The beloved musical, Fiddler on the Roof, was drawn from the Tevye stories by the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem (real name, Solomon Rabinovich). The setting is Anatevka, a Jewish shtetl in Czarist Russia, and the story describes how Tevye has to cope with the changes that shake his life as a Jew. The story is told by the marriages of his three oldest daughters. Each marriage presents change to Tevye that threatens his grip on tradition. As a master storyteller, Shalom Aleichem uses the weddings of Tevye’s daughters to illustrate the social and political changes that were sweeping through nineteenth century Europe.
Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and her marriage to the tailor, Motel, would seem, at first glance, to be the very model of a shtetl marriage. Good daughter that she was, Tzeitel was marrying a nice Jewish boy, a hard-working tailor. But Tzeitel broke with the centuries-old tradition of having her marriage arranged by her parents with the help of a marriage broker. Tradition called for parents, not romance, to arrange for shtetl marriages, covered by the saying, “marriage first, love later.” Tseitel upended tradition by asserting her independence and marrying the man she loved. Tradition here may not have been broken, but it was severely strained.
The marriage of Tevye’s next oldest daughter, Hodel, did break with tradition. Not only did Hovel completely disregard parental choice of a husband, but the man she married, Perchik, was a revolutionary who stood for the upheaval of both shtetl culture and the Czarist regime. Hovel’s marriage not only separated her from her family but plunged her into the precarious life of a political prisoner as he was imprisoned “far away.”
Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, represented a shattering of her religion, her family and any semblance of a Jewish life. Her marriage to the Christian, Fyedka, and her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy was a betrayal of everything Tevye held sacred. To accept Chava’s apostasy would mean the rejection of his life as a Jew. As a heart-broken Tevye said in the play, he could “bend so far before he broke?” Shattered by Chava’s marriage to a Christian, Tevye did what halachah, Jewish law, required and declared Chava dead to him and to his family.
The play does not cover the lives of Tevye’s two youngest daughters, Shprintle and Bielke; yet they, too, represent a drastic change from shtetl life. Tevye, his wife Golde, Tzeitel and their two youngest daughters emigrated from Anatevka to a new life in America. This was part of a Jewish emigration of over two million Jews escaping Russian anti-Semitism between 1882 and 1914 and coming to a welcoming America that needed immigrants to farm its vast lands and work its growing factories. It was in America that the two youngest sisters received something that was denied their older sisters – an education. Free, public education would change their lives and end a 400-year-old shtetl tradition that limited them to a life as a balabusta, a Jewish homemaker. With an education, there were possibilities for a life outside of the home that never existed in the shtetl. Secular education for girls would bring new opportunities in a new land, but it also meant the end of a centuries-old tradition.
The question for American Jews is how much of shtetl culture has been carried into our lives? A Jewish culture shaped over 400 years cannot be denied. Our inheritance of the importance of an education immediately comes to mind, but what else?
Herb Belkin is a Jewish historian who writes and lectures on Jewish history. Herb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.