When There is No “Other Hand”


Although I’ve not seen it in years, Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite shows/movies. I’ve watched the movie many times and seen the performance live as a musical theatre production at least twice.

The scenes that have found a permanent place in my memory are what I call the “other hand scenes.” These are scenes where Tevya, a hardworking, ebullient, loving father and husband is talking to himself and to God. He is trying to make sense of the changing world around him and his value of tradition, yet also trying to figure out where tradition is not merely tradition but something far greater, something that cannot be compromised. The ‘other hand’ scenes are great pictures of a dialogue between a man fully comfortable communicating with his God.

We learn early on the value of tradition for Tevya:

“But in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”

“Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer-shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

The ‘other hand’ scenes come as Tevya watches his daughters, one by one, fall in love and want to marry. First his challenge is that his oldest daughter wants to marry a poor tailor, but ‘on the other hand he’s an honest hard worker’. We watch him process and ultimately compromise tradition, giving his blessing on the marriage. We see a similar pattern with his second daughter and feel his pain as she heads off on a train to Siberia to be with the man she loves.

But there comes a point where Tevya won’t compromise. Where in his own words “there is no other hand;” where it’s less about tradition and more about bottom-line belief.

I think a lot about this, about compromise, about what I am and am not willing to compromise. Communicating across cultural boundaries is a lot about give and take, a lot about compromise, a lot about negotiation. And when we communicate across truth claims and faith differences, make no mistake — we are communicating across cultural differences, we are communicating across boundaries.

We live in an age where many are quick to criticize dogmatic truth claims. One of our friends who works on interfaith dialogue says that there are times when he shakes his head in disbelief because those who get together for interfaith dialogue water down their truth claims so much that they all sound the same.

That’s not dialogue. That’s monologue

When a Christian says that it doesn’t matter if Jesus is an allegory, and a Muslim says that the creed is unimportant then it’s not an interfaith dialogue – both have given up essential elements of their faith.

There are other times where people clearly and graciously state their claims, and, even if it bothers you, they won’t back down. There is no other hand. They will listen, and ask questions, and have genuine interest, but they are compelled to hold fast to certain tenets of their faith.

When it comes to tradition, belief, and truth claims I feel a lot like Tevya. I have this running dialogue with God, trying to sort out where and when I am willing to compromise and when I realize there is no other hand. Because if I bend that far, I’ll break.

“On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand… No. There is no other hand.”

What about you? Have you struggled to work through faith, what you will compromise, and what you won’t, particularly in a cross-cultural context? I invite you to join the conversation – we need your voice.

Note: This post was adapted from the original, first published in 2013 at Communicating Across Boundaries.


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An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. After finally learning how to live in the United States, she finds herself unexpectedly living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq working at a university. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and Worlds Apart - A Third Culture Kid's Journey. Her writing appears in Plough Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and a few other places around the web. You can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries: Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture. https://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/

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