For their jubilant “Celebration of Learning” last month at their Jewish day school in Harrisburg, Pa., my two younger daughters, Sarah and Leah, performed selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.” My children have done a lot of adorable things over the years, but nothing beats a 9-year-old dressed in a kerchief singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” or a 5-year-old shaking her arms and belting out “Tradition.” Little wonder that the most moving number in this month’s 50th anniversary of “Fiddler” gala by the Folksbiene was a parade of New York City schoolchildren, many of whom were not Jewish, doing a tribute to “Fiddler” in Yiddish.
Yet even as we reflect on the enduring power of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein musical, I wonder how much it speaks to my children’s generation — or even, to that of my college students. When I brought Alisa Solomon, the author of the new magisterial book on “Fiddler” to lecture at our Hillel last year, my student leaders praised the scholar and her erudition but told me that they don’t know the musical well or feel connected to it.
Then again, how could they relate to a musical in which the prospect of a union between a Jewish woman and non-Jewish man threatens to undermine not just a family but a whole way of life — to be more cataclysmic, it seems, than even the pogrom at the end of the show? At least half my students are themselves the products of interfaith marriages — they know, as well as anyone, that the world does not end just because a Jew and a non-Jew fall in love.
Indeed, I wonder what my students would think of Harvard professor Ruth Wisse’s provocative argument, in “The Modern Jewish Canon” (University of Chicago Press, 2003), which she amplified in an article last week in Mosaic Magazine, that “Fiddler” abandons its claim to being an authentic Jewish work through its valorization of intermarriage. As she put it in Mosaic, the creators of “Fiddler” went so far as to “sacrifice Jewish identity to the universalizing ethos.”
Nevertheless, a half century after the debut of “Fiddler,” it seems almost de rigueur for Jewish-themed musicals to incorporate intermarriage — or interfaith romance, at any rate — into the plot. Consider last year’s “Soul Doctor” (which will return Off-Broadway this fall), in which the Orthodox rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, kisses an African-American singer, Nina Simone — a stage picture that inevitably reminded one of Art Spiegelman’s iconic Valentine’s Day cover for The New Yorker two years after the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which depicted a chasidic man smooching a black woman.
Or recall last year’s “Blind Date,” in which the prospect of a young Jewish man’s relationship with a non-Jewish woman leads his scandalized family to don Orthodox garb and sing “This isn’t the girl for you — oy, oy, oy. This isn’t the girl for you — a goy, goy, goy.”
In these musicals, intermarriage, far from being a destructive force, producces exciting new possibilities and new social arrangements. Those who frown on it become the targets of satire and derision. It would be bizarre for modern-day musicals, among whose creators are typically a good number of Jews who are themselves married to non-Jews, to display intermarriage in a negative light, or to question its long-term effect on the Jewish community.
When “Fiddler” debuted in the 1960s, a study by the Reform movement showed a lower rate of intermarriage than at any time in the preceding two centuries. But now, as the recent Pew survey shows, 72 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews who married since 2000 are married to non-Jews. The late sociologist Egon Mayer, who founded the Jewish Outreach Institute to promote a more welcoming attitude toward intermarriage in the Jewish community, believed that challenging intermarriage is like opposing the weather — it’s a fact of life, whether you like it or not.
“Fiddler” is not likely to sacrifice its worldwide popularity; its tuneful swan songs for a traditional way of life still resonate powerfully in all corners of the globe. But its relevance to future generations of American Jews is fading, no matter how many baby boomer parents still hire the Amazing Bottle Dancers (a troupe of performers whom Solomon calls “fake chasidim for hire”) to entertain at their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. Our society has changed so dramatically in the last century, including in attitudes toward marriage and sexuality, that the fifth generation of American Jews, including my own kids, is so far removed from the world of “Fiddler” as to inhabit a different universe. Is it any wonder that “Fiddler,” as it settles into middle age, is losing its edge?
Ted Merwin directs the Hillel chapter at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa), where he also teaches religion and Judaic studies. He writes about theater for the paper.