Joseph Stein

Fiddler on the Roof

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  • Features 18 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Fiddler on the Roof Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 43-page guide for “Fiddler on the Roof” by Joseph Stein includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 18 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Jewish Tradition and Cultural Erasure and Jewish Tradition and the Concept of Home.

Plot Summary

Fiddler on the Roof, a musical with a score by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a libretto by Joseph Stein, first opened on Broadway in 1964. The play is based on an amalgam of stories written by Solomon NaumovichRabinovich under the pen name Sholem Aleichem, which is Hebrew for “peace be unto you.” The musical takes place on a fictional Russian shtetl, or Jewish village, called Anatevka during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. Tevye, a poor dairy farmer, has raised his five daughters with his wife, Golde, according to Jewish tradition. But one by one, his three oldest daughters resist tradition by marrying the men they choose rather than those designated by a matchmaker, and Tevye accepts the bending of tradition insofar as it does not violate Jewish law. But the Tsar’s increasing persecution of Russian Jews leads to the violent disruption of the villagers’ lives, culminating in the forced removal of the Jewish people from the town. Although they lose their homes and land, Tevye and his fellow villagers persist, preparing to restart their lives in new places.

One of the most popular musicals in the American musical theatre canon, Fiddler on the Roof has successfully appealed to cultures all over the world. The themes speak to subjugated and oppressed minorities, both Jewish and otherwise. In the 1960s, the musical connected to those who were waging the battle for Civil Rights. Since it opened on Broadway, Fiddler has seen five Broadway revivals and many U.S. national tours. It was the first Broadway musical to play more than 3,000 performances. Even in countries without a prominent Jewish population, the musical expresses and reassures the anxieties of intergenerational conflict over tradition and the fear of cultural erasure through persecution. And within the old-fashioned traditional familial structures, Fiddler offers a proto-feminist rebellion through women characters who, in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, are beginning to break free to exert their own free will.

Fiddler on the Roof presents a Jewish community from a pre-Holocaust moment to a post-Holocaust world. The culture that is preserved and re-enacted in the musical looks nostalgically to that which was destroyed when 6 million Jews were murdered in Europe and millions more displaced. The musical stages the quaint, rich life of Tevye the dairy farmer as he toils and sacrifices for his family, never losing his sense of humor. Through Tevye, Fiddler shows what is lost when that family and community are forced apart. While Tevye often opts to make allowances in practicing traditions in response to what he decides is best for his family, he also chooses to preserve their religious customs rather than assimilate into the larger Russian community—an act that might have saved their land but destroyed their history.

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Act I