A few weeks ago, a member of the church where I'm doing my pastoral internship approached me with a request. He wanted to convene a discussion forum about the war in Ukraine. The prompt for the discussion was: why do we feel connected? We, as Americans, are technically very removed from this conflict, yet so many of us feel very invested in rooting for one side over the other - why is that?
In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof came to life on Broadway. Starring Zero Mostel, it told the story of Tevye, a Jewish milkman, and his family as they navigated change and all the ups and downs that come with it. It should be said that this is a classic musical that many many people cherish and love, and I am not one of those people. I don’t love Fiddler, but I appreciate it. I know it well; I have spent nearly 40 years in community with its characters. It holds at the center of its essence, the human need for tradition, family, and love. And it gives voice to the difficult realities of how change can challenge everything we hold dear. Whenever I find myself thinking about the conflict in Ukraine, I find it connecting to the Fiddler on the Roof story in my mind.
The musical takes place in some of the very same towns and villages that we see on the news every night in conflict with the very same oppressors that they conflict with, today. Hundred-plus year-old land disputes once again turning the human residents’ lives upside down. They've been forced to leave their homes and try to pick up the pieces amid all the chaos. I see the final scene of the film with Tevye and his family, all they own packed onto a wagon pulled by their donkey, walking down the road, toward the horizon, unsure where they would settle next. And I see the same story of the same people being told each night on my television & the only difference is that the technology has updated.
They each revolve around identity and belonging. In Fiddler, the Jews are trying to hold onto their heritage and traditions as the world around them changes. And in Eastern Ukraine today, people are grappling with their identity during conflict. It makes me think about how important it is to have a sense of belonging and how easily it can be taken away from us.
Just like the characters in Fiddler, today’s Ukrainian’s are just trying to claim their own heritage, identity, and traditions, and find themselves entrenched in conflict with outsiders who would force them to assimilate or leave – at best. On many levels it’s a struggle that none of us can imagine, but on another their struggle is to hold onto what they know and love while navigating the unknown – a struggle to which, I think, we can all relate.
I think both things are powerful reminders of the impact that change can have on our lives, and that that change is most frequently thrust upon us unwillingly. Fiddler gives us a touching look at the human impact of an individual families experience of this never-ending-conflict, while today’s war shows us (in full scale and color) the bleak realities of forced conflict in a globalized world. It makes me appreciate the strength it takes to navigate change and the importance of having a strong sense of identity and belonging to fall back on. For Tevye and his family – that was God, today’s conflict is nationalism.
The fundamental difference between Fiddler on the Roof and what we see in Ukraine today is a change in dichotomy. One gives in to the changes of the world and moves on to find a life elsewhere, the other chooses to stand their ground. In this we are afforded the opportunity to cheer for the oppressed rather than to commiserate with the downtrodden.