Tevya (1939) – Film #0062

Directed by Maurice Schwartz
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1991

What It’s About:

Tevya is based on the character “Tevye the Dairyman” by author Sholem Aleichem (the same character that was later used as the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof). Tevya is a poor Jewish dairy farmer living in pre-revolution Russia. The film mainly focuses on two stories: (1) Tevya’s strained relationship with his daughter (spelled “Khave” in the subtitles, but “Chavah” in the film’s credits) when she marries a Christian man from their village, and (2) an edict from the Tsar which causes the eviction of Tevya’s family from the village because they are Jewish. 

Context and Significance:

Tevya has the distinction of being the first non-English film to be inducted to the Registry. The film is mostly in Yiddish and was filmed in New York. Maurice Schwartz, the actor who played Tevya, also wrote and directed the film. Some criticize the film for its portrayal of non-Jews as caricatures in order to paint them in a negative light, though an article by Marat Grinberg from an academic journal of Jewish studies (linked below) argues that this film should be viewed in its proper historical context, since the Nazis were on the verge of invading Poland as the film was being shot, and several members of the cast and crew had family living in Poland at the time. 

My Thoughts:

I should acknowledge that I’m not the best person to discuss this film. Tevya seems to be heavily steeped in Jewish culture (the film itself is in Yiddish, for one), especially when compared to more general fare like Fiddler on the Roof. The scholarly article that I mentioned above analyzes this film more in-depth, and provides far more context than I ever could (and is actually not that difficult of a read, compared to some other scholarly articles). 

That said, there were two scenes that really stuck out to me as being worthy of discussion because of how heart-wrenching they were. The first is the scene right after Chavah has married the Christian man, and Tevya tells his family that she must now be seen as dead to them, or even worse than dead: it must be as though she has never been born. Here is that scene:

A second similar scene occurs when Tevya’s wife falls ill and is dying. Chavah gets word of this, and returns home, but knowing she wouldn’t be welcome, she merely stands outside in the rain, looking in from the window to view her mother’s final moments, while the rest of the family is gathered around their mother.

I’ll admit that this aspect of the film was hard for me to grapple with (especially before I did additional reading to gain some context.) I recognize that a family member choosing to leave a religion can be trying for a family that heavily defines itself by that religion, and I recognize that Tevya’s reaction was probably a social norm at the time, but it was still difficult for me to view Tevya’s actions charitably. However, towards the end of the film, as Tevya and his family are forced to leave, I realized that part of the reason that Chavah’s choice must have hurt him so much was not just because she was leaving the tradition of her family, rather it was also because she was leaving them to join a group of people that the film goes out of its way to depict as lacking understanding or empathy for their Jewish neighbors. In short, she was leaving her family to join a group that was hostile toward her family. While that doesn’t completely justify Tevya’s actions, it did add an extra layer of nuance that I did not initially consider. 

Overall, this is a well-acted film, and a good example of how American-made cinema can reflect the multitude of cultures (and languages) that cohabit this country. It’s also an interesting watch for fans of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, especially if you want to see a film that’s geared toward an audience of the culture it depicts, rather than a more general audience. 

To see one-minute videos about each film on the National Film Registry, and to get previews of upcoming posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Availability:

This film is harder to find. You can buy the DVD directly here: http://www.jewishfilm.org/Catalogue/films/tevye.html#americanbuy 

I was able to find it on VHS through my university library. 

It also has been uploaded to YouTube, though it has subtitles (that appear to be in Russian?) in addition to the English subtitles. These subtitles sometimes obscure the English subtitles, so it may not be the ideal way to watch this film. Nevertheless, here is that version if you want to try watching it that way:

You can view a spreadsheet that details how you can find every film in the Registry (and also notes how you can help me, if you feel so inclined) here: https://tinyurl.com/NFRDirectory

These blog posts are being compiled into a (very much work-in-progress) book, which you can view here: https://tinyurl.com/NFRCompletistBook

Information sources and additional resources:

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