Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

Fiddler on the Abbey (and Abbie)

 I screened Fiddler on the Roof today as a non-obligatory section of my Introduction to Judaism. I offered similar notes of introduction that I did last time I screened it, only this time I also added a parallel to Downton Abbey (the notice I sent out to students made use of this parallel).

Although I’ve seen it many times it’s only when I screen it for students that I notice its faults, cringing as if it’s my own responsibility for sharing them something that is less than perfect (in truth, there are so many excellent films I would like my students to watch, but I haven’t figured a way to link them thematically to the courses I teach). The final scene is unnecessarily prolonged, and minor places where the acting is somewhat “wooden” become more noticeable.

But the thing that gives me most concern is the portrayal of Jews for a non-Jewish audience. This is the flipside of the exact same reason that I screen the movie: it is replete with stock images of Judaica, and I like giving the students in a single viewing see a Shabbat candle service, the wedding canopy, a Torah scroll brought out from the Aron Qodesh, and so forth.

At the same time, its stereotypical portrayal of Jews is problematic. Part of this portrayal derives from the original writings of Sholem Aleichem, who was openly critical of traditional Jewish society, and like Mendele Mocher Sfarim and others taunted their semi-functional societal structure. Another part derives from the transition of inside-jokes into external settings: when Tevye raises the memory of the dispute about an age of a horse, it’s amusing and good-hearted like many other jokes on disputes among Jews. But watching it with non-Jews as part of their introduction to Judaism, I cannot help but doubt myself, and wonder whether I am unwittingly promoting antisemitic stereotypes (of Jews as argumentative, contentious, etc.) to people who don’t have context to assess this. This is a minor degree of the same thing that occurred with the Gospel of Matthew: being the gospel that was written by a Jew, it is the most critical of Jews, and its portrayal of Judas is the most vile among the gospels. It was written by a Jew, perhaps even with a Jewish audience in mind. But over the centuries it was read by Christians who saw it in a completely different light than the author intended it.


Back to the Downton Abbey parallel: Reb Tevye and Lord Grantham both have three daughters and their troubles marrying them reflect the changes that modernity and technology impose on traditionalism. The surprising appearance of the train in Fiddler on the Roof (a first sign of technology in a primarily premodern setting) also reminded me of train shots at Downton Abbey, and the most recent episode included an introduction of a sewing machine, with Mrs. Patmore being apprehensive of the new appliance (unlike Motl the tailor who takes pride in the machine, and the entire shtetl comes to see it).

Both movies convey a universal sense of nostalgia and respect to conservatism in an extremely particular setting. There are hardly more disparate communities and characters than Tevye and Grantham, which makes the parallels between the two narratives all the more striking. It is also instructive to reconsider strictly distinct categories as etiquette and religion as partially overlapping, and both serving similar purposes, and using similar rituals (clothing regulations, strict laws of food, etc.).

It makes me wonder about the cultural circumstances and impetus for producing such nostalgia. In the past, I already considered some socio-political causes for Downton Abbey. This is how I framed it:

I’ve developed a thesis on the cultural representation of American capital as an agent of change and erosion of national values, seen in Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. The idea is to associate this representation with the aftermath of the Blair-Bush years and the view of the UK as a second fiddle to US Empire. I have neither the time nor resources to write this up properly, so I’m putting it out there, for the benefit of the public.

I can only surmise the events in the background of Fiddler’s production, and proceed with great caution, as it is easy for the historian to point to two events in a proximate period and then draw a line between them. But I suddenly think of the Jewish revolutionaries of the 1960s and the 1970s, and look at Tevye as a counter-response to them. Against Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Jews in the entertainment industry manufacture a counter-insurgence Jew, one that fears change, and while willing to adapt slowly, is not half the radical as them.


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