TEVYE: A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say 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. . .how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!
Fiddler on the Roof is among the most beloved shows in American musical theater. It’s based, of course, on tales about Tevye, a 19th-century Ukrainian dairyman, written by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, known to the world by his wonderful pen name, Sholem Aleichem – wonderful because it’s an attenuated version of the Hebrew phrase that means “Peace be with you.”
Rabinovich was born and grew up in a town not far from Kiev. He had, to put it delicately, a checkered career in the old country, before immigrating (fleeing, might be a better word – from religious persecution and creditors) with his family to New York. He then moved back and forth between the United States and Switzerland, where his wife and children were living, before they all settled in New York for good. (His second daughter, Lyalya, would marry a Russian immigrant, Mikhail Y. Koyfman, who would change his name to Michael Kauffman, and their daughter Bel would write Up the Down Staircase, the 1965 bestseller about a dysfunctional inner-city school.)
Sholem Aleichem wrote in Hebrew, Russian, and, most importantly, Yiddish. Tevye the Dairyman (or Tevye and His Daughters), now his most famous work, was first published in Russia in 1894. In America, he became known as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” because of the similarity – by somebody’s judgment, anyway – of their naturalistic styles. (Twain once told a mutual friend: “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”) The Tevye stories were adapted for the Yiddish theater by Aleichem and produced three years after his death in 1919. A movie followed in 1930, and a musical version was produced Off-Broadway in 1950.
1964’s Fiddler on the Roof, however, was mostly unrelated to that theatrical history and was based on an original adaptation by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Hal Prince produced and Jerome Robbins both directed and did choreography – everybody in the production hated him, especially Zero Mostel (Tevye), who considered Robbins a “closeted” Jew.
And the title didn’t come from Aleichem, Stein, Bock, or Harnick but from the decision to base the musical’s stylized sets on the work of artist Marc Chagall (born Moishe Shagal), especially the painter’s 1912 work, “Le Violoniste.” Critic Robert Hughes called Chagall “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” Chagall’s journey was not unlike Aleichem’s, bouncing back and forth between Russia and France, settling in America during WWII, and living out the remainder of his life on the Côte d’Azur, where he died in 1985 at the age of 97. As cosmopolitan as Chagall became, the content and color of his work was usually pure shtetl, the poor Jewish quarter he knew as a boy. It’s true even of his depictions of Christ.
The 1971 film of Fiddler, directed by Norman Jewison (a Christian who is almost always assumed to be Jewish), reflects some of the early criticism of its Broadway precursor, which Philip Roth had called “shtetl kitsch.” Jewison’s film has half a mind to be a “feel-good” movie, and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that (L’Chaim!), especially given how much beauty and joy there is in Jewish life, albeit mixed with great, great sadness. At our annual Passover Seder, my Jewish wife describes the feast as: they tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat! But even in Jewison’s Fiddler the specter of persecution looms and takes the film from early sunny skies and bright earth to late shadowy clouds and murky mud.
For her birthday this month, I took my beloved to see the revival of Fiddler on Broadway; it was the best musical theater experience we’ve ever had. It may also be the darkest production of the musical ever done. There’s nothing in the world wrong with that, history being what it is.
And Jewish history is unique: to be God’s chosen people, yet marked for extinction practically from the beginning of the Covenant.
And from Fiddler’s first song, the justly famous “Tradition,” I felt sadness descend – and not just in expectation of the wave of pogroms that are foreshadowed or because of Tevye’s daughters’ rebelliousness against folk ways, or even because of anything to do with Jewish history.
Tevye says: “Tradition. Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
“Because of Tradition,” he says, “everyone of us knows who he is. . .and what God expects him to do.”
And I’m thinking, yes: true for Jews and for Catholics, too. Chesterton called tradition the “democracy of the dead,” which gives voice to the wisdom of our ancestors and “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
When Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize, he described Yiddish as the language of ghosts. “Ghosts love Yiddish,” he said, “and as far as I know, they all speak it.” He also said he believed in resurrection, so a dead language can never be considered wholly lost. “Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.” I once saw Singer in a “dairy restaurant” in Manhattan.
It was also the place where, in 1978, an elderly waiter served me blintzes. He wore his shirtsleeves rolled up. I saw the six-number tattoo on his forearm.
The 2015 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway), is directed by Bartlett Sher and stars Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as his wife, Golde.
*Image: Le Violoniste by Marc Chagall, 1912 [Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]