'Fiddler' shows us ourselves

I am a student of musicals and give presentations on what musicals teach us about living in hard times. As favorite songs energize us, we relax and enjoy our common humanity.

Our latest discussion topic was "Fiddler on the Roof," which opened on Broadway in 1964. The writers wondered if it was "too Jewish" and whether it would have popular appeal.

"Fiddler" is based on a series of Yiddish stories from Sholem Aleichim, written between 1894 and 1914. Considered classic Jewish literature, they give insights into a culture and religious experience rarely shared outside one's group.

It is one of my favorites, and the 1971 movie is still popular today.

The song "If I Were a Rich Man" makes me want to dance with Tevye — the lyrics are a prayer for all struggling with poverty. "Sabbath Prayer" expresses gratitude to God for a sacred time for rest and a family meal, which have strengthened Jewish communities for centuries.

As the writers worked on the screenplay, they continually asked: "What is the theme of 'Fiddler'?" Finally, the role of tradition surfaced.

Viewing it with my sisters recently, however, I felt overcome with angst. What surprised me was that with all the music, dancing, and joy, it ends on a somber note. We watch a strong Jewish community dispersed by a pogrom, which a Russian officer announces with terrible words: "The Christ-killers" have to be taught a lesson. This leads to the destruction of a community as refugees move down the road, leaving behind the cohesiveness that once gave them life, hope and purpose.

In studying the background of World War II, I sense there is more in "Fiddler" than I had noticed before. There seem to be patterns of behavior couched in music with clever lyrics and wonderful choreography that remind me of an African-American spiritual revealing the route of the Underground Railroad.

In Hitler's Nazification of Germany, he attempted to exterminate not only the Jewish people, but also their heritage and culture, their literature, music, theater and arts. The stories that were the source for "Fiddler" were confiscated, and they, too, could have been erased from history. However, they were saved and turned into a Broadway play exploring changes that cross all cultures and unite us in our common humanity.

Between 1894 and 1964, the European Jewish community was nearly lost in the pogroms and concentration camps. "Fiddler" was produced on Broadway just 20 years after the Holocaust was exposed.

In the movie, we know the Jews were restricted in their Russian village, Anatevka, limited as to where they could do business, live and worship. It's only occasionally that their Russian neighbors were congenial to them.

Could "Fiddler" have been written to show us ourselves?

We who are Christians of European origin might identify with the Russians in the movie. We see middle-class Russian soldiers doing intricate dancing, singing in harmony, the Russian Orthodox priest bowing to icons while Jewish townspeople live in fear, having learned not to expect any help from religious leaders outside their own rabbinical leadership.

Isolated from their Christian neighbors, forced to live in a ghetto, the Jewish community of Anatevka created their own way of organizing community.

And because of their tradition, they had survived.

Reflecting on "Fiddler" as a mirror of Christian anti-Semitism, I had the opportunity in December to hear Peter Hayes talk about the Holocaust at our local public library. His remarks continue to haunt me.

He mentioned his Catholic background and 30 years' experience teaching Holocaust studies at Northwestern University. He pointed out that from the time of Constantine to the end of the French Revolution, the Catholic Church restricted Jews in the businesses they could pursue, though they allowed moneylending because that was forbidden to Christians. It forced them to live in ghettos, isolated from their Christian neighbors. The church promoted this segregation and threatened torture and imprisonment, but they rarely would kill Jews. If Jews were killed, there would no longer be any hope of their conversion to Catholicism.

Hayes said this attitude began to change in 1789, with the end of the French Revolution and the spread of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" across Europe. In the 1800s, Jews were free for the first time in two millennia to enter banking, embark on new trades, pursue theater and the arts, and to attend universities.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, Jews prospered, gained respect, and moved outside the ghetto, becoming newspaper publishers, educators, scientists, politicians, and leaders of industry, building on the sense of community that had given them identity, Hayes said.

As Germany suffered a humiliating defeat in World War I followed by the Depression, Hitler saw an opportunity to capitalize on centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

He focused the alt-right on blaming the Jews both for Germany's defeat and for the Russian Revolution. Building on the fear of communism, Hitler got ordinary people to exclude Jews from their bowling leagues, to stop attending Jewish theaters.

Using the press, Hayes said, Hitler promoted propaganda, telling Germans they were meant to rule the world. He replaced any sense of morality with new ethics: What is good is what is good for Germans. As Hayes said, "He created an orgy of belonging."

This is a complex topic that I do not have the background to pursue here. However, I do know my own congregation in Germany lost about 685 teaching positions in a matter of months for noncooperation with Hitler.

Ordinary people were caught in a web of fake news, the emotional backlash of World War I, the Depression, and a Nazi ideology that built on fear of communism, blaming the Jews for all that had happened.

In his discussion, Hayes described the horrors of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938. In one day, more than 250 synagogues were destroyed, as well as other Jewish property.

Originally, German leaders of industry refused to take Hitler seriously, but then his fury was turned on them, and his promise of cheap labor led to their capitulation. The Holocaust was profitable, providing I.G. Farben and others with an unlimited workforce at minimal expense. Corporations paid the Nazis for slave labor from prison camps.

And when the "Final Solution" was put in place with gas chambers using the chemical Zyklon B, the average price for disposing of a body was less than 1 cent.

As I listened to Hayes, I was forced to look at the current U.S. political scene and how groups are blamed today for problems in the United States: African-Americans; immigrants and refugees; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Is "Fiddler" attempting to show us to ourselves before it's too late?

The final script of "Fiddler on the Roof" is dedicated "to our Fathers." It was conceived by the writers as a "kind of valentine to their grandparents," who had suffered in the Holocaust. When "Fiddler on the Roof" premiered in Poland in 1985, the show's authors donated their royalties to preserving the country's Jewish monuments.

I agree with Tevye that our lives, without reflection on traditions that keep others subservient, are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.

[Judith Best is a School Sister of Notre Dame and coordinator of SturdyRoots.org. She gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]