Multiculturalism in the United States has conditioned us to appreciate and respect various cultures in an integrated society. (Well, most of us anyway – some still shudder at the idea.) Different ethnic and religious groups live side by side, maintaining their own unique cultural legacies while, in the process of interacting with others, creating a new, diverse cultural milieu. This is not the old, discredited melting pot ideal. Instead lots of peoples come together to make something distinctive as a whole while retaining their individual religious and ethnic identities.
This background makes it difficult for us to understand the seemingly self-imposed insularity of Tevye and his family in the pre-Soviet Russian Ukraine. Tevye, the patriarch of his Jewish dairy family works hard to ensure the happiness and success of his rural family which includes his wife Goldie (Rebecca Weintraub), their two daughters Khave (Miriam Riselle) and Tseytl (Paula Lubelski), and Tseytl’s two children. The crisis that dominates most of the film is Khave’s infatuation with Fedye (Leon Liebgold), her Christian suitor. Tevye alternately begs and threatens his younger daughter to give up the romance, not to marry outside the Jewish faith. Khave is resistant; she doesn’t understand his arguments that no matter what she does or who she marries she will always be an outsider. No matter what, Tevye argues, no matter how nice people are to them, no matter how much they seem to accept them, they will always be subject to the whims of their goodwill.
Khave ignores her father’s exhortations and marries Fedye, causing Tevye and the rest of the family to cut her off. To our modern, multicultural sensibilities this reaction seems harsh and, frankly, intolerant. We, along with Khave, learn how wise Tevye is. I don’t know if it was intended this way, but we follow the same learning curve as Khave. We discover why Tevye argued so strongly for the Jewish people to stick together, to maintain their families, their culture, and their safety in societies that can withdraw their goodwill at a moments notice.
Tevye is at times touching and heartbreaking, an examination of the trials and tribulations of one Jewish family at a specific time and place that reminds us of the precarious balance between multiculturalism and tolerance on the one hand and nativism and bigotry on the other. No matter how ideal a society may appear, minorities are usually at the mercy of majorities. They may seem integrated and accepted, but they can still suffer injustice and discrimination should the ugly mood strike the majority. Just ask Muslim Americans after September 11 and Hispanic Americans in “Papers Please” Arizona.
Though Tevye touches on these themes it is not an entirely hopeless film. The final outcome of Tevye’s story may be tragic, but this is a man and a people who have survived worse and would go on to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. The last shot reconfirms the persistence of hope in the face of horror.