Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2018
Winter Vitalism: Fiddler on the Roof
As we turn to Winter vitalist comedy, we turn to Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler follows the life of a Russian Jewish peasant trying to support and marry off five daughters in the face of state persecution and pogroms. In the late 1960’s, the production decision was reached that Fiddler would be shot on location in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, largely because the Zagreb area was known for its harsh winter conditions, with snow drifts that typically accumulated to 6- and even 8-foot drifts. Deep drifted snow, then, was to be one of the most important special features of the film version as opposed to the tremendously successful Broadway play.
For the summer scenes, Fiddler would employ the ingenious camera technique of placing a nylon stocking over the camera lens, creating a slightly hazy effect. But the film version would build to a winter climax amidst legendary snowy effects. The last scene to be filmed would be the absolutely bleak scene between Hodel and Tevye at the Anatevka railway stop. Imagine the spectacular effect of a landscape obliterated by snow.
We as audience can imagine it. But, in fact, the weather conditions that year in Yugoslavia did not meet expectations. The train stop scene was indeed the last filmed, but there was no deep, blanketing snow to obliterate the landscape. In fact, one suspects that Tevye’s horse had to be pulled into the scene for his strongly-emphasized laid-up and lame status to create the sense of barrenness which the weather had obstinately refused to provide.
Moreover, for shtetl (village) scenes shot earlier, the lack of snow created a crisis that was only resolved by importing tons of marble dust from mountain quarries and artistically painting the set with marble snow (International Movie Database, Fiddler on the Roof: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067093/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Last cited April 14, 2017.) The marble turned out to create a harder and whiter snow than snow itself, and, of course, the marble did not melt at any reasonable temperature. As a result, the snows of Anatevka are exceedingly cold with no trace of melting slush or even of molding of snow forms from previous light thaws. But they are not the deep snowy blankets and drifts normally provided by nature.
In short, the classic Fiddler on the Roof seen by so many millions of people worldwide never achieves the winter affect that had been planned for it. In the theatre business, the plan foiled is routine. Things never quite work out in performance the way they were carefully and rationally planned beforehand, either by the scriptwriter or by the production crew. It is, in fact, cliché in theatre that if you are planning on some weather condition, expect that the weather on location will not cooperate.
For a great many wintry plays, this production detail would be considerably less important, even trivial, because the action is so completely set in-doors. But Fiddler is quintessentially an outdoor play, the indoor scenes of Sabbath dinner and synagogue study being, in fact, exceptions to a script dominated by discussions between Tevye and God set in the outdoors. Yet the crucial winter outdoors in which Fiddler lives or dies was never the outdoors planned for the production.
These production details, of course, are irrelevant to the fact that Fiddler, as it is—with marble snow and a lame horse instead of an obliterated landscape—is the timeless classic we have and know. The production detail, then, is only instructive for what has been named the Intentional Fallacy. It is all fine and good to hear from the screenwriter, the actors, the director, even the producer, what they intended. But in the final analysis, what we have and what we can talk about, think about, and learn from is the work itself.
And there is a vast deal to learn from the film version of Fiddler on the Roof. A significant part of what can be learned is involved with the intentionality of the original work of art, the stories of Sholom Aleichem and the subsequent authors of the Broadway show and the producers, directors, actors and innumerable other artists of the film production. But while these things to learn were all involved with so many artists with such diverse talents, finally their intentions must be kept separate from the work itself and its dynamic effect.
That Fiddler on the Roof exudes extraordinary vitality, extraordinary aliveness, goes without saying. Tevye notably but also the community as a whole demonstrate a determination to grab onto life even in the midst of severe challenge, decay, and death. The spirit is not only captured but explicitly proclaimed in Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics of “To Life,” sung by Tevye, Lazar Wolf, and chorus:
… To life, to life, l’chaim.
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.
Life has a way of confusing us,
Blessing and bruising us.
Drink, l’chaim, to life!
. . .
To us and to our good fortune.
Be happy! Be healthy! Long life!
And if our good fortune never comes,
Here’s to whatever comes.
Drink, l’chaim, to life.
Few Vitalist comedies so boldly proclaim their Vitalist spirit.
Fiddler’s powerful embracing of life exemplifies many of the Vitalist humor forms we have been discussing as representative of other seasons: Spring’s Spirit of Song in traditional Jewish rituals, Summer’s Langerian Performance in the bottle dance, certainly Fall’s Langerian Tenacity. Yet Fiddler’s incorporation of Winter Vitalist humor forms is so striking as to overwhelm its other seasonal humors even as it incorporates them. Fiddler forcefully makes its place in this volume as the first example of Winter Vitalism virtually mandatory.
We turn then to the film itself and to its Winter humor techniques: Creativity as momentary Langerian humor, Re-visioning as humor form, and Dance as humor Spirit.
Winter is the time for getting creative: for using your head instead of your large muscles; for rethinking allocation of food stores and use of fields; for whittling, mending, knitting, quilting. It’s the time for storytelling, for anything to keep you from going stir-crazy in winter. It is the time for Creativity.
Fiddler’s Creativity momentary humor is notable for its intense repetition. In all artistic creations, a single occurrence may be an accident of construction. An element enters into plot, dialog and the like because the moment demands it and no more. But repetition of that element, even once, gives it significance as part of the necessary artistic structure of the whole.
In Fiddler, Tevye’s discussions with God are so recurrent as to be one of the great uniting themes of the whole work. Each of these discussions also embodies one or more Creativity jokes, for Tevye is in creative relationship with God. He may be a man of a ritualistic, traditional faith, but he himself is constantly breaking all molds, all formalisms in his relationship to God. Many of his stances in conversation with God are, if we are honest with ourselves, surprising and outside our own experience. The surprise, as all surprise theories of laughter at least strongly imply, intensifies the vitalist Langerian Creativity of all these moments.
There is also a deep level of relational development in these conversations as the film progresses. The day-dreamy, wish-fulfillment character of “If I Were a Rich Man” modulates through the film stage by stage into a recognition that God does, in fact, have intricate as well as infinite plans, plans that often include the suffering of the seemingly insignificant individual person, plans which in their construction deny Tevye’s earlier assumption, perhaps tongue in cheek, that God’s infinite plans must easily make room for whimsical accretions of wealth for God’s conversational friends.
There are all sorts of inhibitors which members of the audience may feel that prevent or hinder a full humorous appreciation of the Creativity humor of Tevye’s conversational journey with God. For some, denial of any God to journey with may inhibit any appreciation of the joke, and perhaps the depths of the joke are most appreciated by people who are very conscious of the jokes in their own personal relationship with God. Inhibitors or no, the fact remains that Tevye is one of the great literary creations of a truly eccentric, away-from-the-center, individual life. And as an actor, Topol was an ideal choice for the presentation of that creative individualism.
At a much more announced thematic level, there is the Creativity joke of the fiddler on a roof. In fact, in the first lines of the film, Tevye admits that a fiddler on the roof “sounds crazy.” The Creativity implied in the Fiddler is related to special performance, in this case, the virtuoso performance of Isaac Stern’s violin, more sublime than humorous. But at the center of the Creativity joke is the seeming nonsense of choosing to be musical and creatively artistic while balanced on a rooftop. As such, the joke contains Incongruity humor—almost all of the great jokes are multiple. But its vitalist Creativity is at least equally central. As the story unfolds, the Fiddler stands as an eccentric, a creatively incongruous balance. He makes key appearances in the after-scene of the tavern dance and in the background of Tzeitel and Motel’s marriage, and he closes the film, leaving floating in the air the sense of incongruous, yet spectacular Creativity.
Slightly less central than the Fiddler joke but certainly repeated is the joke of the Rabbi and his constantly sought advice. The joke breaks down into two parts, the first of which is the joke of blessing. As the Rabbi later says, there is a blessing for everything. As he earlier says,” May God bless and keep the Tsar. . . far away from us.”
The second half of the joke is the temporizing joke. With Lazar Wolf and Tevye at each other’s throats, everyone looks to the Rabbi. He thinks hard about it and with a significant pause says, “Let’s all sit down.” The joke comes back in a different and darker form in the closing scenes as the Constable announces that the Jewish community must leave Anatevka en masse. This joke is instituted by Motel (who like Tevye has throughout grown in relationship to God, in Motel’s case beginning from far more solid biblical citations in “Miracle of Miracles”). He asks the Rabbi that, since they’ve waited for the Messiah for so long, wouldn’t this be a good time for Him to appear.
To many, calling this any form of joke is close to or over the border of sacrilege. We do not mean it to be. Instead this is in many ways the most intensely religious moment in Fiddler. But its completion is in joke form, and the completed form is one of the best examples in all of literature that jokes are not meant for the trivial things in life but for the most profoundly significant and often least easily settled matters of life.
The Rabbi again takes the question with all the seriousness and sacrosanctity it deserves. Again he is extremely slow to speak, but when he speaks, his answer is again temporizing: “We’ll have to wait for Him someplace else. Meanwhile, let’s start packing.” The humorous similarity of his answer to earlier temporizing works in an endless circle back to the ever deepening significance of his insight for all of Jewish history.
In short, the answer is always the same, but it is an answer which must always be its own creation to the demands of its own moment. As there is a blessing in every instance, there is a backing away, a sitting down, a waiting, a moving on.
Another, lighter recurrent Creativity joke is Tevye’s citing “the Good Book”—even starting to cite it to God Himself—and characteristically getting it egregiously wrong. It may be wrong, but it is, of course, also humorously creative rhetoric. Tevye’s Creativity is enhanced by Motel’s growing sophistication in Judaic literacy.
By far the most obviously, full-bodied laughter of Creativity humor in Fiddler pertains to Tevye’s responses to his wife, epitomized in his line, “What will I tell Golde?” Whatever it turns out to be, it will be his Creativity at its best best and most alive. It is most fully embodied in the gigantic joke of the graveyard scene which piles one Creativity joke on top of another, culminating in Tevye and Golde leaping into a grave which is also their bed while Rumah Sarah throws the first clod of earth over them.
And finally, there is the repeated Creativity joke in Tevye’s other favorite trope, “on the other hand.” Tevye’s psychology seems entirely summed up in this creative phrase. There is the obvious, the customary, the heard of. And then there is the other hand for life, which is not obvious, which is not customary, and which is “unheard of, absurd!”
So this is the Langerian Creativity humor pattern of the play. By the time the film ends, it is the Tradition of Tevye. Very little of it inclines anyone to a belly laugh. But virtually none of it is without humor’s ability to attract our attention and to force us to respond to it as special, outside the ordinary, and exceptionally alive whether in inner warmth, inner smile, or even in a whispered comment to our neighbor. The more we revisit such humor, the more laugh-out-loud humorous it is likely to become.
We turn then to the Re-visioning, the Winter Regain humor form of Fiddler. Re-visioning is the natural Regain form of the winter season. Winter is the time to look back and then to turn and look forward, to choose to see things in the future as different or potentially different than they were in the past. Having added it all up in the fall, we have a chance in winter to set new goals, to redefine, to plan for a new start. In some cases Re-visioning is all that is possible.
Winter-variant Re-visioning humor is a humor of experience. The young, rushing into the future, have little experience with Re-visioning. But with experience, we realize that we have already re-visioned; we have repeatedly come to know that what we once thought is, in fact, at serious odds with what we now think reality to be. And we may even have reached the maturity to imagine that what we think tomorrow to be reality is not all that likely to exactly match what we think today.
Tevye is the embodiment of Re-visioning. Everything is subject to “on the other hand,” the Re-visioning process happening in front of our eyes.
The Re-visioning, however is not limited to Tevye. It is, for instance, inherent in the two parts of the Rabbi joke. The community is constantly looking for direction, typically seen as a controversy between antagonists. The Rabbi’s advice is both consistently and creatively to sit down, to wait for the moment to pass, and to look at it in a whole new way, essentially to move in a dimension totally separate from the conflict that engendered the moment.
The Rabbi is also engaged in a constant Re-visioning of things back to a blessing. The hated Tsarist government finally must give way to a blessing, even if the blessing contains a bitter joke as well. A sewing machine is a new creation suddenly foisted on the community. But leadership in the community requires the Re-visioning to turn the utterly new into the subject of a blessing in ancient Hebrew.
Some of the Re-visioning jokes are painfully extended, and in their pain, we forget their humor base. This is the case in the joke that begins with Tevye’s question to Golde, “Do you love me?” which, given Golde, works its way torturously back to, “but do you love me?” and finally even more torturously to the duet ending, “But even so/After twenty-five years/ It’s nice to know.”
And of course, because of repetition, Tevye’s conversations with God become a long Re-visioning joke, the profoundly significant joke of man’s relationship to God and much more importantly of God’s desire to be in sustainable relationship to man. Again, the joke is much funnier if one has been in the Re-visioning business on this very subject for a very long time in one’s own life.
As the Rabbi is in the Re-visioning business, so is the Jewish community. Anatevka has been their home. They have despised it, spat upon it and upon the Tsar behind it. They have starved in it. They have lived in houses not worth the match to burn.
But in a minor key that haunts so much of the musical score, it is the community that sings “Anatevka” and recognizes that it is also the place they love.
The role of Yente the Matchmaker is a stock role, lending itself to much humor. Foundational to the humor is that Yente is a business woman, a master rhetorician. Her business is heavily involved with Re-visioning of possibilities. The emblematic joke within this series is her presentation of two young candidates for the hands of Golde’s youngest daughters. Golde, of course, asks which boy is for which girl. It is the normal question of normal parental vision in such things. Yente re-visions the entire idea of marriage by responding that she is entirely indifferent and that such a matter is entirely up to Golde! Now there’s a new approach to marriage for you!
But again, Fiddler is almost unequalled in its building a whole play from a limited palette of jokes. Yes, Yente is in top form as she mispresents the two boys to Golde. But she is also in form when she informs Tzeitel that there was a letter for her sister at the post-office. Tzeitel sees therein that she has a sisterly duty to pick up the letter at the post office, only to revise her understanding when Yente hands her an already opened envelop. Humorous in little, humorous in much. And for Yente the humor is almost invariably involved in Re-visioning. “Am I right? Of course I’m right.”
The Aleichem inspiration for Fiddler was entitled “Tevye’s Daughters.” The daughters are involved in light humorous Re-visioning as early as the song “Matchmaker,” as they come to realize that matches made could be nightmares rather than sweet dreams. They are at the dark depths of Re-visioning when Chava announces to her father, who is violently opposed to her marriage to Fyedka, “We don’t feel that way.” The last scene of the movie to be filmed, Hodel’s farewell to Tevye at the train stop, embodies the deeply ironic humor that a child may have always had everything parents could give and may still choose “far from the home I love.” These are the deeply unfunny jokes of life in God’s plan that have always lain at the center of distinctively Jewish, serious ironic humor.
And throughout, director Norman Jewison has chosen to emphasize re-seeing, as, when confronted with his daughters and their intendeds, Tevye stands close up but then moves—visually and psychologically—tens of yards away as he considers “on the other hand,” only to be drawn back into close-up on his decision. And throughout the movie, haunting close-ups of Tevye’s and his family’s eyes are among the finest touches of Jewison’s art.
And thus with an overwhelming pattern of vitalist Langerian Winter humor already established, we come to the Spirit of Dance, the Gladness Impulse of Fiddler on the Roof. Dance is the kinesthetic work of winter, of a community confined. As such, it is a community activity; in Winter Vitalism, Dance expresses a life Spirit. Watch the DVD trailers instead of choosing “play,” and the Dance centrality in Fiddler is everywhere apparent: Tevye’s dance monologues in and around God, the Jewish/Russian choreographic tour de force of the mozel tov tavern scene, the bottle dance of the wedding, Chaveleh’s ballet with her sisters, Perchik’s new dance with Hodel and then his revolutionizing dance at Tzeitel’s wedding culminating in the Rabbi’s personal involvement and implied blessing.
So many of these are such culminating points of expressive dance as cinematic theatre that we will not belabor their vitalist humor beyond saying that Dance’s essence is life in motion and that the humor of these dances is the humor of extraordinary life appreciated purely for itself.
Only slightly less obvious as Dance is the dance of community tradition that accompanies the song, “Tradition.” Much less obvious to the construction of Fiddler is a series of ghastly dances, the parade or dance of thugs at the wedding and then around the Jewish ghetto, the stately dance of the cavalry of Kiev approaching the Communist demonstration, the parade of expulsion from Anatevka.
These ghastly dances, like the mirthless ironic humor of Re-visioning in Tevye’s daughters, are nevertheless deeply moving yet removed from the ordinarily understood in life, drawing us to a deeper sense of humor. And in many ways, it is these ghastly dances which most dramatically introduce the overall Winter vitalist dynamis of Fiddler.
To begin to understand how this can be, we must move in our understanding from simply the witness of parades, rhythmic actions, and formal dances to an understanding that it is the Spirit of Dance rather than dances themselves which are part of the Winter Langerian humor triad.
The Spirit of Dance is intimately connected with the kinesthetic and the kinesthetically rather than verbally expressive. It is possible for the Spirit of Dance in part to be expressed through solo performance as it is in Tevye’s solos. But the greater dimensions of the Spirit of Dance are fundamentally in related movement, choreographed movement, dance in which the individual is lost in partnership either with the other or the many others. And the Spirit of Dance is a constant assertion that life is not only in the blood but in movement, a movement that is typically progressive and always in search of a new momentary balance until it finds its completion in a final balance of stasis. A dance that ends with a falling from lack of balance is a failure. A dance moving through a complexity of imbalances to a final stasis is what dance is all about. Of all the Spirits of Langerian Vitalism, the Spirit of Dance is the most directly the humor of life responding to life in and for itself.
Dance and its Spirit typically begin with participants taking their positions. Dance typically ends with a final stasis achieved after complexity and substantial exertion and with participants returning to more mundane affairs. But the Spirit of Dance can easily abide, a Spirit described in the form of the dance, so that a graceful waltz establishes one spirit, and the bottle dance of Tzeitel’s marriage establishes a very different variant of the general Dance Spirit, a variant which is both similar and dissimilar to the variant of the mozel tov Jewish/Russian dance.
But all of these have in common that finally all the energy of the dance is concentrated on the dance. The energy is contained sometime between the participants assuming their places and the participants leaving the dance for their more mundane affairs. In short, the Spirit of Dance is an expenditure of energy entirely for itself; it is non-teleological, entirely removed from goals outside the dance. And it is this central factor of the Spirit of Dance that lends itself so much to the vitalist humor of Dance being so purely the humor of expended energy and life.
The Spirit of Dance is the outlet for life within the constraints of societal form and tradition. In this guise, it is expressive without words, and the lack of words allows the expression and the life which would otherwise be constrained.
Spirit cannot be directly indicated. Understanding the pervasive presence of the Spirit of Dance in Fiddler is best accomplished in its relationship to the comedic import of Fiddler. The comedy of Fiddler on the Roof is in one sense the national comedy of European Judaism. It is the comedy, as Tevye tells us early on, of a fiddler on the roof. It is the comedy of Jewish Diaspora or the comedy of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple, an event memorialized in Judaism by the glass broken beneath the bridegroom’s foot in the marriage ceremony under the canopy.
There is a second comedy which is distinctively Tevye’s own personal comedy. And if it is indeed comedy, it is a very, very dark and somber variant of comedy—a survival only at continual personal, intimate cost and loss. But it is comedic because it is the phenomenal success of remaining personally committed to God through it all and despite every idiosyncratic quirk. It is a comedy which with Job dares to assert, “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).
The national comedy of European Judaism is represented in every member of the Jewish community including Tevye, in one facet or another. But in terms of the dramatized action of Fiddler, the national comedy is carried forward into an uncertain future not so much by Tevye and Golde but rather by Motel and Tzeitel. Of Tevye’s daughters, it is Tzeitel who we see married under the canopy, who we see accepting Judaism’s religious history in the breaking of the glass. Hodel promises to be married under a canopy, but we do not see it. And even though we anticipate it, she intends to marry Perchik, who we have already seen transforming the Jewish scriptural tradition into a political Communist agenda. Perchik is by his own estimation the man of a New Order in a world fundamentally changing and rejecting the traditional Jewish community. Chava is married, but she is married to Fyedka and joined to him within a Christian ceremony equally separated from union with the Jewish European culture that looks back to the destruction of the Temple.
Central to this national European Jewish comedy are community and its adhesive, Tradition. The first musical number of Fiddler is thus the symbolic dance of the Jewish community at work and at life, centered on the Papa and the Mama, but with a role for everyone, entirely held together—and in place—by Tradition. That this dance is not what most of us would call a dance makes it all the more memorable and impressive.
The national Jewish tradition is, as Tevye jokes, a tradition with its hats on, never truly at home, always ready to move, to start over, to endure the loss of leaving the place one loves. It is also, as it was for prophets like Jeremiah, the tradition of a remnant. Hodel and Chava are representatives of the constant possibility of further disintegration and separation of the traditional community from sons and daughters who stray from it. And it is, of course, Motel and Tzeitel who represent the remnant that moves forward into the next generation sheltered under the canopy, accepting of the broken glass, committed to the community and to its Traditions.
And yet it is Motel and Tzeitel who also are the representatives of the community moving forward into a new world. It is Motel and Tzeitel, after all, who have given each other a pledge, a pledge that sidesteps arranged marriage, the authority of the father, the Traditions that have moved national Judaism from one generation to the next.
Ironically, Motel is the religiously scholarly son-in-law Tevye has always wanted. And his adherence to the Book and what it actually says allows him also to be the man who brings the modern world in the form of a Gentile sewing machine to his community and to receive its blessing in ancient Hebrew.
And it is Motel who has a son, the promise of a new generation raised in the Tradition and the community.
Even this far, the main outlines of comedic success become obvious. Jewish national success is involved in the continuity of Tradition. Tradition creates community. Community ultimately looks to rabbinical authority, to traditions like the breaking of the glass that tie it to all previous Jewish religious experience.
In Motel, particularly in “Miracle of Miracles,” we see that God can and does make men within this Tradition. We see too, in a line Motel borrows from Tzeitel, that even a poor tailor deserves some happiness. That happiness is necessarily balanced with tears, as anticipated in “Sunrise, Sunset,” and the comedy of Jewish national survival is thus inevitably one of the dark comedies of all history, the celebration of survival at continuous and on-going cost throughout a virtual future.
The Jewish national dark comedy, then, is inevitably powerful within Fiddler. But just as inevitably, it leaves Tevye on the outside looking in. And yet Tevye is one of the titanic figures in literature, and an analysis of Fiddler that makes him peripheral is at best academic, at worst purely insane. Much more to the central point of the specific action of Fiddler is Tevye’s question, “What will I tell Golde?”
As Motel is ironically both the inconsequential playmate of youth and the man of the Book and the religious scholar Tevye has always wanted for a son-in-law, so Tevye himself is ironically both entirely eccentric to the community and simultaneously the loud propounder of its adhesive, Tradition. And thus Tevye’s personal struggles constitute a different comedy.
Tevye is away from the center. His occupation takes him to every part of the Jewish ghetto. Equally, it dictates that he live on the edge of that ghetto where shtetl turns to fields and pasture. It is in his dreams that he imagines himself a rich man living in the center of the village and having a central place in the synagogue.
He is also far from the center in being a bridge between the Jewish community and Gentile Anatevka. Of all the men of the ghetto, it is Tevye who might have heard from the Gentile Constable, who might be able to warn the community of impending danger. Admittedly, there is someone else who can read and who bothers with the newspapers, who can alert the community to what storm clouds have settled over distant villages. But it is Tevye, because he is Tevye, because he is eccentric, because he can be admired by the Constable and congratulated by Russian nationals in the tavern, who might know of the storm coming from across town.
It is also Tevye who is non-judgmental and offers Perchik a place in town for the summer, Perchik whose ideas are anything but traditional and who is committed to acting out contempt for the state and any progress which it might be willing to offer.
Tevye, on consideration, finds men from Lazar Wolf to Perchik to be “gud” men. What makes a man “gud” is never very clear with Tevye, but it reflects Yente’s rhetorical stance that any man is either a “gud” catch or from a “gud” family or represents yet some other persuasive “gud.” One can surmise that, for Yente, being “gud” and being under the Tradition and within the community are close to synonymous. In Tevye’s case, however, being a “gud” man strays over to both Perchik the revolutionary, Lazar the butcher, and to the Gentile Constable.
And, of course, it is Tevye, non-judgmental and bridging, whose second daughter chooses the revolutionary and whose third daughter chooses the Gentile.
Meanwhile, Tevye’s personal connection to God is little mediated by Rabbi and synagogue. Fiddler makes a point of Tevye’s mis-citations of scripture from the very beginning, and before he is through, Tevye is not just confusing David with Moses but claiming “as the gud Book says” what the “gud Book” never even considered.
Tevye’s personal attitude is to avoid confrontation with Rabbi and synagogue while conducting his conversations with God and his social behavior within what is still left open to him. Thus, at Tzeitel’s wedding dance, it is Tevye who, faced with Perchik’s anti-Traditional impertinences, appeals to the Rabbi’s judgment. The Rabbi’s judgment is that dancing between sexes is not necessarily forbidden, and it is that negation that allows Tevye, the proponent of Tradition, to move decisively forward and away from the Tradition.
Tevye, in short, has it both ways, which is often the case in his conversations with God and particularly that part of his conversation that invariably starts, “on the other hand.” And yet Tevye is anything but a hypocrite. More than anyone else in Fiddler, it is Tevye himself who is associated with the Fiddler on the roof. It cannot be surprising that it is his daughters, not someone else’s, who are at the outer limits of change in a traditional society.
And by and large, Tevye’s mindset is geared to the accommodation of his daughters, recognizing, of course, that accommodation of his daughters means figuring out what to tell Golde, even including the colossal graveyard fib.
For Golde is not another Tevye. She is his chosen bride—chosen for him by someone else—a woman he met on his wedding day. Twenty five years into marriage, he is developing the courage to ask if she loves him. And she is a woman thoroughly of the community and of the Tradition: she is a woman who keeps her attention on the essential, that is, having everything ready for the Sabbath, which, evidently, allows her to scold the rest of the way through the week as part of that preparation.
Accommodationist that he is, Tevye’s conversations toward God show a man who is also trusting God. The last words filmed in the movie, at the train stop with Hodel about to board, saying that only God knows when she and her father will ever see each other again, allow Tevye to express what is ultimately at the center of his accommodation: “Then we will leave it in His hands.”
But if Tevye is not to be a hypocrite and if he is also to have daughters moving beyond the frontiers of Tradition, inevitably Tevye must also recognize that there are limits to accommodation, even accommodation left ultimately in the hands of God. And with Chava, Tevye knows “the Gud Book” to be unequivocal. The child who leaves Israel to become one with a Gentile is dead to the community and, for Tevye, dead to the parents.
And thus the outlines of Tevye’s comedy are also clear well before the climax of the movie and the onset of dynamis. Tevye’s is the comedy of the eccentric Fiddler, the man who refuses to desert the community, who insists on propounding its Traditions. Yet as an individual, he finds himself in the most precarious of situations trying to navigate life with creative artistry. He accomplishes this balancing feat with grace, in constant communion with a God he is honest enough to know that he only little understands. And like the Rabbi, he adds to his honesty with God a basic non-judgmentalism and a preference for temporizing through difficulty to create a generally admirable accommodating approach to life and to others. And as we repeatedly see, this makes Tevye addicted to life, to seeing all sides of it, and accepting all of it, to singing “L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”
For Tevye, life is a gift from the hand of God, and we see in his unorthodox role within the Jewish community, in his bridge-building role with the Gentile community, in his compassion for his daughters, in his leadership in shy love with his wife, in all that he has been given with life and breath, a repeatedly successful giftiness to others.
Summarizing then, there are at least two comedic designs to Fiddler on the Roof. The first of these, most fully represented in Motel and Tzeitel, is a comedic parable of the Jewish condition in community, under Tradition, guided by rabbinical authority and ultimately referenced back to Scripture and especially to the Torah, which the Rabbi lovingly carries forward into exile. The second is the comedy of the eccentric to the Jewish community, pursuing his own relationship with God, looking for what is not absolutely forbidden, enjoying life as a gift of God, and bringing gifts to others.
But Fiddler is also a single artistic work with a final unity. The development of these two comedies intertwines to lead us to a single climactic moment. The climactic crisis is inevitable because neither of the comedies seems to have a resolution for the problem of Chava—and of Fyedka.
It is worth stopping on Fyedka, to recognize that he has been presented consistently throughout as an admirable young man, personally heroic, committed to ideas and to relationship, ultimately committed to standing in the face both of Tsarist Russia and in the face of an implacable, outraged father of his beloved. It is hard to criticize Chava’s sense of noble character.
But Chava’s choice challenges not only Tradition but also the Torah itself. And it creates the impossible situation, the situation which Tevye as fiddler on the roof cannot balance within himself. And thus Tevye’s comedy must include the darkest shades of the national comedy.
Evidently, Aleichem wanted it that way, was intentionally setting up the impossible situation as a way of arguing that Tradition needed to move forward and beyond the accepted, perhaps to the unheard of and the absurd.
Whatever Aleichem’s intent, for an audience of the 1970’s, the entire plot and comedic structure of Fiddler cries out against the last word having been said. It cries out even more when Chava and Fyedka trudge past Tevye, having joined the procession out of Anatevka, Fyedka averring that he will not continue to live where there is such injustice.
The play cries out, and in the background even Golde is on the verge of crying out. But Tradition maintains that it is Tevye who speaks for his family, and Tevye speaks not verbally but kinesthetically, the dance of tying down the cart. Without words, it is one of the most eloquent statements in literature of a man accepting the death of his family for his faith.
The ultimate literary precedent for this crisis is Abraham leading his son, Isaac (whose name means laughter), to Mount Moriah for sacrifice, a sacrifice which has no other provision than the son himself.
Chava’s name means the “Dove,” here used prophetically because the dove is the poor man’s sacrifice. She is everyone’s favorite child. Symbolically she is Isaac and that means she is laughter, and at God’s command, she must be sacrificed because faith can’t find the way around, even a faith that has expressed itself in constant accommodation.
And it is at that point, the point at which Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, the point at which Tevye has refused the final chance to speak a word of peace or hope, that God provides the sacrifice for Abraham, that Tzeitel provides the saving grace for Tevye by offering the blessing to Chava and Fyedka: “God be with you.” Tzeitel—the symbol of the accepted faith, at one with the Torah, accepting of the canopy and of the broken glass—it is Tzeitel who creates the bridge that Tevye the bridgemaker cannot build for himself, Tzeitel who is the provision of God for grace beyond reason, grace which is itself absurd but is also the united comedic victory of the national community and of the tortured individual.
Tzeitel’s intervention allows Tevye to resume another part of his traditional role as the Papa, the grantor of blessing, “God be with you,” here transmitted through Tzeitel, Tevye not enabled to go the whole distance by himself.
This is one of the most profoundly moving moments in modern literature, just as the moment on Moriah has been foundational to all major monotheistic faiths.
As such, this traditional comedic, saved-in-the-nick-of-time climax has its own overpowering dynamic effect. That effect is highly emotional and easily brings tears either in the theatre or even in critical retelling. But it is simultaneously highly intellective, and probably whole dissertations could be written on Fiddler and amazing grace, dissertations entirely dependent on the dynamic of this incredible moment, which joins the national comedy and Motel and Tzeitel’s centrality to it with the searing comedy of Tevye’s journey with God.
One way of looking at this culmination of comedy is that the national comedy of community in Tradition makes way for the national comedy of the 20th century, particularly the national comedy transplanted to America, the three marriages presaging a Hasidic remnant, a Jewish political radicalism, and an unprecedented marital union with Gentile partners.
But for us emotionally, there is an enormous traditional comedic dynamic effect triggered by the line, “God be with you.” That traditional comedic effect is fundamentally relief, the impossible but hoped for has become not only possible but real. And in that reality, the traditional comedic effect is celebratory: bring on the impossible; humanity is destined to survive.
In traditional comedic mode, we as audience are emotionally ready for the film to end. What was needful to provide a sense of hope and continuance, of survival of some value, has happened.
In the terms of Vitalist Spirit, the dance has ended. But a dance does not suddenly break off; it ends with closure, with decorum, with a new balance, with dignity. The dance of the community of Tradition and of Tevye and the Fiddler have come together, and they have ended well. The dancers have completed their steps and bowed to each other.
But the movie doesn’t end with the dance. It goes on in what can be considered a very long anti-climax, an anti-climax of pogrom eviction and resumed wandering, indeed of renewed Diaspora. Tevye was right from the beginning: his is a community, a faith, a Tradition with its hats on. One way of interpreting that long anti-climax is as an indelible protest of humanity’s inhumanity to others. For our purposes, which have been consistently to focus on the dynamis that is allowed and largely created by the coincidence of vitalist humor techniques, there is much more to the anti-climax than protest.
Dynamically, the anti-climax is also the follow-up to dance, consistent with Winter Vitalism. This follow-up is inarticulate as the Spirit of Dance fundamentally is inarticulate. It is non-teleological; some of the dancers don’t even know where they are going or how they will know it when they get there. It is grindingly kinesthetic, and it is energy expended in the muddy ruts of early spring simply to keep moving.
And so, after the enormous traditional comedy dynamic of “God be with you,” there is a still small voice, a voice of vitalist tradition in Creativity, in Re-visioning, and in the Spirit of Dance. And because of the blessing, because the dance has ended well, they can all move on, taking the next step of life into a raw and cold new season, a new year, a new spring symbolized by Tevye and the Fiddler again dancing together. But for now, it is about moving on.
And for us, the audience, there is in that small voice a dynamis that lifts us out of our seats, sends us back to our mundane lives energized by the exertions and creative Re-visionings of the dances of both the community and the eccentric. And it empowers us to move on, to take the next step into a new exodus, perhaps even a Diaspora, but a Diaspora linked back by the blessing, God be with you. It is a dynamic that provides a new reawakening power to contemplate and embrace even a new wandering, a new unknown in a new spring, sensing that we too have danced.