Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705
Custom and Tradition
Tradition is central to Fiddler on the Roof. All of the Jewish villagers look to tradition as a guide in their lives. Tradition dictates that a matchmaker aid in the arranging of marriages, not that couples decide for themselves who and when they will to marry. Custom dictates that only men dance at weddings, not that men ask women to dance. Tradition also regulates dress, food consumption, and who can interact with whom—especially in regard to Jewish/Russian relations. While Tevye upholds these traditions to the best of his ability, the times are changing and the old way of doing things comes under repeated questioning.
Perchik is the most vocal advocate of change, arguing that people must adapt to survive in the evolving world. Yet tradition dictates an ignorance of the outside world. Perchik tries to break through this ignorance to prepare people for the worst: harassment and expulsion by the Russians.
For his part, Tevye has a soft heart for his daughters, and he ultimately makes choices that will ensure their happiness. His efforts to please his children serves as a major engine for change in the play: He will go against the tradition of arranged marriages and allow two of his daughters to select their own husbands. While he initially chaffs at Chava’s choice of a Russian mate, Tevye eventually softens his stance against that union as well. By placing the needs of his family above the requirements of custom and tradition, by submitting to change and a new way of doing things, Tevye prepares his brood for the numerous changes that will confront them in the coming years.
Change and Transformation
Perchik and Tevye inevitably and sometimes unwittingly change local traditions in Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, tells him she does not want to marry Lazar, that she loves Motel, Tevye agrees to let her marry the poor tailor. He does this despite the fact that a match has been made by Yente and that he has made an agreement with Lazar. This goes entirely against the village’s standard practice of young women marrying the men their fathers have selected for them. But to preserve a semblance of tradition, Tevye has to convince his wife Golde that Tzeitel’s marrying Lazar would be wrong. He accomplishes this via a fictional dream that he relates to Golde.
Once this first change has taken place, the challenges to tradition continue, transforming Tevye’s family. While Tzeitel and Motel ask Tevye’s permission to marry, Hodel and Perchik only ask for his blessing. Tevye is not happy with this change in custom but agrees to it because it will make his daughter happy.
Perchik is the first to ask a woman to dance at a wedding. When he does this, most everyone follows his lead, breaking a long-standing tradition. Perchik also wants the villagers to realize that the world is changing and that the Russian czar is attacking Jewish settlements. Perchik is proven correct by the end of the play, when the local Russian officials inform the Jews that they must vacate the village in three days. This is the biggest change, for most everyone assumed they would live their entire lives in Anatevka.
Family and Religion
In Fiddler on the Roof, the centers of life are family and religion. Everything Tevye does serves one or the other, often both. Tevye works as a dairyman, and he sometimes has to pull the cart himself when his horse loses a shoe or is ill. He works hard to support his wife and five daughters. Many of his personal dilemmas surround the fact that he cannot afford five dowries—let alone one. He does not know how he will marry all of his daughters off. Each of the girls, though they may defy tradition, want their father’s approval. Such paternal respect is important to them. When Tevye is uncertain or feels dragged down by his weighty decisions, he looks to his God. Tevye talks directly to his deity, asking for answers to his dilemmas. The
Jewish religion also serves the village at large for it is the basis of many of its traditions.
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