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A ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ In Yiddish — The Way It Ought To Be

Barely two years after Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” made its groundbreaking 1949 debut, a Yiddish production starring — and translated by — Joseph Buloff opened in Brooklyn, with Miller’s blessing. The title of a review by George Ross in Commentary described it as “‘Death of a Salesman’ in the Original,” and the witty proposition, along with the debate over its aptness, has stuck with the play ever since, (and was tested beautifully in a Yiddish-language production in New York in 2015.)

What might it mean for another iconic American work of the theater to be presented in Yiddish when its genealogical connection to the language is far less tenuous? Will Fidler afn Dakh,” running from July 4 to August 26 in a National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production directed by Joel Grey, be “‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in the Original”?

That question is more complicated than it may seem. For starters, what, after all, is the “original” when it comes to the translation into Yiddish of an adaptation of a work in another genre that had already been translated into English? It’s a problem that could cross a post-modernist’s eyes.

Sholem Aleichem himself significantly altered his short-story masterpieces about the affable dairyman, Tevye, when he turned them into a screenplay and a stage script. The great Yiddish actor-manager Maurice Schwartz modified them further for his 1919 theater production, and even more so for his 1939 film version of “Tevye der Milkhiker,” adding scenes that stressed the anti-Semitism of the surrounding Ukrainians and Tevye’s despair over Chava’s elopement.

Sholem Aleichem, circa 1907 Image by Forward Association

Critics at the time complained that Schwartz misrepresented the original material; the reviewer for the Forverts chided, “Merely a shadow of Sholem Aleichem remains.” A quarter- century later, the creators of “Fiddler” — Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book), and Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer) — reshaped the stories into the wholly new idiom of the American musical, leaving out the most tragic of the daughters’ stories and, in the most significant of their modifications, sending Tevye and his family to the United States at the show’s end.

The authors of “Fiddler” made a point of keeping out of their script any Yiddishisms that weren’t absolutely essential. While the characters and setting were certainly and unapologetically Jewish, Bock, Harnick and Stein saw the universal appeal in the themes of generational conflict and communal indomitability and didn’t want to shut out potential spectators who might not recognize in-group references. Hence, for instance, Tevye says in his opening monologue that he wears not a “tallis-katan,” but a “little prayer shawl.” And the few Yiddish or Hebrew words that are used are amply and emphatically translated: “To life, to life, l’chaim. L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”

In addition to making the show accessible to all audiences, the authors of “Fiddler” wanted to steer clear of the schmaltz, vulgarity or parody gags associated with Yiddish performance by the time they began developing the script. In the early 1960s, a nonspeaker unfamiliar with the deep, variegated repertoire of the American Yiddish theater in its earlier heyday could know only the Yinglish trifles occasionally staged downtown and the jesting revues that made it to Broadway in the 1950s, like “Bagels and Yuks” and “Borscht Capades.” (The latter was devised by and starred Mickey Katz and, for a time, featured in the cast his young son — Joel Grey.)

Bock, Harnick and Stein didn’t want their version of Sholem Aleichem linked with such frivolities. Some of their notes as they began their adaptation describe one possible scene as having the potential to convey “high humor and tenderness without any Second Avenue quality.” Once Robbins entered the creative process, he further emphasized this concern: “If every song is sweet, sentimental, sad, touching and nostalgic,” he warned Bock and Harnick in early notes on the score, “all will come off as Second Avenue.” In the mid-1960s, the smoothest path to presenting an authentic Broadway Tevye seemed to require, paradoxically, clearing Yiddish away.

Still, it wasn’t long after “Fiddler” triumphed on Broadway — winning an astonishing nine Tony Awards in 1965 and running for a record-breaking nearly eight years — that it made its debut in Yiddish. It did so in, of all places, Israel, where the language did not carry the same American baggage of a jokey and joshing performance tradition but had plenty of its own baggage.

Topol appearing in a revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Image by Getty Images

The production was the brainstorm of Giora Godik, the flamboyant, Polish-born impresario famous for bringing lavish American-style musicals to the Israeli stage. He had presided over the first foreign production of “Fiddler,” presented in Hebrew at the grand Alhambra Theatre in Jaffa, which he had refurbished after it had stood derelict for two decades, damaged in a 1947 mortar bombardment.

The Hebrew-language production met with tremendously popular success, running for 15 months and seen, producers estimated, by a full quarter of Israel’s population. “Kanar al HaGag” opened in 1965 with the comic actor Bomba Tzur in the role of Tevye, though Tzur was replaced after about six months by Shmuel Rodensky, a sensitive and nuanced multilingual actor who’d been born in Vilna.

Godik, whose father had been an actor in the Polish theater, saw that Rodensky’s Yiddish abilities presented an opportunity to build on the Jewish Israeli public’s surprising enthusiasm for “Fiddler” — and also to sell more tickets. Shraga Friedman prepared quickly a brilliant translation of “Fiddler” into Yiddish (working in part from Dan Almagor’s Hebrew version). Among many glorious touches, Friedman evokes other Sholem Aleichem works.

For one delicious example, he begins “If I Were a Rich Man” with “Ven ikh bin a Rothschild,” the title and theme of a short story about a Kasrilevker who can’t scrape together enough money for Shabbes imagining how charitable he would be if he had the fortunes of the financier. And for another, Friedman turns the argument in the middle of “Tradition” over whether one Anatevka resident sold a horse or a mule to his neighbor into whether it was a bok or a tzig, a billy goat or a she goat — the issue at the heart of Sholem Aleichem’s short story “The Enchanted Tailor.”

For the songs, Friedman finds fizzy rhymes everywhere. Here are just two: In “Rich Man,” where Tevye imagines the “most important men in town” coming to pose tough religious questions, instead of “If you please, Reb Tevye; pardon me, Reb Tevye,” Friedman has them saying, “Kratzt di bord, reb tevye; zogt a vort reb Tevye” (“Scratch your beard, Reb Tevye, say a word, Reb Tevye”). In “Do You Love Me?” where Golde dismisses Tevye with “Maybe it’s indigestion” and he answers, “Golde, I’m asking you a question,” Friedman offers: “Di laydst dokh afn mogn / Golde, kh’vill dir epes zogn.” (Well, essentially what the original English says, and just as funny!)

Back in New York, if its creators approved Yiddish-language rights for Godik with any excitement about the significance of “Fiddler” playing in the mother tongue of Sholem Aleichem and his enduring characters, they left no record of it. What the correspondence in their archives does reveal is their annoyance that Godik had made a Hebrew cast recording without proper licensing. His request to amend the contract to include Yiddish rights presented an opportunity to clear up his obligations for the unauthorized album. Apparently, the plan worked, and more: Godik produced a wonderful, and authorized, Yiddish cast album.

Fidler afn Dakh” played for only a couple of weeks in 1966, but it had great cultural significance, an early instance, perhaps, of what the scholar Jeffrey Shandler has called the “post-vernacular” meaning of Yiddish. That is, when the symbolic fact of saying something in Yiddish becomes as, or even more, important than the content of what is actually said.

The production in Israel served as both a signal and an engine of the country’s new openness to the Eastern European piece of its history that had long been negated as a matter of Zionist ideology. A critic for the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv wrote at the time:

This is not just a theatrical event but also one of national importance. It shows how rooted and mature Hebrew is that it can dispense its energy on a production in another language and, even more so, Yiddish, our national language of the past. When the cast — mostly sabras, and even some Yemenites — does so well in Yiddish, we feel a coming together of people and generations and we are proud that could have taken place in our generation.

Soon afterward, Godik proposed to take his company on tour to Europe and South America, playing in Hebrew in some locations, in Yiddish in others. Particularly, he and the creators hoped, as their correspondence put it, to play “Fidler” in “Iron Curtain countries.” Hal Prince, who produced “Fiddler” originally, approved the tour as long as Godik stayed away from cities where a local production was planned. Prince specifically ruled out London, where “Fiddler” would soon play in English (starring, as it turned out, Rodensky’s understudy in the Hebrew production: Chaim Topol.) The risk of Godik’s version in London, Prince wrote, was that “it would give the show a particularly Jewish reputation” when stressing that its universality remained all-important.

Prince’s worry was post-vernacular — the fact of Yiddish presented the problem — but he was right in a literal way, too. The Friedman translation can’t help but foreground Tevye’s frumkayt. In Yiddish, Tevye need not define tallis-katan; and the song at the inn requires no translation —it’s simply, “Zol zayn l’chaim.” The everyday infusion of Yiddish with Judaism inevitably saturates the text, beginning with the very first number, “Tradition.” Rendered as “Di Toyre” by Friedman, the song celebrates not generic cultural customs, but beliefs and practices drawn from Jewish law and teaching.

Godik never pulled off the tour; he ran into cash-flow problems and such severe debt that eventually he abruptly fled Israel. In the decades since, the archives show occasional requests for rights to present the show in Yiddish. First, in late 1972, just a few months after the Broadway run ended, Rodensky and his Israeli cast mates sought rights to play the show in Yiddish off-Broadway the following fall and then to tour the United States. The creators agreed. But nothing came of it, perhaps because Rodensky’s producers couldn’t raise the funds.

Two years later, some of the same actors asked again, this time with a new producer. Still, no show. In 1984, Art D’Lugoff, the late jazz impresario who in 1958 founded the Village Gate, where he presented the likes of Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Miles Davis, expressed interest in partnering with the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring to present “Fiddler” in Yiddish, first in New York and then in Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. Jerry Robbins penciled onto a memo about this request several questions — among them: Who would direct? What kind of orchestra would there be? —and within a couple of weeks his representative replied to D’Lugoff: “Mr. Robbins does not think that this is the appropriate time.” Nowadays, while Poland’s State Jewish Theatre maintains “Fiddler” in its repertoire in Polish and in Yiddish and the show’s songs have been performed in Yiddish from Warsaw to Winnipeg, by all accounts the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s presentation this summer will be the first-ever full, professional production in North America.

Perhaps Robbins did not receive satisfactory answers to his questions for D’Lugoff in the ’80s and was just being polite, but maybe he also understood something important about that moment. While “Fiddler” already held a firm place in the global musical theater canon, its universal appeal incontestable, it’s possible Robbins sensed that Yiddish was still too associated with sentimentality for a “Fidler afn Dakh” in America to be embraced, if embraced, out of anything other than nostalgia rather than for its supreme artistry as a work of the American musical theater.

Back then, the work of Yiddish cultural reclamation by kultur-tuers, “culture-doers,” like Michael Alpert, the late Adrienne Cooper, Jenny Romaine, Henry Sapoznik, Shandler, and Josh Waletzky was just getting started; the first KlezKamp was a year away, the formation of the Klezmatics two years away. It would take some time for their impact to be felt.

For this new wave of Yiddishists, “Fiddler” itself seemed suspect if only because — through no fault of the Broadway songsmiths — people held it up as an exemplar of Yiddishkeit and even of klezmer music. Thanks to work like theirs that helped multiply the forms and reach of contemporary Yiddish culture, “Fiddler” could eventually be understood for what it is — a great Broadway show with first-rate showtunes — and not as a placeholder for something else.

Borrowing from that Ma’ariv critic half-a-century ago, one might say that the timing for a “Fidler afn Dakh” is, at last, right today as 21st-century Yiddish American culture is itself “rooted and mature”: neither a harking back nor a gesture of revival, but a living, multifaceted, sphere of continuity and creativity. Nowadays we stand as far away in time from the creation of “Fiddler” as the creators did from Sholem Aleichem when they made it. “Fiddler,” even a “Fidler” in Yiddish, is still, in all its American glory, “Fiddler” — not “Tevye der Milkhiker” in any of its incarnations. And yet, thanks to the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the Broadway blockbuster is becoming part of the Yiddish culture that inspired it.

Alisa Solomon is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Metropolitan Books, 2013).


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