Is That a Hasid on the Roof?

Produced by Jew in The City, an organization whose mission is to dispel myths about Orthodox Jews and their beliefs through hip, humorous videos, this clip shows the reaction of four Hasidic Jewish men to the film version of Fiddler on the Roof. In the American Jewish imagination, contemporary Hasidic Jews—ultra-Orthodox followers of a movement begun in the late 18th century—are often believed to the bearers of an unbroken tradition, living exactly as their ancestors once did in Eastern Europe. Similarly, Fiddler, for all of its Broadway panache and lovable kitsch, is often also seen by some to be an authentic portrayal of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

A more nuanced approach to contemporary Hasidism and to this musical reveal that both are of course thoroughly modern phenomena, reflecting different modes of Jewish cultural and religious expression in today’s world. The Hasidic viewers are unsurprisingly quick to point out how the film does not reflect their current lives and how many aspects of the movie, such as its approach to gender roles, seem alien and even offensive. Although the characters in Fiddler and in Sholem Aleichem’s stories do follow many of the precepts of traditional Judaism, the characters are not Hasidim in any way. Based on their dress, the men in this clip likely come from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic group, a more visible and open form of contemporary Hasidism based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Other Hasidic groups, such as Satmar or Bobov, lead a more insular lifestyle marked by the maintenance of a Yiddish vernacular. In their defiant separation from broader non-Jewish society and much of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, these supposedly “more traditional” communities resemble even less the world of Sholem Aleichem and his characters, in which interactions between all kinds of Jews and non-Jews was a part of daily life.