New Thoughts on Fiddler on the Roof

How do Jews spend Christmas afternoon? This year, my wife and I attended the New Parkway‘s annual screening of Fiddler on the Roof. It was my third experience with the film (although my first at the Parkway), and it gets better every time.

When I first saw the last of the big Hollywood roadshows, at the age of 17 – this was late 1971 or early ’72 – I hated the movie so much that my mother accused me of being a self-hating Jew. That was odd because I had loved the original stage play, which I saw on the London stage in 1969. I should mention that I saw it at the Academy (my stepfather was a member), and they screened a perfect 70mm print – so the problems weren’t technical.

At that time, I was totally caught up in the 70s style of small, edgy films. From my point of view, the production values were too big. Another problem: thanks to bad comic timing, punchlines that hit home onstage bombed in the movie.

When I saw it again on DVD or Blu-ray (I don’t remember which), I was able to appreciate what director Norman Jewison was trying to do. Rather than making a musical comedy with a period setting and a serious undertone, he attempted to turn the story into a historical spectacle with songs. The result wasn’t entirely satisfactory, but it had its moments. When I first mentioned it in Bayflicks, in 2011, I gave it a C+. By 2017, I felt I’d been a bit too harsh and gave it a B-; not a big promotion.

Now, after seeing it theatrically for the first time in 48 years, it was a whole different experience. It is funny, but only when appropriate. But its sympathetic story of older people uncomfortable with change is both sad and hopeful.

At 17, I had a hard time connecting to Tevye – a stick in the mud keeping loving couples apart. Now that I’m the old fart with children of marrying age, I see it from another vantage point.

Another thing: As the film ended, I started wondering how the different characters would do in the future. Would Tevye and his wife Golde adjust to New York? Certainly, the two young daughters would completely assimilate. But what about the married daughters and their husbands who stay in Russia? They have the Russian Revolution, the purges, and the Holocaust ahead of them.

When you wonder what happens to fictitious characters after the story is over, there’s something in that movie. I now give it an A-.