A few weeks ago, at the beginning of our shelter-in-place orders, I shared with my beloved that I had never watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof. I never saw the musical play in person either. As a Filipino American born and raised in Los Angeles, I grew up going to family parties where oftentimes someone would play popular tunes on the piano and everyone would sing along. Mind you, this was pre-karaoke days! The songs from Fiddler were often staples at these parties, especially If I Were a Rich Man, and Sunrise, Sunset. I always thought they were fun, shmaltzy songs, and I knew all the words by heart. I had very little idea what the movie Fiddler was about, but the universal themes of wanting a good life and having the love of family resonated deep within me, which is probably why my community of Filipino immigrants loved  singing these songs so much.

So, one Sunday afternoon, my beloved puts on the 1971 movie Fiddler on the Roof for me to watch. I cried through the whole thing, and then some! I had no idea what peasant life was like in Imperial Russia. All I knew, movie-wise was Dr. Zhivago, Nicholas and Alexandria, and Reds. I knew nothing about rural, country life in Russia before the Revolution. Fiddler gave me an insight to Jewish culture, families, and religion, which all revolved around TRADITION. Here are the lyrics to the opening song:

Tradition by Anthony Newley

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?

The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa’s free to read the holy books?

The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!

At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.

The son, the son! Tradition!
The son, the son! Tradition!

And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?

The daughter, the daughter! Tradition!
The daughter, the daughter! Tradition![1]

This was the mindset of the time, as it was with many parts of the world. The movie begins with Papa, a poor Russian village milk man, extolling the virtues of his good family and asking G-d for favor as he begins to choose mates for his three eldest daughters. As the movie unfolds, we see that tradition is being broken with the coming of age of each child. None of the young girls agree to the choices of the village matchmaker and their parents. Instead, they marry for love and make their own decisions. The eldest daughter marries a hard-working tailor instead of a wealthy butcher who is as old as Papa. The second daughter marries a man who joins the Russian Revolution, and later she follows him to Siberia. The third daughter even goes so far as to marrying outside of her Jewish faith and culture! Each daughter’s choice increasingly drives Papa crazy. He learns to cope, and reluctantly gives in to the decision of each daughter. The movie is about Tradition – how it is kept, how it is broken, and how tradition help us to endure trying times.

I cried bittersweet tears watching this movie because I was moved by how family tradition was turned upside down for different reasons. For the parents, they mourned the breaking with tradition, while the daughters felt their boldness in defying tradition. At the end of the movie I cried the hardest as the entire village was made to evacuate in a sudden event of ethnic cleansing. Papa, Mama, and the two younger daughters are immigrating to America and will live in New York. The eldest daughter and her husband are moving to Warsaw, Poland and vowing to later follow the family to America. The last married daughter shares that she and her husband are leaving for Krakow. Little did any of them know of the tragedy of the Holocaust that was to come.  All of them left behind their homes, their humble wooden synagogue, and the village which was theirs for many generations.

In today’s pandemic, so many traditions have been devastatingly crushed. Friends and families have abandoned the idea of hosting large gatherings for fear of spreading the dangerously contagious virus. Places of worship are empty. We can no longer honor our dead like we did before COVID-19. The way we celebrate or mourn momentous occasions have radically changed. And like Papa, we grieve. We are frustrated, we are scared, we are made weary by the daily news.

And yet, we are making new traditions! We now attend church services online and because of this, some churches are experiencing an increase in attendance. We organize virtual Happy Hours or workout classes. Even karaoke has become a Zoom event called “Social DistanSING.” This is happening all around the world because humankind needs to celebrate life events together, and no global plague will squelch the creative spirit. Even though we are socially distant, we cannot socially disconnect.

Is there a new tradition or traditions that have come up in your life in the last few months? I hope so! I hope you find imaginative ways to gather safely with each other so that deeper bonds of friendship and community can be made. I hope you can do something new for yourself that gives you peace, keeps you healthy, and helps you live with ease. I hope you develop traditions that bring meaning to your life. May it be so.

[1] Source: Musixmatch. Songwriters: Jerry Bock / Sheldon Harnick