I was 16 or 17 when I watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof first time. The character of the protagonist Tevye made a deep impression on me then. Later I watched that movie many times. I bought a CD when I was in charge of the Media Room of Sawan Public School in Delhi and showed the movie to my students. Even now I watch it occasionally. Tevye has been one of my most admired characters.
It is Tevye’s simple goodness that I find adorable. Right at the beginning of the movie, Tevye tells us that tradition is of vital importance to him and his people, the Jews living in a Ukrainian village in the early 1900s. The situation of the Jews is as precarious as that of a fiddler on the roof who will break his neck if he does not keep his balance adroitly. It is tradition that helps them to maintain that balance. They have tradition for everything: how to wear clothes, what and how to eat, how to pray, the duties of each person at home as well as in society, and so on. How did all these traditions start? “I’ll tell you,” Tevye says. After a moment’s pause, he says, “I don’t know…. But because of our traditions, everyone of us knows who he is and what God expects of him.”
Tevye is a devout Jew. He has deep faith in his God. He follows the instructions of the Rabbi. He is loyal to his community’s traditions. But each time he is confronted with a dilemma that pits him between love and tradition, he chooses love. Except when his third daughter chooses to marry a Christian. Compromises have their limits too.
There is no compromise when it comes to his God. He often wonders why God has made him thus and thus. Why am I poor? He asks God. What harm would have happened if he had a little wealth? He also tells God humorously that He (Yahweh) should choose some other race once in a while for His particular love. Nevertheless, Tevye shares a heart-touching rapport with his God. It is that rapport that makes him a simple, good human being.
Tevye reminds me of the human potential for simple goodness. He is all that I am not but I find immensely charming. He humanises religion and traditions as very few people can. If your religion and its traditions don’t make you a better human being, what use are they?