‘Tevye Isn’t Jewish — and Golda Is’


By Masha Leon

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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Last week, I relished Broadway’s latest “Fiddler on the Roof.” When I told Bel Kaufman, Sholom Aleichem’s 92-year-old granddaughter, how much I enjoyed the performance, she concurred: “It’s sheer magic!” Kaufman, author of “Up the Down Staircase,” said: “You know, there was a real Tevye, a small, scrawny man who had no daughters. My grandfather and he used to sit on a porch in Boiberik, and he transformed him into Tevye the Dairyman with daughters. And now it’s not Jewish enough! I have seen a dozen Tevyes, and Alfred Molina is the most believable.”

“I’m trying to put this ‘Jewish’ thing behind me,” Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) told me “It’s so stupid!… The original cast was 70% non-Jewish.… Zero [Mostel] was Jewish, but Golda was not. Now Tevye isn’t Jewish — and Golda is!”

I later chatted with Jerry Bock, who composed the music, who amplified: “There is no stereotypical Tevye. What did they do in Finland, in the Scandinavian countries?… To me, Molina is extraordinary in almost every aspect. He does not separate himself, he joins the community. My favorite example is when Tevye asks Golda, ‘Do You Love Me?’ In Zero [Mostel]’s hands it got laughs; with Molina, it becomes a love song.”

Those who’ve labeled this “Fiddler” as not Jewish enough most likely never experienced shtetl life. Even we who read the Tevye stories in Yiddish in pre-World War II Poland, in Warsaw, in Vilna, even in the shtetls, accepted Tevye as a quaint fictional character. Tevye was never intended to be a poster boy for the shtetl Jew; he was a literary invention by Sholom Aleichem, a secular Jew, who had the foresight to write: “On the anniversary of my death, read my works in whatever language.” He didn’t specify that only Jews should read — or perform — his works.

* * *

“So what do you think of ‘The Passion of the Christ’?” I asked Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, just before his February 25 interview with Rabbi William Berkowitz, host of the American Jewish Historical Society-sponsored Dialogue Forum at the Center for Jewish History. Schudrich chuckled, saying, “The only passion that concerns me is the one for my wife.”

Responding to Berkowitz’s query, “What motivated an American to become rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz?,” Schudrich — who was born in New York and holds both Conservative and Orthodox smikhes (ordinations) — recalled visiting Poland as a young man in 1973, “walking the streets of Warsaw” and being struck by the absence of Jews. “Of Poland’s pre-war population of 3,335,000, only 10% survived…. If you wanted to be Jewish, you left Poland.… Not until the fall of communism in 1989 did one tell children or grandchildren you were Jewish, mostly through deathbed confessions.” Schudrich cited examples: “A woman dying of cancer reveals she is Jewish… goes into remission, then denies she ever said it! A man comes out of a coma singing in Yiddish. The family realizes he was Jewish!”

Schudrich felt compelled to seek out Poland’s “lost” Jews when he returned there in 1900, positing that there may have been as many as 90,000 Jewish infants and young children who “were adopted by warm, loving Polish families… now discovering they’re Jews. Imagine: You’re 17 and a relative says: ‘The truth is… you are Catholic!’ You tell your friends, ‘I’ve got Catholic roots; I’m going to church on Sunday.’ What kind of support would you get from your Jewish friends?”

Schudrich described how the archbishop of Poznan arranged for him to have an audience with John Paul II. “You had the guts to speak to the Pope in Polish!” Berkowitz exclaimed.

“I spoke in Polish,” said Schudrich, “out of respect for the pope, and so I could not be misquoted!” Schudrich amplified: “Seven or eight years ago, John Paul II declared January 17 ‘The Day of Judaism.’ The fact that the Pope, the most beloved person in Poland, has made numerous declarations that ‘the Jews are our older brothers’ is phenomenally helpful toward the work we do…. He is part of the picture of how Poles can talk about their being Jewish today. We now have 820 [such] shul members… mostly in their 20s and 30s.”

Schudrich recalled meeting Madeleine Albright in Warsaw in 1997, “two weeks after the story came out about her being Jewish. She arrived with her then-boss, [President Bill] Clinton… I told her I was an American rabbi in Warsaw working with Poles discovering their Jewish roots. I must admit, I really enjoyed telling her…. I savored it! She is a diplomat and did not flinch, but asked how did they find out. I told her, ‘mostly deathbed confessions.’ I met her again last summer at the Polish embassy in Washington. ‘I remember you,’ she said. ‘You told me how the Jewish community in Poland is trying to re-create itself.’ I realized she did not remember me, what she did remember was the story… that it touched her… that her Jewish roots meant more to her than she was willing to admit.”

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