: It change a thing, but even so, after 25 years
it's nice to know.

 

I normally need only ask students to watch the clip and tell me what is going on, to evoke a spirited conversation. They nearly always get the point. It DOES change a thing. It changes everything. Their new worldview of marriage changes the plausibility structure of their of their daily decisions. Ultimately, it will transform their marriage.

6) A Bridge Too Far

There is no other hand! Tevye’s worldview bends at the upper levels, but does not break at the root.

Scene Six: Tevye and Golde’s Rejection of Chava and Fyedka’s Marriage. The final scene in Tevye’s worldview journey is not nearly as heartening.[4] The scene details Tevye and Golde’s rejection of their youngest daughter, Chava, due to her marriage to a Gentile, Fyedka (Ray Lovelock). I normally show the first part of the scene (2:22:00 – 2:25:33)—Chava’s love for Fyedka and Tevye’s disapproval and stop the film. I then ask the class to use the four-level construct to try to predict how Tevye will respond.

Once they have made their prediction(s), I show the rest of the scene (2:25:34 – 2:35:35). It is a gut wrenching depiction of a man who has come to the foundations of his worldview and found (much to his dismay) that there is no room for further reinterpretation. There is no story that will save his relationship with his daughter. She is dead to him.

Chava: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
Tevye: Accept them? How can I accept them?
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 to bend that far... I’ll break.
On the other hand... NO... there is no other hand!
NO, CHAVA!! NO! NO!! NO!!!

 

I normally let the scene play all the way through Chava’s desolate tears. When I turn up the lights, the room is very quiet. I normally need only ask, “What do you think?” to evoke a highly emotional conversation. I try to force them to think through why Tevye reached the limits of accommodation possible in his worldview. (With A classroom of adult learners this often brings up some of their own painful family and personal experiences with interfaith marriage.)

Tradition helps us keep our balance, but it is Story that points the way forward

In the end, most students reject Tevye’s rejection of Chava. I push them hard to discern what it is in their worldview (romantic, sentimental, relativistic, Western, democratic, pluralistic, postmodern, individualism) that reacts so negatively to Tevye’s moral judgment. When I am feeling particularly antagonistic, I often ask them, “Would it make any difference if the story was set in Israel around 1000 BC and Fyedka was a Canaanite?”  (That really gets things going.)

After a spirited discussion I ask students if they know the limits of accommodation in their own worldview? How do we know when cross from accommodation to assimilation?  I suspect the only way is to be certain of the foundational stories of our own worldview.

Like Tevye, the stories of Scripture provide for us, not only fertile soil for nurturing reinterpretations of our philosophy and culture for a new generation, but also foundational bedrock for grounding the story of our own life in the mind of God.

Next: Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

Notes


[1] Norman Jewison, Topol, Norma Crane and Leonard Frey, Fiddler on the Roof (MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

[2] http://www.the-numbers.com/market/Genres/Musical.php

[3] This conversation is even more interesting when the class includes at least one student from a culture of arranged marriages.

[4] In fact, it is so troubling to some students that I sometimes I skip it and end with the Do You Love Me discussion.

 

12 Replies to “Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Foundational Power of Story”

  1. This is a great post! It's challenging to read as a writer and a storyteller! There's so much more going on under the surface of great stories!!

    1. Thanks, Gillian. I am getting ready to teach four sections of two different courses where I use Fiddler to delve into worldview and film. You're encouragement is well timed and much appreciated!

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