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How ‘Fiddler’ Became Folklore

Last February, I attended the Bet Shira Congregation in Miami during the synagogue’s official celebration of Tu B’Shvat, or the New Year for Trees. Festivities for this particular Jewish holiday usually involve the planting of trees, a discussion about the environment or some other similarly agriculturally themed event. But at Bet Shira, synagogue president Ron Rosengarten put on an old vest and a short-brimmed cap. Rabbi Micah Caplan pasted a long gray beard to his chin. And congregant Martin Applebaum donned a puffy-sleeved peasant shirt and stuffed his pants cuffs into the top of his socks. Applebaum also brought 20 rubber chickens to distribute among the audience so they could throw them into the air on the appropriate cue. This was no tree planting. It was a singalong to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

A sign of the enduring power and cultural utility of the 1964 musical comedy, “Fiddler” singalongs have cropped up across the country over the past few years, catching on to the craze for participatory screenings of “The Sound of Music” and the “The Wizard of Oz.” Jewish film festivals from Boston to Seattle have invited moviegoers to dress up as Anatevkans, shimmy their shoulders to “Tradition” and belt out the tunes along with the cast of the 1971 film. (The lyrics and dialogue are displayed in closed captions, for those who somehow failed to memorize the songs in their suburban dens in the ’70s.) On Christmas Eve 2004, the Jewish Community Center of Durham-Chapel Hill enfolded this new custom into a time-honored ritual of Judeo Americana by adding a “Fiddler” singalong to a kosher Chinese dinner.

At Bet Shira’s singalong, some participants left their seats to ham it up in front of the larger-than-life images of Tevye and his family, often standing in the path of the projector’s flickering light stream so that their own shadows danced into Anatevka. The metaphor was hard to miss: More than 40 years after its creation, “Fiddler on the Roof” continues to provide American Jews a screen onto which to project their desire for a usable past. Revered by some, ridiculed by others and referenced by everybody, the musical has come to define the Jewish American origin story — and even a more generic immigrant story — in the popular imagination of Jews and gentiles alike.

And this is only the latest way that “Fiddler” has been invoked over the past four decades for an astonishing variety of purposes; the show has even morphed, somehow, into a shorthand reference for Jewish identity. (“Now, I know I haven’t been the best Jew,” Homer tells a rabbi from whom he is trying to borrow money in one episode of “The Simpsons,” “but I have rented ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and I will watch it.”) Indeed, it is precisely its role as a marker of Jewish identity that sparked the incredulity with which some critics and audience members approached the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” directed by the young Brit David Leveaux and featuring Alfred Molina as Tevye. Before the show even opened, critics were charging that, with its gentile director and star, the production had been, in the words of one Web-based writer, “ethnically cleansed.” In an instantly infamous essay in the Los Angeles Times, writer Thane Rosenbaum asserted that this “Fiddler” “isn’t entirely kosher.” Once it had opened, reviewers joined in attacking the apparent absence of appropriate Yiddishkeit. In The Washington Post, Peter Marks complained that Leveaux and Molina had failed to capture the spirit with which Marks and his family had sung along with the original cast recording during his childhood. He admitted that this was a central way in which the family expressed its Jewishness.

The accusation that a version of “Fiddler” might come off as not Jewish enough is a far cry from the anxiety expressed during the musical’s development in the 1960s — that it might be “too Jewish.” (How would they sell tickets once they ran out of Hadassah groups? wondered one producer who passed up a chance to be an original backer of the show.) But early Jewish critics had no such worries — quite the contrary. They felt that “Fiddler” betrayed the Sholom Aleichem stories on which it was based and that, as a result, presented audiences with a phony image of shtetl life. Tevye talks to the Almighty in both the source material and the musical, but Irving Howe railed in a 1964 essay in Commentary: “In Sholom Aleichem’s stories, God is a presence to whom Jews can turn in moments of need and urgency; in “Fiddler on the Roof,” He ends up as Zero Mostel’s straight man.”

All of which begs the question: How did a show dismissed alternately as an inauthentic, even kitschy, portrayal of the Jewish past and as a too-Jewish piece of schmaltz turn into genuine Jewish American folklore?

Let’s start at the very beginning, as another singalong character might say. In 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered on Broadway, directed by Jerome Robbins, with book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. The play presented America with one of the first popular post-Holocaust depictions of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry. The show was an instant blockbuster success, and went on to a then-record eight-year run after its initial Broadway opening.

Bock, Harnick and Stein had taken up the project in the early 1960s after a friend had recommended to one of them that they adapt a Sholom Aleichem novel about a traveling theater troupe. Though the trio felt that the novel was too unwieldy for the stage, they were excited by the great Yiddish writer and turned to his short stories (which Stein, who had grown up speaking Yiddish, remembered from his childhood).

The character of Tevye was born in 1895, the year that Sholom Aleichem first published “Tevye der Milkhiger” in Warsaw. The scripture-quoting dairyman would occupy the center of eight more short stories written over the next 20 years, but he also seemed destined for stage and screen. Sholom Aleichem himself wrote a dramatic adaptation (which he didn’t quite complete before his death in 1916). At the famed Yiddish Art Theatre on New York City’s Lower East Side, Maurice Schwartz starred in the title role in 1919 and, some 20 years later, made a gorgeously maudlin film version. In the late 1950s, writer Arnold Perl created “Tevye and His Daughters” for an off-Broadway production. And no less than Rodgers and Hammerstein were reported to have considered fashioning a musical comedy out of the original stories.

But it took the combined genius of Bock, Harnick and Stein to make Tevye an enduring American hero. That, and timing. The civil rights movement lent urgency to the theme of tolerance even as it ignited a widespread passion for reclaiming ethnic roots. Meanwhile, the Jewish community was just beginning to come to terms with the Holocaust. The Eichmann trial — and heated communal debate over Hannah Arendt’s coverage of it — consistently made headlines in the early 1960s. The ethnographic study of Eastern European Jewry, “Life Is With People,” published in 1952, was gradually cementing — or constructing, as scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued — a popular (and distorted) notion of the shtetl as a hermetic Jewish world. It served as a principle reference work for the “Fiddler” team in the team’s own effort to recover a vanished past.

According to the reproachful Yiddishists, who saw “Fiddler” as sentimentalizing and oversimplifying a rich and complex history, this was precisely where the musical went wrong. Decrying American Jews who “went wild” for the musical, Howe chided: “The less… they know about East European Jewish life or even the immigrant Jewish experience in America, the more inclined they seem to celebrate it.” Writer Cynthia Ozick condemned “Fiddler” for milking “nostalgia for a sweeter time, pogroms notwithstanding.”

But what these critics couldn’t appreciate was that “Fiddler,”as Yiddish literary scholar Seth Wolitz has argued, was performing important cultural work for a community in the throes of rapid upward mobility, which they experienced as both thrilling success and threat to the preservation of familial ties and traditions. As Wolitz details, the changes made to the Sholom Aleichem stories worked to Americanize the material and to assert the mythos of Jewish adaptability and continuity. Bock, Harnick and Stein eliminated the most painful of the source stories (in “Shprintze,” for instance, one of Tevye’s daughters drowns herself). They turned Chava’s brutish gentile husband into a decent fellow who repudiates prejudice. Unlike the end of the “Tevye der Milkhiger” stories, which leave the hero wandering aimlessly and alone, with his wife dead and his daughters variously departed, in “Fiddler” he and most of his family are heading to America. As Wolitz notes, “Fiddler” presented Jews as already having adopted the American ideals of tolerance and individual rights in Anatevka. Like pilgrims, they needed to escape religious persecution and come to this promised land in order for those values to find fulfillment.

And “Fiddler” managed to appeal as powerfully to non-Jews. While Jewish spectators could recognize the Sabbath candle lighting, the wedding chupah and other familiar markers of Jewish practice presented in the play, their gentile counterparts were given ample clues for making sense of such activities while connecting to the broader issues of generational conflict, the pressures of modernity and the evils of bigotry. In a deliberate effort to keep the show widely accessible, its writers proudly avoided using Yiddish. In the few instances in which it does turn up, it is thoroughly, even redundantly, explained: “To life, to life, l’chaim! L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.” (And they were furious when, a couple of months into the run, Zero Mostel began shticking it up with Yiddish ad-libs.) Librettist Stein delighted in telling an anecdote about the 1960s-era premiere in Tokyo: A local producer asked him whether Americans could really understand ‘Fiddler’ given that “it’s so Japanese.”

Today, however, “Fiddler” is hoarded as the exclusive property of Jews, and not only by those who rejected the 2004 production. Wolitz argued that in 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” helped American Jews consolidate their Americanness. He was right. But, as I’ll explore next week, these days it helps them firm up their Jewishness.

Alisa Solomon directs the arts and culture concentration in the master of arts program at the Columbia School of Journalism and is working on a book about “Fiddler on the Roof.”


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