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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Wonders of Wonders: Fiddler on the Roof’s Cultural Impact

Published: February 28, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Brandeis was lucky enough to have Alisa Solomon, author of “Wonders of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” come to talk about her book on Feb. 25 in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Students, professors and scholars crowded around the spacious room, all eager to learn the aesthetic, cultural and generational features so prominent in the play.

Summarizing her analysis of the play, Solomon’s work touches upon the thematic struggles that arose in society, especially during the time that “Fiddler on the Roof” first made its appearance on stage. These struggles include the unfortunate aftermath of American Postmodernist values that seemed to plague society, the intergenerational family dynamic conflicts that most families can understand, and the many issues that emerged during this period as a result of the Jewish identity crisis.

With the Jewish cultural identity a central theme of the play, Solomon focused primarily on the different dances that the production rehearses, folk forms and traditional Jewish dances, wedding dances and the most famous of them all, “the bottle dance.” From Solomon’s display of different videos, the audience was able to clearly see all the different performances, which serve to convey the “virile ferocity” that these songs contain, with “hats flown off, chairs overturned” as the wedding ceremonies proceed and with “bottles being dropped to the floor” while they meticulously practice the balanced ballad of the bottle dance, weighting the jugs of wine on their heads as the roof shakes vociferously.

Solomon claims that these performances also attempt to debunk the stereotype of the weak Jewish masculinity that seems to be a prominent feature that many people perceive the average Jewish man to be. The play includes overpowering aspects in each song, with tension building up and exaggerated movements frequently incorporated into them in order to reflect the juxtaposition of the “weak” with the “grand” aspects that manifest each dance. Another reason they also include so much emphasis (and even a bit of satire) into the dances is because the play tries to reflect the struggle that the Jews, especially the Hasidic Jews, faced while trying to integrate into postmodernist society’s increasingly widespread pop culture.

Therefore, the emblem of Jewish culture and identity has been able to live on as it begins to be portrayed through the different forms of media. With a twist of humor (or to some, irony), “Fiddler on the Roof” comes to life in modern culture with the Amazing Bottle Dancers (or “fake Hasidim for hire” as Solomon calls them) who are advertised as a group of enterprising dancers bursting into all different events, from weddings to bar and bat mitzvahs, carrying the celebrated on top of chairs and reenacting the bottle dance right in front of the audience, who seem to be enjoying every second of the performance.

Even Chabad included a “Fiddler on the Roof” scene to promote their 2008 “To life” Telethon, which generated more than $8 million. Actor Keith David played the role of Tevye, acting out the moment right before the song “Tradition” starts to play, and they create what seems to be a parody of the song by substituting the word “telethon” with “tradition,” singing loudly, dancing and waving their hands up, all while Lior Kaminetsky plays the fiddle in the background.

Although the audience got a kick out of the commercials, Solomon made the point that this humor only attempts to relieve the Jewish tension that continues to appear in society. Even though it is not as big of a problem as it was during the time that the production began to film, there are still remnants of the Jewish identity struggle that people still seem to be trying to cope with in modern society.