Transforming Tradition: Love, marriage and autonomy—from Fiddler on the Roof to modern-day India

JustThought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

(Tevye)
Golde, the first time I met you / Was on our wedding day / I was scared

(Golde)
I was shy

(Tevye)
I was nervous

(Golde)
So was I

(Tevye)
But my father and my mother / Said we’d learn to love each other / And now I’m asking, Golde / Do you love me?

In this iconic song from Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, the pious and humble milkman, questions his arranged marriage as his daughters argue for more choice in whom they marry. Although this represents a challenge to the “tradition” that Tevye holds so dear, he eventually recognizes that respecting his daughters’ desires is part of living in a changing world. The transformation described in the musical reflects the changes in Jewish life that took place in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. While people watching Fiddler today may think arranged marriages are a thing of the past, girls and young women in India and around the world still face the prospect of marriage against their will and are fighting for their right to shape their own futures.

In the beginning of Fiddler, Tevye arranges for his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to marry Lazar Wolf, a wealthy butcher, even though she prefers Motel, the poor tailor. Though Tevye loves Tzeitel and wants to see her happy, he feels constrained by tradition. In the fictional Russian town of Anatevka, where Fiddler is set, parents had always chosen spouses for their children. In the thousands of towns in which Jews lived, Jewish parents arranged matches as the best way to ensure that the next generation could establish their own families within traditional Jewish communities, uphold expectations about proper sexual conduct, and cement economic allegiances between families. In the play, we don’t know how old Tzeitel is at the point of her marriage, but it is clear that she doesn’t initially have a say in the matter.

But this soon changes. As Tevye’s daughters explore new ideas about love and politics, Tzeitel and her sisters each gain more freedom to define their own lives, including when and whom they will marry.

Although the modern emphasis on women’s autonomy has brought change for many, some of the same factors that shaped life in the time depicted in Fiddler continue to influence the lives of many women and girls of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds around the world today, including some Jews. These factors can include rigid gender roles at home, in education and at work, and pressure from the family and community to uphold tradition.

Each year, roughly 15 million girls worldwide are married before they reach adulthood, often without their consent. Although the effects vary across cultures, early and child marriage typically deprives girls of the freedom to make informed and independent choices about their lives and bodies, a human rights violation that can lead to poor health, limits on education, and lack of economic opportunities. And despite laws against child marriage in India and in other countries, it often persists because it is so closely tied to people’s beliefs about gender roles, sexuality and economic security.

We can see this phenomenon at work in the story of Sonali Khatun, who grew up in a small village in Sahanagar, India. When she was 14 years old, Sonali’s parents forced her to marry a stranger. Sonali’s parents faced a decision between respecting their daughter’s choices and upholding traditional norms. When Sonali’s parents realized that they had married her to a controlling and abusive husband, they quickly corrected their mistake—but the husband’s family spread vicious rumors about Sonali, and the community gossiped about her divorce.

In the face of this public shaming, Sonali fell into a deep depression.

But just as Tevye’s daughters each found the power to chart their own paths—each marrying the person and living the life she chose—Sonali discovered her own power, and then used it to make her own choice and empower others. She sought out a local women’s organization called MBBCDS, and with its support, she found the strength to start over. She faced incredible social stigma and taunting from her peers after the divorce, but kept returning to MBBCDS to learn leadership skills and then return to school.

“Slowly, I gained confidence,” Sonali said. “Now I don’t have any doubt. I can do anything and work anywhere.” Today, Sonali teaches other girls at MBBCDS about reproductive health and helps them gain the confidence they need to insist they make their own choices about marriage and their futures.

AJWS supports more than 50 Indian groups like MBBCDS committed to addressing the root causes of early and child marriage. To change deeply held traditions on gender, sexuality and marriage, we use an approach we call the “four A’s”:

The organizations we support expand girls’ aspirations and encourage them to consider futures that previously seemed out of reach. They also foster girls’ sense of agency, to help them take action to advance their own goals. They increase the availability of institutions, policies and services that enable girls and young women to pursue education and jobs. And they work to overcome resistance from families and communities so that girls and young women can access these resources and services so as to have greater choice about their futures.

In Fiddler, Tzeitel and her sisters demanded the ability to choose when and whom they marry. This change is emblematic of the vast transformations in Jewish life and marriage practices that resulted from the sweeping economic, political and cultural transformations that characterize modernity.

Though the vast majority of Jews now choose whom they wish to marry, the transformation of marriage is ongoing in more traditional Jewish communities. In the broader world, girls like Sonali from other backgrounds are making this change in their own communities. As Jews who are committed to gender equality, it is imperative that we stand with all women, including Jewish women, seeking the choice to shape their lives.

Shital Waikar, an educator at AJWS grantee MASUM in India, whose mother was married at 14, explains how moral courage can lead to building a movement that transforms even the most powerful traditions: “When one person starts living their beliefs, other people start to change, too.”

After reading this piece, send us your thoughts, questions and feedback. Email JustThought@ajws.org.