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The Aristocrats

The upper-crust Edwardians of Downton Abbey, now back on PBS, are as bound by tradition as the shtetl Jews of Fiddler on the Roof

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Downton Abbey’s Crawley sisters, played by Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery, and Jessica Brown-Findlay. (Courtesy of Masterpiece)

The patriarchs of the 1960s musical Fiddler on the Roof and of the posh British television series Downton Abbey share a very deep and most unlikely kinship. While Downton’s Lord Grantham would never be caught singing “If I Were a Rich Man” from the scaffolds of a chicken coop, his urgent desire to stay true to convention while struggling to raise three daughters of marriageable age in pre-war Europe binds him to the father-figure of Tevye, who proudly bellows, “Tradition, tradition!” in the famous musical inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s book, Tevye and His Daughters. As political discord begins to bleed into the domestic sphere, both men are forced to deal with their daughters’ decisions to question societal custom and, God forbid, marry for love instead of in accordance with familial expectation.

Fiddler on the Roof takes us back to a time when tradition dictated all aspects of life and every man, woman, and child was taught to accept his or her lot. Downton Abbey, which is set in the late Edwardian era just before the outbreak of World War I, and supported by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes’ captivating storylines, strikes quite similar notes and, like the Yiddish-accented musical with which it might superficially appear to have nothing in common, has quickly gained a global following. (The second season began airing in the United States Sunday on PBS; the show previously aired in the U.K., and this article contains spoilers.) As inheritors of the Downton estate, Lord Grantham and his daughters are also bound to propriety and established custom, born into a wealthy lifestyle that proves to have as many restraints as an impoverished one.

Tevye and Lord Grantham each pressure their eldest daughters, Tzeitel and Lady Mary, respectively, to marry men of their choosing—and to do so with haste. Having failed to father a son, Lord Grantham expects his firstborn to wed the heir to his estate so that she may inherit the property and keep it within the family. Tevye, a poor milkman with no dowry to hand down to his daughter, adopts a similar strategy, believing that the best way to ensure Tzeitel’s comfort and happiness is to marry her off to a man far wealthier than himself.

Tzeitel cautiously resists the man of her father’s choosing, the wealthy, widowed butcher Lazar Wolf. Finally unwilling to enter a loveless marriage for the sake of financial comfort, Tzeitel plans to marry her true love, Motel, a self-made tailor who is determined to prove to Tevye that he can work hard to support Tzeitel and a future family. Similarly, in Downton, Mary finds love with Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin and professional-class solicitor, who eventually earns the respect of the Downton residents and, much to the lady’s surprise, successfully chisels through the hardened exterior of Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter. As the entail to the estate, Matthew is the parents’ obvious choice for Mary, but through various complications, it takes the length of a war for the young lovers to ultimately unite.

Aided by the persuasive tactics of their mothers, as well as certain fortuitous events, Tevye and Lord Grantham both ultimately feel the effects of war and are prompted to bend the rules slightly for the sake of their families. It should also be noted that the supernatural plays a quirky role in sealing the fate of these two couples. Communication with the deceased occurs in a dream sequence in Fiddler and through a Ouija board in Downton.

However, the younger sisters don’t get off that easy. While Tevye and Lord Grantham make concessions for their eldest daughters, watching their young ones abandon all sacred convention is intolerable. Chava and Lady Sybil each determine to marry men completely outside their worlds and are willing to brave terrible repercussions for their choices. Chava weds Fyedka, a Christian, while Sybil seeks to wed Tom Branson, an Irish socialist who also happens to be the family’s chauffeur. Each relationship is also sparked by an intellectual exchange, with Fyedka offering Chava a book and Branson offering Sybil a political pamphlet. If a friendship that crosses the boundaries of faith or class would be frowned upon, the young lovebirds must understand that marriage would be unthinkable.

“A bird may love a fish,” Tevye says, “but where would they build a home together?” Tevye literally turns his back on Chava, casting her away from the family, with only strength enough to mutter, “God be with you.” While Lord Grantham eventually grants Sybil and Branson his blessing, a heartbreaking rendition of “Little bird, little Chaveleh,” wouldn’t be uncalled for as he watches his youngest daughter slipping away from the life he worked to provide for her. Neither Tevye nor Lord Grantham attends his daughter’s wedding.

After witnessing how strongly their children value the impulses of the heart, both fathers are prompted to question the foundations of their own marriages. In an endearing exchange, we learn that Lord and Lady Grantham wound up very much in love, although Lord Grantham initially married the lady for her money, which he used to maintain the upkeep of the estate. This scene mirrors Fiddler’s famous duet, “Do You Love Me?” in which Tevye and Golde reflect upon their arranged marriage and the love that they grew to feel for each other.

The fictional settings of Anatevka and Downton each play vital roles in the families’ lives, and neither residence escapes the war unscathed. The Russian shtetl and the English estate each act as additional characters in their respective stories, constantly reinforcing the traditions that Tevye and Lord Grantham fight to uphold.

Regardless of whether there is even an ounce of Jewish blood involved in the creation of Downton Abbey, it must not go unmentioned that Maggie Smith’s glorious portrayal of Granny, the Dowager Countess, is the closest thing to a Christian Yente that I’ve ever seen and easily a match for the most sharp-tongued and determined shtetl matchmaker.

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Interesting take, but one correction: in Fiddler Tevye and the rest of the Jews of Anatevka are not victims of a war per se, they were thrown out of the village as part of an anti-Jewish purge.

This is like a parody of a typical Tablet article. Glad to know that war, patriarchy, class conflict, and even “tradition” in general are now ours to lend to the wider world.

My book 21 Aldgate tells much about these Aristocrats – a most anti-semitic lot …

I suggest you review and see for yourselves.

Take a look at our blogspot.

Bob Schwalbaum says:

I must say I would never have seen similarities between the two.. but this writer does a fantastic match-up.

“Fiddler” truly evoked for me a world from which my father came.. but of which I was supremely ignorant.. I never tire if watching the glorious film.. and the truly wonderful acting of Topol.

As for “Downton”.. I will give it the supreme accolade.. bettter than “Upstairs”

I can’t believe you missed this most crucial detail, from the PBS website for Downton Abbey’s first season:

CORA, COUNTESS OF GRANTHAM
Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati. She arrived in England with her mother in 1888 at the age of 20, and was engaged to Robert by the end of her first season.

I’m growing increasingly wary of Tablet’s penchant to judaize stuff. Just because we use our Judaism as a lens to analyze culture does not make the culture in question Jewish. That said, I also realize that authors do not choose the titles of their pieces.

Furthermore, contrasting a thoroughly proletarian (and backwards) family with aristocracy seems a little pointless, unless one utilizes a Marxist approach. Why not compare them to the Wittgensteins or the Mendelssohns?

Lord Grantham would have much more in common with one of the English Rothschilds, whose estates would easily have rivaled Downton Abbey. Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) would have traveled in the same social circles as Lord Grantham and from the age of 4 on, Walter lived on an estate of over 3,600 acres in size (Tring Park). The Dowager Countess of Grantham would have had much more to talk about with Lord Nathaniel Rothschild, Walter’s father, than with Grandma Tzeitel.

The rich ARE different — we see this in the wonderful ‘Downtown Abbey’ even though we’d like to make comparisons, and this writer does it well!! Though I’ll point out even Tevye sings… if I were a rich man… yet even then, it’s a different kind of goal… he says he would study all day if he were rich… a man after my own heart. Truly yours, from author of LIE.

This is so stupid and such a blatant attempt to cash in on a pop culture moment by trying to make it seem Jewish. Every culture has traditions and restrictions. And the further back in history you go, the more that’s true. So what?

Nuno Wahnon Martins says:

There is a Jewish evidence in the Series. Lord Grantham’s wife was a natural daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and the fortune they mention is in fact his money. So, this is the Jewish evidence in the story behind the series.
Nuno Wahnon Martins
Brussels
Belgium

Amanda C. says:

Given that we haven’t even seen episode 2 of season 2 here in the US, I wish you would have included a spoiler warning at the beginning of this piece. At this point in the broadcast, it has by no means been determined that Sybil would end up with Tom Branson or Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley would resolve their star-crossed-ness. We watch the show to find out how these conflicts will be resolved, and you spill it all before we get there!

N Kabak says:

Ah, two Jews, to opinions?

Jenny says:
January 13, 2012
1:19 PM
I can’t believe you missed this most crucial detail, from the PBS website for Downton Abbey’s first season:

CORA, COUNTESS OF GRANTHAM
Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati. She arrived in England with her mother in 1888 at the age of 20, and was engaged to Robert by the end of her first season.

Nuno Wahnon Martins says:
January 15, 2012
6:19 AM
There is a Jewish evidence in the Series. Lord Grantham’s wife was a natural daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and the fortune they mention is in fact his money. So, this is the Jewish evidence in the story behind the series.
Nuno Wahnon Martins
Brussels
Belgium

Regina Korn says:

Most interesting and very well written article. The comparison of Tevye and Lord Grantham brings “A Tale of Two Cities” to my mind.

But more than this comparison makes one realize that we are all very much alike no matter where we come from and no matter what our background is. Our beliefs and our values come from our own upbringing and we try to pass this on to our own children.

Shevah says:

While it got a nice big flashy photo on the front page of Tablet, it is remarkable that this piece managed to remove class and the end of pre-WWI aristocracy from the Downton discussion – the central theme of the show, and likely one of the reasons the show resonates with the a world scrutinizing rampant income inequality. The Shtetl was not aristocracy and those in the Shtetl were subject to the whims of the aristocrats. A little historical grounding or thoughtfulness would go a long way in making this piece relevant media criticism about a well crafted series, instead it fails to acknowledge even the significance of the time and setting of the show. The author also fails to recognize that the “tradition” of British aristocracy as portrayed in the series is centered around the landed gentry handing down their wealth and estates to their heirs. Tevye and Jews in the Shtetl had other problems and tradition and culture were not tied to land owning. It’s no wonder why the Occupy Judaism folks (www.facebook.com/occupyjudaism) used the logo of Tevye fiddling on the Wall Street. Bull (the U.S.’s Downton). Tablet would be well served to consider Downton anew – perhaps from the view of the servant’s quarters this time.

Contrived, and contrived superficially.

•••

But what I find amazing (did I miss it?) that the show offers NO mention of Cora’s family history i.e. she is/was Jewish. That’s a fairly extraordinary oversight.

2000

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The Aristocrats

The upper-crust Edwardians of Downton Abbey, now back on PBS, are as bound by tradition as the shtetl Jews of Fiddler on the Roof

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