Fiddler on the Roof

Faith has something to do with believing, trusting and looking forward when everything is against you. Abraham and Sarah, well-advanced in years and childless, being told that they are to have a son within a year, a progeny with a great future and Abraham the Father of a great nation (Genesis 18: 1-15). Three men, threatened with a burning fiery furnace if they did not conform to authority and still refusing to surrender their integrity, (Daniel 3: 16-18). So where today do we find it? Not by endless discussions but by looking at the people who embody it;  perhaps even finding it in ourselves in moments which had not normally thought of as ‘faith moments’. 

Begin with Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, delicately poised playing his violin way up on a roof, ‘trying to scratch out a simple tune without breaking his neck’. Who among us has never felt like that? How many, in tough times, feel like that every day?

Job seekers, victims of benefit cuts, targets and league tables, and names on waiting lists buried in piles of statistics — human beings; parents, children and teachers threatened with or suffering from disrupted schools, employers and employees beset by rationalisation and reconstruction, with insensitivity and unreliability in high places, a loss of coherent leadership and very questionable morality in all sections of society and at all levels. In a world, and at a time like this, we are all of us fiddlers on the roof, trying to scratch out a simple tune without breaking our neck. So where is faith and trust for the future and who dare raise the question?

Finding an answer is a bit like looking for water in the desert. You won’t find it on the surface, but if you prod around beneath the surface here and there, the chances are you will, and in unexpected places. That is what the Fiddler did. but how? The story has  a touch of Abraham, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and a host of other biblical characters.

Tevye is the head of a Jewish family trying to adjust to changes in the modern world. A Jew, trying to come to terms with why it is that some people are rich and some are poor. A father struggling to come to terms with a changing pattern of marriage, and with a daughter actually claiming the right to choose her husband. And all in the heart of a village where the whole community find themselves uprooted, dispossessed and persecuted.

The climax comes the moment of deepest despair. As they are all being turned out of their homes, a young man says to the rabbi, ‘Rabbi, we were always taught that in a time of crisis and suffering Messiah would come. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for him to come right now?’ And the rabbi says something like, ‘Maybe it would . . . but I suspect now we’ll have to wait for him some place else.’

Faith is not the birth of Isaac . . . the fulfilment of hopes, the realisation of expectations, the solution to problems or the deliverance from troubles. Nor is it the coming of the Messiah. It’s the waiting, the hoping and the continuing to believe. Abraham’s obedience was in his looking forward, even when the burning fiery furnace was being stoked up or the wind is blowing the fiddler off his roof.

To take just one example, that was the faith that sustained Poland over 400 years. Consider. In the 16th century Poland was the main supplier of grain for the whole of Europe. Poland was the second European country to establish the equality of all faiths. Poland’s children included Copernicus, Chopin and Madame Curie. Yet at the end of the 18th century Poland was virtually wiped off the map by Russia, Prussia and Austria and only got her borders back in 1923. Within sixteen years the Germans invaded again and the Second World War left her in ruins, yet no sooner was it over than they started building again, only to be crushed yet again by the dark days of the Cold War.

Towards the end of 1981, visiting the churches in Poland I was in Warsaw three weeks before Martial Law was declared. The Polish people sensed the dawn of a new age. Something was coming and they were filled with hope. On a freezing cold morning we stood in front of the memorial in the very spot where the Jewish ghetto had been. We gazed at the end of the secret tunnel which the Germans never found. Fear and anxiety were not far below the surface even then,  but freedom from bondage was only round the corner. Russia could never do to them what Russia had done to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, they told me. Poland had too long a history of resistance. It was impossible not to feel the faith. Three weeks later the Russians moved in. Freedom was still a decade away, yet even in that decade the odd letter from the churches in Poland told me that the churches still saw it as a time of opportunity.

Alongside this, and in more personal terms, came the story of Martin Gray, a Polish Jew whose struggle for survival started when he was 14. When the Germans sealed off the city to starve the Jews to death Martin was one of the chief smugglers. Often caught, he always escaped, sometimes twice in the same day. Then, in 1942, he was sent with his mother and two brother to Treblinka, where he still managed to organise life for himself rather than give up, eventually escaping by tying himself under a lorry.

After the war he went to America, only to find the same problems of rich and poor, though there it was black and white. Then he noticed that some of the wealthiest people were antique dealers, so he he listened and learned, bought in Europe and sold in America. At 35 he had enough money to retire to the south of France, married and bought a farmhouse near Cannes. They had four children, when in in 1970 disaster struck again. A forest fire destroyed everything including his wife and children. Still holding on to hope and his faith in life, he started a Trust to alert children to the dangers of forest fire.

Life that was born of hope was his theme song, as was Loyahim (To Life) for the Fiddler. Life with all is ups and downs. Life with all its frustrations — ‘one day we bake a cake, next day it’s stomach-ache’. But the life that is at the centre goes on. That is the faith where we find God — most of all in a Garden on Easter morning.

© Alec Gilmore 2014