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The story of the Show

Coming off successes of shows no one knows about now, book writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick walked into the office of producer Harold Prince, coming off the success of West Side Story, and proposed turning Russian Jew Sholem Aleichem’s short, tragedy to comedy stories of Tevye the Milkman into a musical.

Prince added director and choreographer to the team, which only matters for this story: “After joining the team, Robbins repeatedly asked, ‘But what’s the show about?’ When replies repeated the plot, he would say, ‘I don’t know what it’s about, but it’s not about that,’ and walk away. Finally, in a moment of frustration, Harnick yelled, ‘For God’s sake, Jerry, it’s about tradition!’ Robbins replied, ‘That’s it. Write about that.’ And so the opening number was born.”

Fiddler on the Roof would go on to win 9 Tony awards.

Set in 1905, Fiddler is a simple story of a family in a small Jewish town of Anatevka, Russia. Tevye and Golde have five daughters and the three oldest, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava are of a marrying age. Tevye is a poor milkman, and while dreams of wealth, does not have much that can be given as a dowry so he can’t be picky, but he has standards; standards his daughters care nothing about.

And there are traditions, the way things are done, like they are to go through a matchmaker to find husbands.

Tevye’s first lines are “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. … And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word … Tradition.”

His three daughters will refuse the matchmaker’s match and marry for love, marry a revolutionary, and marry a Christian. He was able to fit the first two into the world and traditions as he understood them, but marrying outside the faith?… That was too much and Tevye refuses to even look at Chava.

People are changing, women’s places and roles are changing. The tradition is changing. In the background is incredible unrest in Russia. Different Czar leaders would give the Jewish communities more or fewer freedoms, but they had been relegated to these towns known as the Pale. In 1905, revolution was boiling. Czar Nicholas II ordered the massacre of peaceful protesters and sent as many as possible to exile in Siberia. 12 years later the Czar and his family would be executed.

The show ends with the Jewish citizens of Anatevka being removed. Some moved to Poland, some to Ukraine, and Tveye, Golde, and his youngest daughters move to Chicago, wishing blessings of God on his daughter, Chava.

And as they leave, the fiddler from the roof follows them, playing. Perhaps there will still be beauty in this next part of life, perhaps they will find new traditions and balance in the time to come.



When the congregation gathered at the new temple, the folks standing there were full of complicated and conflicting feelings.

I wonder what went into the planning of the temple. The Bible tells us that they followed the instructions that had been used by Solomon, given to them by God though Moses. That seemed to be the most important, the thing that they wanted to carry forward, what mattered when they built this new temple, at least to some.

Some of them remembered the way it had been: the grandness of the old temple, the gold, the beauty, how it shone!

I went to Rome in seminary, mostly to look at history and go into churches. The first church that we saw, the night we arrived, was the Basilica of Santa Maria. It’s beautiful. The ceiling is gilded in the first gold sent back to Italy by Christopher Columbus from the New World. It is big and beautiful and it shines. But it’s a little hard to look at the first shipment of the gold from the New World without remembering all the other history of we know: of slaves and rape and violence, of civilizations destroyed, of cultures vanished, of generations of affected by colonizers. That beautiful shining ceiling is devastation.

While there were those standing at the temple in grief of what had been and what they ended up with, there were many people, maybe generations before, who would have known and stories of the many slaves who were used to build the temple and the compromises that were made to rival nations to get the resources to build it and the people who went hungry for the taxes–the wealth of the powerful came at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

When it came time to build a new temple, they didn’t build it the same, they didn’t do it the same. Maybe they took the time to think about things, to consider who they were going to be, what the temple was going to be. Maybe the less extravagant temple was a choice, not a sad consequence.

I wonder if they spent some time with the rituals and the instructions and tried to figure out what was most important.

Jesuit scholar Edward Yarnold reminds us of this living dimension of tradition when he writes,

. . . tradition is not the handing on of tablets of stone for the guidance of every age. In this process [of tradition] the act of applying the word to the situation becomes itself part of the tradition. What the Church proclaims today becomes in its turn part of the reservoir of memory on which tomorrow’s proclamation will draw.

The church universal isn’t in rubble, but it is in rebuilding. Maybe the church universal has been too caught up in the power and wealth: in the gold ceilings or the best building or the newest tech. Maybe the church universal was too caught up in being cool: with the best shoes and the best hair cut and the best guitars. Maybe the church universal was too caught up in the right thing: the right songs and interpretations and the last traditions. Maybe there’s a way the church got too wrapped up in capitalism and the empire and empire building.

I wonder what you would say is the things you would rebuild. What is at the core of what it is to be be a church? a worshiping community? What is the what you want ot carry forward? What have we built we should let go of? What traditions might we want to hold on to? pass on? change a little? let go of?

What are the traditions that we’re passing on? What are we willing to bend? What traditions help us keep our balance?