Proust had his madeleines. Me? I have Fiddler on the Roof. Specifically, the original film soundtrack on vinyl, which I put on last week just for fun, only to be emotionally transported back to high school at Tevye’s first words.
See, I was an odd duck in high school. Convinced that I had been born in the wrong decade, I spent a lot of time watching sixties-set American Dreams, listening to our local oldies station, and paging through my parents’ old yearbooks. Most modern TV shows didn’t appeal to me, and the ambiguities of “dating” via instant messaging where no one actually asked anyone out were just plain stressful. My mom told stories about her grandfather refusing to let her become a lawyer because girls didn’t do that, but sexist standards didn’t dissuade me. Nor did my parents’ tales about learning to “duck and cover,” the U.S.’s surefire way to protect kids from the atomic bomb. No, if I’d grown up in the 1960s, my emotional life would have been so much better. I was sure of that.
Music was my transportation to the past. I built up entire worlds in my head when Tommy James and the Shondells sang “I Think We’re Alone Now,” imagining girls in shirtdresses and boys in skinny pants (this was before skinny jeans got big). I culled images from history books and endless re-watchings of Gidget, and conjured them up when The Beach Boys came on. The late 1950s and 1960s all blended together for me in a beautiful, rose-colored haze. I was nostalgic for an era I’d never experienced.
The culmination of my obsession came when I begged my dad to show me how to work the turntable in the basement. My parents had kept the player, plus a limited collection of records, but they’d gotten rid of most of their records when CDs came on the scene. (Major tragedy.) So I contented myself with listening to my mom’s musical soundtrack collection and my dad’s swing box sets–turns out my dad had preferred big band music from the 1940s while growing up in the era I yearned for. And the record I listened to the most was the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack.
I can’t say why that one, above all the others, appealed to me, especially when I was so obsessed with pop music from the time period. Maybe it was the way the characters viewed their grim lives in czarist Russia with an attitude of wry acceptance. Maybe it was the cheery songs that told stories through an entire cast of characters. Maybe it was the fact that I could use the exercise bike in the basement for the length of one side and feel like I’d gotten a good workout. But whatever the reason, I fell in love with Fiddler on the Roof. To this day I can sing “Tradition” with all the voices (the papas, the mamas, the daughters, the sons).
For Proust, the taste of the madeleines immediately transported him back to his childhood. For me, the sound of Zero Mostel takes me back to adolescence, with all its uncertainties and longings for a time I’d never see.