Fiddler on the Roof: An Unfavorite Movie

Guest post by Ruchi Koval, author of the awesome blog Out of the Orthobox.

I’ve learned that Fiddler on the Roof is one of those universal “Jewy” references that people love to, well, reference. In fact, I’ve definitely referenced it a few times right here. And truth be told, that movie has brought me to tears – tears of deep emotion around our beloved traditions, children coming of age, the inevitable assimilation of some of our children, the endless anti-semitism. And, too, it has made me laugh so hard I’ve had tears in my eyes (the dream scene!). The music is absolutely magnificent both thematically and musically.

So why is it my unfavorite movie?

Here’s what I think. See, my grandmothers, who are (thank God) still alive, remember the shtetl. But as I suspected all along, and unscientifically “confirmed” in my recent research project on the subject, most Jews in the world do not have a living relative who remembers living in the shtetl. So for most of them, impressions of the shtetl are largely formed by movies such as Fiddler.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask?

Well, a few things.


1. No one in that movie actually seems to know why anyone is keeping any of the Jewish observances.

The trademark song “Tradition” basically says, we have no idea why we do these things, but it’s our tradition so we’ll do them anyway. Now, I have no need to romanticize life in the shtetl (just as I have no need to romanticize life as a modern-day Orthodox woman) but I do want the truth as I have experienced it to be told.

In my grandparents’ families, there was a deep education and connection with the meaning of the observances, such that my grandparents still recall and repeat today. In fact, I feel that the movie disrespects their experience. Of course I am sure that there were some families who just observed out of habit or social pressure, but an entire village? Even the rabbi is a little clueless, which brings me to…


2. The rabbi is a fool.

Here are his most brilliant, sparkling lines, full of wisdom, depth and guidance (not). This is still a problem today. I see some “shtetl-era” books being issued for Jewish kids today. Most of the time the rabbi is totally unkempt and stupid. Again, some rabbis are unkempt and I’m sure that some rabbis don’t have particularly good advice, but for this to be the “shtetl-era” rabbi image emblazoned in the minds of your typical American Jew? What happened to respect for our scholars and leaders, for our role models, and those more learned? What kind of message is that for our kids?

My grandparents describe the utter reverence for their holy rabbis; the deep respect accorded them by the parents of the household; how the members of the shtetl would vie for the privilege of caring for their needs, hosting them in their homes, attending their lectures. Where is any of that? The question about waiting for the Messiah is a good one; why is no response given?


3. Yentl the matchmaker is a caricature but her impressions remains.

To this day when I tell people about how many in the Orthodox world meet and date they immediately think of Yentl. Yentl of the ugly wife and the blind husband: a match made in heaven. Granted, “dating” in the shtetl is not identical to Orthodox dating today, even when a “matchmaker” is employed, but I believe this image has damaged the reputation of the matchmaker, casting him/her in the role of “arranger of marriages” rather than how it really is today, which is “arranger of blind dates.”

I’m sure there’s more, but these are the top three that come to mind. And lest you all think I’m just a Jewish humor grinch be it known that I love to laugh and think lots of things are funny. But sometimes, I’ve learned, I think different things are funny or enjoyable than other Jews, because of my Orthodox orientation. The “Jewish” things I find funny are more like inside Orthodox jokes, whereas I find “typical” Jew jokes corny.

And as far as Fiddler, I will end where I started: it’s a masterpiece and a classic. And a bit sad, because for many viewers, this, and only this, remains the vision of our rich shtetl era.






22 responses to “Fiddler on the Roof: An Unfavorite Movie”

  1. Rivka Nehorai Avatar
    Rivka Nehorai

    What shtetl did your grandmothers live in? I totally hear your point about the danger in representing Jews in the shtetls as blind followers without any intellectual depth. However, it seems to me that there is some truth to the idea that the vast amount of Jews did not have the opportunity to have deeper intellectual study and the shtetl, not that that should be publicized or exaggerated. Jeffrey Shandler was a teacher of mine at Rutgers, and he gives a course entitled Remembering the Shtetl. From what I remember, it did seem that education was wanting, though of course,again,Jews should be represented favorably.

    1. Ruchi Sobel-Indich Koval Avatar

      Just spoke to one of my grandmothers tonight to get more detailed info. She lived in Chust (it was either Czechoslovakia or Hungary then) which was a larger shtetl. It had several rabbis and a dayan (judge). Her family was poor but very learned. She said they didn’t think to ask “why” – just that their life was rich and meaningful. But a lot of the “why”s would be included in the studies. As another example, I have read the biography of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who delivered absolutely brilliant and deep lectures that everyone would turn out for. His story is not unique. My grandmothers till this day have a deep reverence for rabbis. She also acknowledged to me that not everyone in the shtetl was learned like her father, and by extension, their family.

      1. Rivka Nehorai Avatar
        Rivka Nehorai

        My grandmother also grew up in a small town in Hungary, and it did not seem like she received much Jewish education. I also wonder about the quality of the women’s education; my grandmother was one of a few women from her town who actually qualified to go towards a teaching “Degree”.. I also thought one of the reasons for the Chassidic movement was to offer those who weren’t part of the “intellectual elite” an opportunity to connect with ideas of the Torah. It seemed to me there was more of a dichotomy between the learned elite and the unlearned.. Where did Rabbi Salanter lecture and how often did townspeople get to hear him?

        1. Ruchi Sobel-Indich Koval Avatar

          Here’s another comment I just posted on the blog:

          Just spoke to my other grandmother. They lived in a shtetl called
          “Taitsch” in Hungary. They were very rich but most of the shtetl was poor.
          They had a clothing store that did very well. It was a good life for my grandmother. Political conditions were good (until they weren’t, in 1944). There was a rabbi and a shoychet in the shtetl. They respected the rabbi very much (“of course!”). They asked him all kinds of questions, both halachic and advice.

          I asked her if they knew why they kept the mitzvos. She said it was natural and they didn’t ask why. It occurred to me that it was a deep abiding faith that fueled that “simple faith” – this is what was missing from the movie. Doing things for “tradition” is not called simple faith. It’s called habit. But my grandmothers both had something more than habit, something that is still sorely lacking in many today and that is a true, simple, unquestionable relationship with God.

          So when I said in my original post that they had a deep connection to the meanings, I see now that it doesn’t necessarily mean on an intellectual plane, but in a deep, core-place that stemmed from a rock-solid faith [Rivka, they both grew up in Chassidic homes]. That’s how my grandmothers still say “baruch Hashem” (blessed is God) and “gloib tzu Gott” (with belief in God) in every conversation, after having gone through

          And that’s NOT the same thing as “tradition.”

    2. Yehoishophot Oliver Avatar

      By education, do you mean secular education? If so, we were much better off without it! If you mean Torah education, they typically had far more. Torah knowledge, which is Hashem’s perfect wisdom, is the only kind of intellectual depth a Jew needs.

  2. Yehoishophot Oliver Avatar

    Do you think that the “If I were a rich man” song partly reinforces an anti-Semitic stereotype?

    1. Ruchi Sobel-Indich Koval Avatar

      Personally I don’t think so…do you?

    2. The Other Mike Avatar
      The Other Mike

      I don’t think that it does. I hear it as a musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s “If I Were Rothschild”. It is touching that he does not ask for piles of material things, but mostly for leisure time to study Torah and to allow his wife to not work hard all the time.

      In the original short story, the melemed is wishing for money as a means to help the poor and increase international peace. That is a vast difference from the secularized Jews who want money so they can consume and enjoy more material goods. Oops, am I being anti-Semitic? No, I am just wishing that more Jews live up to the ideals of the Torah. Such criticism is healthy and necessary in a community.

    3. Gabi Bhandari Avatar

      No. A lot of this film has universal, tradition, persecution, changing society..etc. it is one of my faves! Gotta love Bea Arthur!!

  3. BirdieWaters Avatar

    I appreciate your views on this and can relate to your feeling of offense at some of the scenes from Fiddler on the Roof. If a form of entertainment leaves us uneasy, it’s best left unwatched, even “unfavorited”. Each religion or community has things they don’t want touched, especially by those outside their community…more-so when it’s made available to the masses who have, in the past, been a threat. I think they have the right to their views.

    When I first watched Fiddler on the Roof and heard his claim that he didn’t know why we do the things we do, my gut reaction was “WHAT?? Who wrote this?!?” . Then I stopped myself and remembered that it was billed as a musical, not a documentary…not even a dramatic, retelling of a historical event, but a musical. Musicals as we know them, are typically on the campy side and are a lighter look at life. In other words, not realistic portrayals (though they may entice someone to do further research into the subject matter). After all, when was the last time you broke in to song while arguing with someone? : ) That realization I came to felt better and I could enjoy the charm of Fiddler on the Roof. While not entirely written as I wish it was, it does drip with charm.

    If it had been represented as a documentary on Jewish life, it obviously wouldn’t be appropriate, but it’s a musical and most people can separate the two genres fairly easily in their minds. For example, those who attended a showing of “Jesus X Superstar” certainly realized that it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of history nor was it intended to represent xianity, such as it is. All the same, some people in the xian community felt very uncomfortable with the portrayal and protested. Another “untouchable”. The same goes for movies such as Nuns on the Run and Sister Act.
    It’s my belief that those who attend musicals or watch comedies which pertain to religious figures or religious life outside of their experience will take them for what they are, the same way I do. Then again, I could be wrong : )

    1. Ruchi Sobel-Indich Koval Avatar

      Right. My only concern is for those who have no frame of reference, and while they might cerebrally “know” that it’s fictionalized, it’s still the only impressions that exists in their minds. (Like the “Ten Commandments” movie.)

      1. BirdieWaters Avatar

        I suppose there may always be people who have misplaced impressions. I don’t allow myself to be concerned by those people.
        kol tuv

  4. elke Avatar

    i have (somewhere) a cd of fiddler in yiddish. i cannot begin to describe how rich, deep and meaningful the words sound to me compared to the english version. “de Toyreh” is used instead of tradition, the Rothschild song makes Tevye sound holy, the jokes are funnier and overall it is more poignant. the song “may the Lord protect and defend you” is rendered “Tateh, zisseh Gott fun Avrohom” and always makes me cry. i think of the Jews of Anatevke as the yidden the Baal Shem Tov embraced, the simple peasants who served Hashem with love rather than learning. in the rothschild song, Tevye shows he would love to learn, but right now he can’t.
    still, i love the movie, and i saw topol in the stage version and was moved to tears.

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