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The University of Southampton
The Parkes Institute

Film as a Source: Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem’s short story, 1971)

When Tevye the Dairyman breaks the fourth wall to address us directly, who does he imagine we are? “Tradition!” he thunders, and we’re there, as if silently reassuring him that, despite the threats that assail his shtetl (wayward daughters; poverty; pogroms; fascism), we’ve not forgotten the old world, the old ways. Which is why this movie functions so effectively as a screen memory. In screening history, it also screens history from us. For what we’re watching has as much to do with our wishes about who we are on the basis of who we think we were as it does with any approximation of reality. So when Tevye says of his oldest daughter’s love-match, they’re “too happy to know how miserable they are”, we learn more about our reality than we do his. We’d need, though, to reverse the terms to identify the modern, largely secular and middle-class audience who must be too miserable to know how happy they are. So miserable, in fact, that they dream of a past that’s all simplicity: the simple faith of a religious community that yet somehow upholds the kind of liberal values such as romantic love that can, in our dreams, make even extreme poverty a charm to live through.

In Hollywood movies, a happy ending is one in which romantic love yields abundant riches.  And so it is here. Though the film formally ends with uprooting and dispersion, the destination of these wandering Jews is America - and the film’s audience are proof positive of what that implies. But if the film thereby offers a sentimental shortcut to those old Jewish traditions, then aren’t we – as Tevye’s confidantes – failing to really remember him by pretending to ourselves that his tradition has been passed on to us, miraculously unruptured by modern Jewish history?  When we promise him survival, in other words, it isn’t him we’re conning, it’s ourselves.

Source commentary provided by:

Dr Devorah Baum
Associate Professor in English Literature and Critical Theory

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