A highlight of the Christmas season for my wife and me was an exhausting but exhilarating one-day trip to New York City to see the most current version of the renowned and popular “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. Though familiar with this musical comedy, I paid far more attention this time around to the matinee performance.
Maybe increasing age heightens your sensitivities to themes that may not have resonated so strongly previously.
As Tevye, the main and dominating character in this humorous but sober story about the Jewish residents of an East European town of the fictional Anatevka, points at the outset to the fiddler situated precipitously on a roof as a symbol of balance in a world being turned upset down by persecution and violence. The fiddler’s poignant music combines sadness, despair and joyousness. It speaks to life as experienced by all of us.
It portrays life in a village where the Jews face harsh physical and governing conditions. They are strangers in their own land. They become immigrants merely because of their religion and culture.
The story, particularly the end, is painful and tearful.
On the train rode home, as the music still stirred my heart and soul, I began to wonder: who is my “fiddler?” Who—and what—guides me on a daily basis as I cope sometimes with difficult health and emotional challenges?
Who is yours?
I think often about my Jewish immigrant grandfather who left Austria in 1907 at the age of 14 to journey to Lower Manhattan in search of a better life free of persecution and limited choices. I think of a man who eventually became a successful business owner in Pittsburgh, PA. He saw opportunity offered by his adopted country and grabbed it with gusto.
Based on my grandfather’s path to a fruitful life in America, I look to a “fiddler” who sings to me of perseverance, hope and persistence. And, yes, the music that permeates my being has tinges of sadness and disappointment. That’s to be expected.
hen I ponder life’s high and low points, I think about a young man from Austria faced with learning a new language and adopting a different culture. Yet he stuck to his religious roots even when it was uncomfortable, when bias sometimes crossed his path.
In a paper written by Barbara Hort, Ph. D, she writes, “There is a specific blend of courage and whimsy, audacity and poignancy, tenacity and sensitivity that has evolved in the Jewish people throughout their centuries of cultural tradition, religious devotion, and secular persecution. One might say that there is a way in which the Jewish culture and consciousness have been refined and honed by their centuries of suffering, much as fine metal is tempered by a searing fire.”
One doesn’t have to be Jewish to seek succor in a “fiddler” to deal with despair and emotional pain.
Ms. Hort wrote, “It is also important to observe that this remarkable combination of traits is not unique to the Jews. In theory, it is available to any group of human beings who are able to withstand the suffering that it inflicted upon them, while still sustaining their sense of identity, purpose and hope. Caught between the afflictions of their circumstances and the promises of a better future, these are the peoples who manage to find a balance between the traditions that define and sustain them, and the brave innovations that will enable them to incarnate their dreams.”
Among a group of friends at a party in Centreville on New Year’s Eve, I was asked, according to our group’s tradition, to express a resolution for 2017. I chose hope.
More specifically, I said, “I will try to be hopeful” amidst political changes in our country and disruption in our world.
I cannot imagine looking to my “fiddler on the roof” without expecting a song of hope and resoluteness.
It sustains me. And you too, I suspect.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.