For those of you who have not had the pleasure it is set within the Jewish community of a village in Tsarist Russia circa 1905. It opens with a wonderful song about how tradition informs all aspects of their lives. As the story unfolds the traditions surrounding marriage are slowly dissolved.
Tevye has five daughters, the three oldest of marrying age. Yente, the village matchmaker sets up a meeting where Tevye negotiates the engagement of his oldest daughter, Tzeitel, with a wealthy widower, twice her age. While this match ensures her (and likely his) financial future, Tzeitel is in love with her longtime friend, Motel the tailor. The timid Motel finally asks for her hand. Tevye deliberates, but relents, allowing for the love match over the arranged marriage.
Tevye can see a future for Tzeitel with the kind of privations that he and his wife, Golde have endured, but understands that she will be starting her adult life with a man who cares deeply for her. While it is not a match arranged by the matchmaker, it does look more like Tevye’s own marriage in that they are of similar age and background. He lives in the same village. In some ways Teyve is gaining a son, not loosing a daughter.
His next oldest daughter, Hodel, also falls in love. Not with another boy from the village, but with Perchik, an itinerate rabbinical student with Marxist leanings. He has been tutoring the younger sisters in reading and writing, but challenges Hodel with “modern” ideas, like men and women dancing together and Marxist takes on bible stories. Their intellectual sparing leads to attraction. They become engaged, seeking not permission to marry, but only Tevye’s blessing. When Perchik is exiled to Siberia Hodel joins him there, leaving behind her family. Hodel’s choice breaks Tevye’s heart, but he understands that a wife must go with her husband. That too is tradition.
At this point, with two daughters stepping away from the traditional system of arranged marriage Tevye questions weather he and Golde, who only met upon their engagement, love each other. They admit that they do, but that it has grown out of their long life together. The tradition of arranged marriages does not place a high premium on romantic love. It tends to factor other elements like social order, possible fecundity, familial alliances and financial concerns over romance.
Chava, the last daughter old enough to marry, has secretly been trading books with a young Christian, Fyedka. When she gathers the courage to ask for permission to marry him it is too much for Tevye. She has crossed the line out of their faith. He forbids her to speak to him ever again. They elope. This is as far as Tevye can bend. He declares her to be dead to him.
I first encountered this show and film when I was nine or ten years old. The fact that my own mother was somewhat estranged from her family by her marriage to my father may have lead me to identify with Chava, the third daughter. I don’t think that this led me to seek a relationship that would separate me from my own family, but I think it did make me realize that my family’s approval was not required.
For me, another interesting element of this story is that intellectual compatibility is a major factor in the self-chosen relationships, one that seemed to be overlooked by the previous system. For Hodel it is exposure to new ideas, the challenge to her provincialism and the chance to step into making history on a larger stage. For Chava it is the exchange of books, and talking about literature. Even Fyedka’s friends are not able to talk about books and ideas with him like Chava can. Like Jane Austen’s heroines these girls (and they are girls, really, the youngest being only 15 or 16,) seek not only a mate, but a companion on many levels.
I imagine if the play or film were to be re-written in a modern setting the first daughter would marry outside of race or class. The second would marry into a polygamist family and the third would marry a woman. I would hope that the modern father would come to understand all of the choices, and embrace the spouses of his daughters.