Converse with almost any American Jew of a certain age about Jewish heritage, and at some point he or she will inevitably break into song, warbling three syllables and elongating the last one with a flourish. “Tradition,” the opening number in “Fiddler on the Roof,” sets the tone for the rest of the show, in which the shtetl, with its age-old customs, ultimately dissolves; those first few notes have themselves become a touchstone for American Jewish identity.
Nevertheless, as the current Broadway revival, starring the delightful Danny Burstein, ends its run this weekend, it seems timely to suggest that the most important song in the musical is not “Tradition” or even “If I Were a Rich Man,” but the moving second act duet, “Do You Love Me?” in which Tevye and Golde first reflect, after 25 years of marriage, on the psychological dimension of their relationship. As Tina Turner’s 1984 pop song, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” so memorably put it, “What’s love, but a second-hand emotion?” and “What’s love, but a sweet old-fashioned notion?”
Then again, most modern viewers of “Fiddler,” including those who are Jewish, can relate little to Tevye and his family’s way of life. If American Jews remain nostalgic, it is more for the Lower East Side Jewish experience than for that of Poland and the other countries of the Pale of Settlement. So perhaps “Tradition” is not that relevant these days. But who among us has not wondered if we chose the right lover? As the prolific Egyptian-Jewish philosopher Alain de Botton mused in May in “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” a New York Times essay that went viral, we may think that we marry in order to find happiness, but we actually wed in order to re-experience the familiar feelings that we had in childhood.
The rub is that few us emerge unscathed from our youth. “The love most of us will have tasted early on,” de Botton conjectured, “was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes.” And so, alas, we marry out of loneliness, we marry out of desperation, and we, according to de Botton, “marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with being happy.”
Of course, as in the case of Tevye and Golde, love can result from a relationship rather than predate it. Elad Nehorai, who blogs as Pop Chassid (he was named this year as one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” most influential Jewish millennials in the city), published his best-known blog entry, in 2013, “I Didn’t Love My Wife When We Got Married”; in it he confessed that even though he blurted out to his future wife on their second date that he loved her, it was not until they had been wed for a while and he began to take care of her and their baby daughter, that “the emotion that I had been so desperately seeking naturally came about.”
Its very questioning of the nature of love has, perhaps, helped to maintain “Fiddler” as the most iconic Jewish musical. (Some say that “Falsettos,” which is also currently running on Broadway, runs a close second; it too plumbs the mysteries of the human heart.) But its popularity is waning. A close Jewish friend of mine is preparing to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to a non-Jewish man. My friend does not seem disturbed by his daughter’s choice of a non-Jewish mate. However, he was disconcerted when he asked the young man if he was familiar with “Fiddler on the Roof” and was told that he had never seen it and had no desire to. The poor fellow did not seem to realize that an affection for “Fiddler” is still a prerequisite for marrying into a Jewish family.
Still, if I could take this callow youth to “Fiddler” before it closes, I would urge him to pay close attention to the song in the second act that he and his wife would do well to sing to each other on a regular basis as the years go by, as love and lust and fear and anger never stop getting confused, sorted out and mixed up all over again. That would be a tradition, or custom, that might help a lot of us be more honest about our doubts and insecurities: being more like Tevye when he finally puts aside his endless fantasies, jokiness and machismo — when, in other words, he at lays himself bare at last.
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College. He writes about theater for the paper. His most recent book is “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”