He was a well-known actor on stage and screen and was awarded the Israel Prize in 2015 for his lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and state.
However, for me, Chaim Topol was just one thing.
His iconic portrayal of the poor milkman in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof still resonates with me to this day. The film made such a huge impression on me as a child, and I have seen the stage show multiple times – including with Topol as the lead in the 90’s!
The messages, the songs, the emotions – so powerful, so meaningful.
The main focus of the story is the marrying off of Tevye’s daughters and his struggle to maintain Jewish traditions while his daughters seemingly break away from it.
However, if we analyse the story, we will learn something very relevant to contemporary Judaism and to our parsha.
First there was Tzeital and Mottel. No shidduch, they made their own match, but they still wanted his permission to marry. This was breaking with tradition, that is not how it was done in Anatevka, but Tevye gave his permission.
Then with Hodel and Perchik, he wasn’t overjoyed that not only was their marriage not a shidduch, but they didn’t ask for his permission, just his blessing – which he eventually gave.
However, it then comes to Chavele. She first tells Tevye of her strong friendship with Fyedka. Tevya, gently replies:
‘Chava, I would be much happier if you would remain friends from a distance. You must not forget who you are.’
He continues to explain why it could not work, in his own Tevye way!
As the good book says, Each shall seek his own kind. Which translated means a bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?
(He starts toward the Tailor shop, but CHAVA grabs his arm)
The world is changing, Papa.
No. Some things do not change for us. Some things will never change.
She marries, in a church and in the penultimate scene she approaches Tevye with the heartfelt plea.
‘Papa I beg you to accept us’
I presume most viewers and theatre goers are with her – a daughter begging her father to accept her and her new husband.
Tevye stops, he turns and painfully weighs it up in his most powerful and heart wrenching soliloquy.
‘Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own child? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try to bend that far, I will break.’
He tries one more time:
‘On the other hand…….there is no other hand. No! Chava. No no no’
And with a heart wrenching cry he turns his back on his daughter with the sounds of tradition ringing in our ears.
Why, why was this daughter different?
The first two daughters broke with tradition, he accepted them so why not the third?
The answer is, there is a line that cannot be crossed. As Tevye said ‘Somethings will never change’. What is the difference? What are the unchangeables?
We see the same issues in our Parsha.
Ki Tissa is one of the most depressing parshiot. How could a nation that had been miraculously redeemed from Egypt and receive the Torah fall so quickly into the travesty of the Golden Calf?
The first question must be, what exactly did the Bnei Yisrael do wrong?
A common mistake is to think they were worshipping an idol. Rav Hirsch explains that it wasn’t idolatry. From the text, we see them wanting a replacement for a missing Moshe, not a disappearing God.
‘When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” Shemot 32:1
They didn’t deny the revelation at Sinai, they wanted to connect to Hashem, they just failed to realize that it was not Moshe who supplied the connection to the Divine, but the observance of the Torah that Hashem had given to us. The laws, the halachot that became the foundation of the Jewish lives we have lived for millennia.
We connect to Hashem, not with intermediaries but by faithfully performing His mitzvot, by ourselves becoming more like Him through the purifying influence of His commandments.
The mistake of the Bnei Yisrael was to think that they could create a system to connect to Hashem, in their case a golden calf, in history’s case a myriad of different religions and ideas not connected to the central idea of Torah and Mitzvot. Those are the unchangeables.
We can now link this back to Tevye.
As Judaism came into contact with the modern world, things began to change. The crucial factor was whether the halachic system was in danger. With Tevye’s first two daughters the ‘traditions’ were minhagim, parents making a match for their children, parents having to give approval. Neither of these ideas are halachic areas, they are strong cultural values and are still practiced in some parts of the Jewish world – but they are areas that can change as society changes.
However, there are other areas – these are non-negotiables, these define Judaism, the halachic and hashkafic core of our nation, our lifeblood, our continuity – and had he accepted what Chavale wanted to do, Tevye would have jettisoned the core, something he knew he could not do and something, however painful, Torah Judaism can never do.
People say that Fiddler is a reminder of a world that was.
In some ways, that is true. The flimsy world of the shtetl, terribly poor, constantly attacked and often relocated has been replaced by strong stable Jewish world and a vibrant State of Israel.
Yet, on the other hand, our world today, apart from a strong and growing core, is assimilating rapidly in a confusing world. In many ways we need Anatevka more than ever
We need to take the vibrancy of Anatevka in Torah terms, updated for the 21st century and spread far and wide.
Over the last 18 months, that is exactly what Mizrachi have been doing with our Yehudi initiative and next Sunday and Monday you have the opportunity to help us transform the future of our community as we embark on our charity extra campaign. We have the ability to reach thousands of young people, inspire them with our hundreds of amazing 6th formers and student Yehudi leaders from our schools and campuses. Just watch to see what is happening. And please join us as a champion to spread the word.
So, I would say, in many ways, Fiddler is not a world that was but a world that is and needs to be, fuelled by the vision of Sinai, a world I very much live.
A world of Shabbat
A world of Talmud Torah
A world of Tefillah
A world of Kehilla
A world of Kashrut
A world of Halacha
‘Fiddler’ is not the tale of past that is now gone- but a present that is very much alive – of a vibrant dynamic forward facing Orthodoxy that embraces the halachot and Jewish learning.
But when Fiddler first played back in the sixties – that wasn’t the case.
Orthodoxy was dying – tradition was being replaced.
Sixty years on who would have foreseen the transformation – both here and in the United States the fastest, the only growing section of our community is the Orthodox
And why – ‘that I can tell you in one word’
Tevye had it slightly wrong – it is not Tradition that has kept us for 1000’s of years – it is Torah- mesorah, the observance of Halacha, Torat emet – the Torah is true. The generation of the Golden Calf learned that the hard way. Anytime in history when we have tried to change the foundations of Judaism, the results have never been pretty.
May we never experience Tevye’s pain
May we never worship ‘Golden Calves’
May we be blessed to raise children and grandchildren who understand the beauty, the majesty and the power of Torah and in Tevye’s own words.
‘Know who they are and what God expects them to do’