Will the Real Sholem Aleichem Please Stand Up?

Two New Books Show He's More Than ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Promising Futures: Sholem Rabinovich, who adopted the name Sholem Aleichem, divided his time between writing and playing the stock market.
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Promising Futures: Sholem Rabinovich, who adopted the name Sholem Aleichem, divided his time between writing and playing the stock market.

By Ezra Glinter

Published November 24, 2013, issue of November 29, 2013.
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Decter’s vitriol was just a warm-up for the attacks that would greet “Fiddler” nine years later. Irving Howe, also writing in Commentary, called the show’s creative team hacks, the music “flat chested” and the choreography “so slick as finally to be sterile.” The staged pogrom, he said, was “papier-maché” and the candle-lighting scene (featuring the song “Sabbath Prayer”) the equivalent of “Shabbos at Radio City Music Hall.” Even Zero Mostel, whose portrayal of Tevye was praised elsewhere, “bears down” on his lines “with a crushing weight,” while God is turned into his “straight man.” And as Decter had done, Howe accused “Fiddler” of romanticizing Jewish history by creating “the cutest shtetl we never had.”

Solomon, who was a theater critic at the Village Voice for 21 years before becoming a journalism professor at Columbia University, dismisses such fault-finding, calling Howe’s piece “famously cranky,” another review “cantankerous,” and labeling all such critics “highbrow scolds.” In contrast, she celebrates “Fiddler” as a groundbreaking work of musical theater, and she provides an illuminating and detailed history of its production. Among other tidbits, we learn that director Jerome Robbins went to Hasidic weddings in Brooklyn to research the choreography, and that set designer Boris Aronson had worked on Shwartz’s 1929 production of another Sholem Aleichem play, “Stempenyu.” Though “Fiddler” was accused of historical inaccuracy, the costume designer, Patricia Zipprodt, insisted on using only materials that would have been available in 1905, the year the action was set.

Most important, Solomon defends “Fiddler” against the charge of sentimentalism, arguing that the production rejected the kind of Second Avenue or Borscht Belt comedy that had created the cutesy shtetl long before “Fiddler” arrived on the scene. The musical’s creators turned away actors who arrived with “Old Country accents, flailing hands, or singsong intonations” and “labored mightily to burn away the schmaltz that for two decades had encased the world of the shtetl like amber.” I don’t know if that makes “Fiddler” hard-headed, but there’s merit to the idea that it was an improvement on something worse.

Even if you agree that “Fiddler” was a masterpice, however, Solomon doesn’t really give its critics their due. As she readily states, the popularity of “Fiddler” “burdened it with extra-theatrical responsibilities,” including the task of representing American Jewry’s Eastern European past. In response, Solomon argues that expecting a Broadway musical to realistically portray a historical place is ridiculous. “Musicals always unfold in fake places,” she writes. “No one looks for documentary realism in the New York City of ‘Guys and Dolls’ or ‘West Side Story.’” But she concedes that audiences did look to “Fiddler” for documentary witness, just as they had looked to the works of Sholem Aleichem himself. This was especially true after of the Holocaust, when there was no longer an Old World to go back to. When the Butwins’ volume of translations was published just a year after the war, Ben Hecht, in his New York Times review, called it “the epitaph of a vanished world and an almost vanished people.” Even Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress who played Yente in the 1971 film version of “Fiddler,” claimed: “This is like a document of historical significance… It’s part of a world that’s gone.”


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