No fiddling around: You dance to our tune or we throw you off the roof
Our nearby civic theatre had the fiddler seated on the roof, sensibly positioned down on a low dormer, not standing and straddling the ridgeline as she played. And play she did. No pretend air violin for her, no going through the motions while a member of the hidden orchestra made the music. She was the real deal. And like all the cast, she did a bang-up job. Broad representation by the community in this show—folks of all ages. I grow so accustomed to seeing every part played by college-age actors that it’s a treat to see aged babushkas with genuine wrinkles, not lines drawn with a black china marker; little boys who are just that, not diminutive coeds playing the role.
My husband and I saw the show this past Friday. (It finishes its run this coming Saturday.) It brought me back, it did. I was a last-semester senior at Taylor University when I was involved in a production of the hit Broadway musical. I worked on the set crew and played one of the village sons. The work and rehearsals helped me navigate a semester during which I was very depressed. Without knowing enough to call it what it was, I’d met and fallen in love with a man the summer previous. Our (chaste) relationship stirred up in me thoughts and feelings I was unwilling to acknowledge, unprepared to face. I kicked my repression and suppression into high-gear. I returned to college for my final year feeling very lonely and lost.
The song “Little Chavaleh” captured my mood. It comes toward the end of the musical. Throughout, Teyve clings to tradition; it’s what allows him to maintain his balance in a world run amok. Father of five daughters, he sees one daughter after another challenge tradition in choosing for herself a man to marry rather than relying on the offices of the village matchmaker. But Hodel, his third daughter, pushes him too far when she falls in love with Fyedka, a gentile, a Christian and a Russian. When she runs away from home and marries her beloved, her father cuts her out of the family. His emotions stagger him. Tevye sings this lament. It begins with his pet name for his third daughter: “Little bird, little Chavaleh” and continues with a frank appraisal of where he is: “I don’t understand what’s happening today; everything seems all a blur.” There is deep sorrow here. The father grieving for his lost child. In his mind’s eye or in reality Hodel appears and begs his acceptance. He is torn. How can he turn his back on his own child? Yet how can he turn his back on his religious beliefs? He leans one way, then the other, finally comes down firmly on the side of religion, tradition and the beliefs of his forebears. He casts his daughter out, pushes her off the roof as it were.
I have a deep streak of melancholy in me and this song hits it on all cylinders. Here is the father turning away his own daughter. Here is the man being called as Moses before him to sacrifice his beloved child on the altar of God’s call. Here is the tormented soul recognizing the many ways in which life does not make sense.
Later this song was took on new meaning for me. When I came out to my parents as a gay man they found themselves sharing Tevye’s bewilderment and agonized choice-making. To their minds they had to decide whether to embrace their son or their Savior; they could not imagine holding both at once. In the end they chose church over child. I was disappointed, sad, angry—but not altogether surprised. After all, I could understand their dilemma. I had been in similar straits, unable to believe I was gay because I knew I was Christian. I’d bought hook, line and sinker the notion that these two states of being are mutually exclusive. My parents had taught me well.
I tried to teach them. I tried to communicate my newfound understanding of self, of human sexuality and sexual orientation. I thought with just a little education they’d come to see things the way I did, they’d realize being gay is no crime, no sin against nature, no sickness. Oy vey. What was I thinking? They threw me off the roof. No gay dancing on the ridgeline allowed. The fiddle is playing slow somber sacred music.
The wonder of it is I didn’t break my neck when I hit bottom. The wonder of it is I somehow found deep resources within that allowed me to keep going, even to dance.
A poem by our former poet laureate the late Stanley Kunitz comes to mind, An Old Cracked Tune. It’s the broken song of a traveling man who has known hard times and harder roads and who nonetheless sings for the joy of surviving. We could, all of us, do worse.
How have religious authorities tried to shove you off the roof?
For action (or penance): Sing a simple song—make one up!—to celebrate one way in which you are surviving.
Photo courtesy, the hills are alive at flickr.com, modifications by me
- Review: ‘Fiddler’ features talented cast, orchestra (readingeagle.com)