Everything You Wanted To Know About 'Fiddler on the Roof' But Didn't Ask

Exploring the Traditions Behind 'Tradition'

Fiddling About: Alfred Molina starred as Tevye in a 2004 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Getty Images
Fiddling About: Alfred Molina starred as Tevye in a 2004 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

By Eileen Reynolds

Published October 24, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Wonder of Wonders
By Alisa Solomon
Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $32

Those searching for razzle-dazzle bar mitzvah entertainment need look no further than the Amazing Bottle Dancers, a group of athletic young men who’ll burst into your special event, hoist the guest of honor up onto a chair, perform the suspenseful “bottle dance” from the wedding scene in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and then, for a grand finale, lead the whole crowd in a rollicking 45-minute hora.

These enterprising dancers, with their pasted-on peyes and beards, are easy targets for “Fiddler” detractors of all types — from those who lament that whole generations seem to have gleaned everything they know about Jewish religious practice from show tunes like “Sabbath Prayer” and “Tradition,” to Yiddishists who view the musical’s plot as a bastardization of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories.

Theater critic Alisa Solomon can’t resist her own subtle dig at the entertainers she describes as “fake Hasidim for hire” in “Wonder of Wonders,” her exhaustive new cultural history of the show.

But lambasting “Fiddler”-themed kitsch is otherwise of little interest to Solomon, who wisely avoids assigning credit or blame for the musical’s cultural spin-offs to its creators, who no more could have anticipated ceramic Tevye music boxes and Anatevka-shaped mezuza covers than they could have predicted that figures as diverse as Glenn Beck and Occupy Wall Street protestors would one day borrow from the show to advance their agendas.

“Wonder of Wonders” offers a particularly thoughtful analysis of how “Fiddler” — a midcentury showbiz creation — has achieved something like folklore status in the American imagination, and grapples, as any history of this musical must, with fundamental questions about Jewish identity.

Yet Solomon is right to describe her account as first and foremost a “story about theater, the making of it and the meanings that come from the messy and marvelous collaborations that are its essence.” If the Amazing Bottle Dancers’ routine gets under her skin, it’s because she views it as a betrayal not of Sholem Aleichem but of Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer who sweated and fretted over the original “bottle dance” — and who emerges as the hero of her tale.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.