Tuesday, April 18, 2017

From the Archives: Reevaluating 'Fiddler on the Roof' from an economic perspective

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com on April 18, 2010. The Examiner.com publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to Examiner.com since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Reevaluating 'Fiddler on the Roof' from an economic perspective
April 18, 2010 9:41 PM MST

Fiddler on the Roof Wauwatosa Rick Sincere John Pernice St. Bernard Studio Theater
It’s time to reassess one of the central claims of the classic American musical play, Fiddler on the Roof. The current engagement at Washington’s National Theatre offers a chance to look at the play with fresh eyes, adding a different sort of vitality to a work that is so familiar that we may have begun taking it and its characters for granted.

Tony®-winning Broadway actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein is the star of the latest national tour of Fiddler, playing the role of Tevye, the Dairyman, a character created a century ago by Yiddish short-story writer Sholom Aleichem and beloved by millions of readers and playgoers around the world.

'If I Were a Rich Man'

Tevye sings one of Fiddler’s biggest hit songs, “If I Were a Rich Man,” in which he first complains of his own poverty and then daydreams about what it would be like to be a wealthy man.

Tevye’s life, however, belies his plaintive pleas of poverty. Digging deeper into the text reveals that, far from being a poor man, Tevye is a man with assets and means – someone we might call a working-class entrepreneur. Indeed, nearly all of Tevye’s neighbors in Anatevka are working- or middle-class and not at all poor in any objective sense.

Although Tevye’s wife, Golde, tells one of their five daughters “you’re a girl from a poor family” and although Tevye says to God, “it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either,” the circumstances of their family are not those of poverty, especially not the sort of poverty one would expect in a pre-industrial, traditional society.

Four Pieces of Evidence

First, Tevye is a self-employed farmer. He owns at least one horse and other livestock –probably several cows. Not only that, he has sufficient cattle to meet his customers’ needs and he can every so often sell a surplus cow. (Tevye assumes that the butcher wants to buy his “new milk cow,” which implies he has old milk cows and that he has enough cash to periodically buy a new one.)

Fiddler on the Roof Playbill
Second, Tevye is sufficiently secure economically that he is able to hire a tutor for his daughters (“food for lessons,” he says to the itinerant Perchik) at a time when girls were expected to stay uneducated. His third-eldest daughter, Chava, has enough pocket money to buy books for pleasure reading.

Third, when the Russian authorities force Tevye and his neighbors to leave Anatevka, he is given three days to sell his property. What does Tevye own? A house, a barn, and a plot of land big enough to feed his livestock. His ownership is clear enough that he has the courage – and the right – to order the constable off his land while he still owns it.

Fourth, Tevye has disposable income above the subsistence level. He husbands his assets so effectively that he can buy luxuries (candlesticks, goose pillows, and a feather bed) as gifts for his daughter on her wedding day and pay for the food and drink and musicians that make a wedding celebration, too.

To return to “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye is not so much asking to be a “rich man” as he is expressing his desire to be a “man of leisure” – a person who does not have to work for a living and who can enjoy a mansion, servants, and free time for prayer and contemplation.

There is no question that Tevye is not “rich” in the sense of a Rockefeller or a Rothschild. Neither is he poor. His family has enough food to eat – indeed, they have enough food that they can routinely share it with strangers and friends who visit for the Sabbath.

Tevye works hard, to be sure, and like any dairy farmer must rise before dawn to feed and milk the cows, plus toil through the rest of the day to make cheese and butter and deliver his goods to his customers. This is not a life of impoverishment. It is a life that produces something of value to trade for other things of value. It is essentially middle-class.

Neighbors and Friends

The other characters we meet in Fiddler on the Roof are in similar economic circumstances. Except for Nachum, the beggar, nearly everyone in the play has means and assets.

Mordcha and his wife own a tavern, where they serve anyone from the village, Jew and Gentile alike. Lazar Wolf is a self-employed butcher who could afford to buy strings of pearls for his wife. Motel Kamzoil (Tevye’s eventual son-in-law) owns his own tailor shop and has saved enough money to buy a modern sewing machine. Yussel is a hatmaker. Even the widow, Yente, is an independent woman who provides a service much in demand in a traditional society like Anatevka’s – she is a matchmaker (much like that independent woman of the Broadway season that preceded the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, Dolly Levi).

We are told, over and over again, that Tevye’s family and the people of Anatevka are poor, but what we see contradicts what we are told.

Tradition Meets Modernity

All that said, it’s not possible to gainsay Fiddler on the Roof’s other theme: what happens when modernity intrudes upon tradition, and the topsy-turvy world that results (or, at least, that is perceived by those who have to engage the intrusion).

Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905, the time of the first Russian revolution and, consequently, an era of turmoil and upheaval. For centuries Anatevka has been isolated from the outside world and thus, its inhabitants think, the village need not concern itself with the politics of far away. Those politics arrive with a growl and a bite that are unwelcome, and the people of Anatevka are subjected to a pogrom that eventually results in their exile.

Yet the hidden future-story offers a bittersweet life beyond the final curtain.

Bittersweet Future

Through government-induced violence, Tevye and his family lose their home in Anatevka, which, though fictional, in real life would have stood in eastern Poland or western Ukraine.

By being forced to leave their ancestral home in 1905 and emigrating overseas, the people of Anatevka – including Tevye and his family – were spared the scorched-earth battles of World War I. They were spared the horrors of Stalin’s induced starvation of the 1930s. (As a landowner, Tevye would almost certainly have been executed as a capitalist exploiter along with the other kulaks.) They were spared the torture and genocide of the Nazis.

They were, in fact, the lucky ones.

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