FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

A PERSONAL LETTER ON A UNIVERSAL STORY

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Joel Kalkopf
29th October 2021

To say that 'Fiddler on the Roof' was prevalent in my upbringing would be an understatement - when I was a child, I even went as far as to dress up and perform the show for my parents. Countless re-watches, school musicals, barbie re-enactments, several theatre trips and lengthy discussions followed me around when it came to this film, as it is a story not only of my heritage, but my present and future.

The universality of 'Fiddler on the Roof' is well-documented, having incredibly long runs in Japan, America, Thailand, Spain and the UK to name a few, but it was on my recent journey back into the Russian shtetl town of Anatevka that this universal story hit a different, more personal note in me that it hadn't before. For years, 'Fiddler on the Roof' was the film that grappled with religion, tradition, immigration, persecution and community, all themes that were forever present in my life. However, as of last year I became a father, and seeing this film in the eyes of a parent just hits differently - perhaps none more so than the lyrics of 'Sunrise, Sunset': "What words of wisdom can I give them? How can I help to ease their way?"

So, I have used this opportunity of reflection to write my son a letter in the context of this film, in the knowledge that he will, one day, venture into the world of 'Fiddler on the Roof', and I hope that these words can continue to stand the test of time, as this film has done for 50 years now.

Dear Son,

It has been 50 years since the release of 'Fiddler on the Roof', a film you're yet to see but one that will almost certainly become part of your life. Everybody who is lucky enough to see this film believes that it speaks to them personally, that it's about their life and filled with lessons for their eyes only. That goes some way to explain the universal appeal of such a classic, even though on the surface, it appears to be a musical film about a milkman in a Jewish community, fighting for his right to survive among the threat of pogroms and a changing world. As Tevye says to his wife, "It's a new world Golde". Certainly for you, it can be seen as a personal history lesson, but this all still resonates in the context of today, culminating in this history lesson becoming so much more. It grows to become a life lesson, a connection and an everlasting piece of art.

The imagery of a fiddler on the roof reflects the reality of trying to play a nice tune, without breaking your neck. But what does this really mean for you as a young boy entering this world?

Life is full of traditions. For you, that might mean simply watching 'Life of Brian' together every year as I do with my father, or it might mean following in the paths that I try to mould for you in custom and practise. Regardless, this is a film that tackles the transitions of tradition into modernity, a constant struggle between the past and the present.

What will it mean for me as a parent if some traditions cannot be upheld? And what will it mean for you if I try too hard to instil them without letting you be your own man? As Tevye so eloquently puts it in one of his conversations with god, "If I try and bend that far, I will break."

This film captures life's big moments of transition and the breaking or renewing of traditions. Without them, our lives are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof, and with them, we know what is expected of us and who we are. They bring a comfortable predictability to your life's challenges, and provide you with the tools to tackle animosity. That doesn't mean you'll have all the answers - in fact, far from it - as most of life's big questions remain unanswered. But it does mean you will always have a place, and there will always be a path lit up for you to walk through.

This history lesson becomes so much more. It grows to become a life lesson, a connection and an everlasting piece of art.

Tevye is a man with an unwavering and steadfast belief system until he is faced with decisions that directly affect his children. How unnerving this can be for a parent who is just as uneasy in this world as you are, although it may not seem it. The constant struggle of striving to do what is best will forever test us, but don't let that dissuade you from following said paths.

You will look to me for answers and I will guide you as best I can, with the knowledge I have accumulated over the years. But make no mistake - me finding my way as a parent is no easier than you finding your way as a child.

'Fiddler on the Roof' poses the question that if we pull out just one thread, where will it lead us? It's difficult to say. The final act of the film shows us that even though we may be doing all the right things - although who is to truly say what is right - it does not protect us from all dangers. Those dangers are not necessarily in the shape of expulsion or pogroms for you, but might take the form of heartbreak, loss or isolation. Be prepared for whatever life may throw at you, and face the challenges head-on.

Most importantly, we are in this fight together, and even then we are not alone. Since its debut in 1964, 'Fiddler on the Roof' has been performed on stage somewhere in the world every single day - an unbelievable achievement. This shows how universal our plights may be, and we should take strength and encouragement from this as we move forward through life.

There are several other themes from 'Fiddler on the Roof' I could explore with you, such as love, independence or wealth, but it is the foundation of the story, the tradition, that resonates most at this juncture. Life is full of complications, unanswered questions and unfairness, all manifesting as unstable tiles for our fiddler on the roof. And how do we, as people who can only try and be their best selves, manage to play that nice tune through it all? Tradition? Maybe. All I know is I can't wait to stand and fight together with you. Always.

Love Always,
Your Tevye

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