If I Were a Reich Man

On Friday night my wife and I went to see Fiddler on the Roof. I recall seeing it years ago on stage, and on film many years before that. The play in its local iteration is getting great reviews and for good reason. The set is minimalist, yet effective with Chagall like characters hanging from the ceiling. Tevye was incredible, carrying the lion’s share of stage time with aplomb. The dancers seemed to fly, the orchestra smoked, and the evening was largely magical. Yet something about the play was unsettling, and so I write.

I found myself wondering, what would the play have looked like to soldiers of the Third Reich if they had had opportunity to view it at the onset of those dark days? How would they receive this story of a Jewish Papa straining to deal with political realities rubbing up against “Tradition!”? Would they have laughed at his jokes about Jewish wives and mothers in this seemingly incestuous community? Would they have smirked at the image of an old Rabbi, propped up like some sort of a puppet? Would they have been angry at the Constable, for bending the rules to keep good relations with the Jews in Anatevka? Would they have felt vindicated when he finally obeyed his orders from the Tsar and sent the Jews packing? Would the seemingly inevitable march of history implicit in the play have validated their obedience? Or would they have chafed at the optimism that comes with the vision of the New World portrayed in the play?

I must say that I much preferred the second half of the play, when a kind of truth shone through as people were forced from the homes they had tended and the communities that they had constructed with their Ukrainian neighbors. I loved the honest dialogues – or monologues if you will – as Tevye took God to task for his intervention, or not, in the goings on in the midst of that strained town.

Still, I have to say I was wanting something more; more than locating hope in the New World; more than seeing evil as an inevitable result of being chosen; more than a portrayal of tradition as merely a road block to the march of progress. And yet I have to admit that the open-ended character of the ending suited me: one daughter ending up in a kind of godforsaken nether world holding on to love; another hoping to follow parents in due course; and the third daughter given a sliver of hope in reconciliation. Yet, in the end, we did not know where they would find themselves in those ominous days ahead.

Perhaps my unease with the play rests in the knowledge that its 1905 setting foreshadowed a future darker than anyone could imagine. Maybe the play was not meant to give me anything other than unease. If so, appellatives like “Smash Hit!” are unbecoming such a judgment on humanity.

10 thoughts on “If I Were a Reich Man

  1. shoreacres says:

    Well, to paraphrase that quotation attributed to Freud, sometimes a play is just a play. I do love Fiddler on the Roof, and always have experienced it as truly hopeful – that is, filled with both toughness and grace in the midst of difficult or even impossible circumstances.

    How would soldiers of the Third Reich have received it? Who knows? That’s the sort of question I’ll turn over from time to time, but in the end I prefer not to speculate. I’d rather enjoy the musical, be touched by its complexities and ponder its lessons for my own life.

    Well – and sometimes I do listen to “If I were a rich man”, just for grins. It’s a nice anti-envy potion. 😉

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks for your reply. I suspect my reaction to the play was formed in part by my interactions with a Jewish friend who is co-teaching a course with me. So today I asked him about the play’s reception in Jewish circles, and he said it is well received. It came on the scene in a way and at a time when the sort of exposure it gave to the Jewish community was basically positive. I was glad to hear that. I too love the music, and it has been bouncing about in my head – happily I might add.

  2. Marie Taylor says:

    Thanks for posting. I will have to revisit this – at least on film – and do some pondering as you have.

  3. Thanks for reminding us of this play…I’d love to have seen it in this iteration, and how the new version affects its message.

  4. agjorgenson says:

    It was a great play, really, and it got me pondering in a new way, and so I am grateful for that.

  5. jannatwrites says:

    I’ve never seen Fiddler on the Roof, but the questions it left you pondering make me think it would be a good thing to see.

  6. Laura says:

    I am just reading this now. Great blog post. We were at Fiddler that night as well! I had seen it earlier in the summer but wanted my youngest to have the chance to see the show.

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