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From Brighton to Anatevka: 50 years later, a cast of ‘Fiddler’ remembers the show that changed their lives

Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago, on Nov. 3, 1971, the movie adaptation of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ premiered. In honor of that anniversary, we are publishing a series of article about the impact of ‘Fiddler’ and its legacy. You can read more of the stories here.

A full spotlight comes up on Keith Parsky, center stage.

He’s wearing a fake beard; he tried to grow his own, but he’s a teenager, so it was patchy. This is his first ever starring role, in this, his senior year of high school. The threat of the Vietnam draft looms. So, less menacingly, does the ambiguous sense of loss that comes to all teenagers when they first contemplate leaving home. The year is 1971.

This character lives deep inside him. He has known this man, in his soul, forever. He feels he was born to play him. He takes a breath.

“A fiddler on the roof,” he says. “Sounds crazy, no?”

In December, 1971, Brighton High School — a heavily Jewish public school in a heavily Jewish suburb of Rochester, N.Y. — performed “Fiddler on the Roof” as its fall musical. The movie version of the musical, which would make the story of a shtetl dairyman and his rebellious daughters a global phenomenon, had premiered only a month before.

The Brighton Cossacks. Jeff Zax, my dad, stands in the center of the front row. Courtesy of Rebecca Dvorin Strong

I know this because my dad, Jeff Zax, performed in the show as a dancer. (That’s him as a Cossack — he’s the one in the center with the big hair, and bigger sideburns.) At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he reconnected with a group of high school classmates over Zoom. He told me they’d discussed their senior year production of “Fiddler,” and that some members of the group had gone on to distinguished careers in the arts. It sounded like a standard kind of reminiscence: old friends fondly revisiting a moment they had shared, nothing more.

But it kept coming up. Someone shared photos from the show. People spoke about the director, a theater teacher named Tom Avery, and the ways that his guidance had echoed through the rest of their lives. It became clear that, while high school theater often has an enormous emotional pull for those who participated in it, this had been no ordinary production. Fifty years after it ran for three performances over one frigid weekend, this play was still not just present in the hearts and minds of its cast and crew, but was felt, by many of them, to have been formative in their lives.

In a way, it’s not surprising. Since “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1964, it has been experienced, by generation upon generation, as a deeply personal meditation on the joy and heartbreak wrapped up in Jewishness — and, more broadly, a reflection of the ways that people can both love and chafe against their traditions. Of course a group of teenagers performing it in a town structured in part by a post-war urge to create safe, even perhaps insular, Jewish communities would feel it deeply.

Even so, whatever made the Brighton “Fiddler” so remarkable, for its Jewish and non-Jewish cast alike, had to be more than just a sense of cultural resonance. I wondered if it might hold a clue as to what makes “Fiddler” as uniquely powerful as it is. And so I decided to ask.

“I’m 66 years old,” Karin Kasdin, who played Golde, told me, “and it’s still one of the highlights of my life.”

In the early 1970s, Rochester had begun to experience a steady population decline, but Brighton, an upper-middle class suburb, was growing. Its population had nearly doubled since the middle of the century. And a significant proportion of that population was Jewish.

The cast of Brighton High School’s 1971 “Fiddler on the Roof.” Courtesy of Susan Boehm

Some families had lived in the area for decades. That was true for Keith Parsky, whose father was the only Jewish funeral director in town. Kasdin’s grandmother had arrived in Rochester directly upon immigrating from the Old Country, alone, as a teenager who couldn’t speak a word of English. Susan Boehm, who played Yente, was the granddaughter of the owners of Rochester’s Jewish Ledger.

Other families, like my father’s, were new; my grandparents are Boston natives. Rebecca Dvorin Strong, who played Chava, Tevye and Golde’s rebellious third daughter, relocated there with her family in 1960. Anna Lank’s parents —Lank was the production’s choreographer, and played Fruma Sarah — had lived in the immediate area since the late ’40s.

It wasn’t an American shtetl — not quite. Jews were still in the minority, although only just. “I thought the world was maybe half Jewish, half Protestant,” said Ginny Hammond Sobota, who played Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel.

The program for Brighton High School’s 1971 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Courtesy of Rebecca Dvorin Strong

There was a fluid, almost egalitarian spirit to the town. Strong attended Christmas mass each year with Kathleen Wakefield, who played Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel. John Sloman, Motel the Tailor, was “a total Jew wannabe” who was in and out of my dad’s house. (“I can still say borei pri hagafen,” he said.) Everyone knew, vaguely, that there were some antisemitic students at the high school, but almost no one remembers encountering them. When Jewish students graduated, left home and began to meet people who had never before interacted with a Jew, they were stunned.

If possible, their non-Jewish peers were even more so.

“What was weird was going away to college, and having roommates who had never met a Jewish person,” Wakefield said. “I thought, oh my God, you know, the world is really different.”

But the town, for all its freedoms, had some shtetl-like qualities.

If you weren’t Orthodox, you went to one of two synagogues, either B’rith Kodesh, Reform, or Beth El, Conservative. (My father’s family was, and remains, Beth El.) Everyone knew everyone. Because Parsky’s father tended to all of the area’s Jewish dead, his family name was something of a macabre joke. Every Jew in town knew that “going to see Parsky” didn’t mean going to hang out with Keith.

The town was, then as now, overwhelmingly white. No one remembers seeing more than one or two Black students at the high school. There was a sense, despite the neighborly mixing of religions, that one was meant to associate with one’s own.

That suggestion seems troubling now. But it had deep roots in the traumas of Jewish life in the first part of the 20th century, from the struggle of immigration to the pogroms and the Holocaust. Some parents were Shoah survivors. Some had fought in the war. At B’rith Kodesh, said Boehm, one rabbi always ended his sermons the same way: “Never forget, it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.”

Keith Parsky and Karin Kasdin perform the Shabbat scene in Brighton High School’s 1971 “Fiddler on the Roof.” Courtesy of Rebecca Dvorin Strong

“I think there was a large segment of Jews that must have been profoundly impacted, and said, we gotta stay close to our faith,” Parsky said. “In my parents’ circles, they wanted to cling to the traditions. There was a definite wariness of other faiths that was expressed to me every time I dated someone not Jewish.”

“The woman might like you,” his parents would say, “but her parents might not.”

The town’s younger generations understood why their parents could be rigid. But it was the ’70s. The students of Brighton had come of age in the era of protest and rebellion and free love. Half of the class of ‘71, in my dad’s memory, wore neither robes nor shoes to graduation. The world was in the middle of a palpable shift; yes, even in Brighton.

A December 9, 1971 clipping from the Brighton-Pittsford Post advertises Brighton High’s “Fiddler on the Roof” with a shot of the cast rehearsing “Tradition!” Courtesy of Rebecca Dvorin Strong

And when Brighton High chose to perform a musical about a family torn between the Judaism of their forefathers and the freedom of the new world, between the life they’d always known and the radically different one coming for them, that musical gave its cast and crew a way to understand something essential about the generational cultural upheaval they were experiencing. It brought them together, and it changed them.

“Look, ‘Fiddler’ is the story of a family’s dissolution,” said Lank. “The younger generation going, ‘No.’ The eldest daughter marries, but not who her father wants. The middle daughter goes even farther. The youngest daughter doesn’t marry a Jew. The world is coming apart.”

“They’re having to leave Anatevka externally,” Lank said, “and internally, the family is dissolving as well.”

It’s been 50 years, but even so, every time Ginny Hammond Sobota speaks with Keith Parsky, she calls him “Papa.” When he and Karin Kasdin have run into one another over the years, he’s called her “my darling wife.” The whole production, Kathleen Wakefield said, carried with it “a very powerful sense of family.”

Susan Boehm’s rehearsal schedule for “Fiddler on the Roof.” Courtesy of Susan Boehm

That was, in part, because so much of the cast saw their own family in the show. Kasdin, a sophomore at the time of the production, said she wanted the role of Golde “so badly I couldn’t sleep at night.” The character was, to her, her grandmother, that lonely adolescent who had come to this country all on her own. Susan Boehm’s grandparents came from nearly every Old Country there was: Ukraine, Poland, Belarus.

“Three of my grandparents immigrated from Russia right at the time that the play takes place,” said Rebecca Dvorin Strong. “My grandfather was even a tailor.”

The resonances ran particularly deep for Parsky. For years in his early childhood, he believed people came to his father’s funeral parlor simply to sleep; he would ask his mother why his father always came home sad. “I saw bits of him die with every person he buried,” Parsky said.

So “the Jewish way of death, and Jewish way of life,” came to be fundamental to Parsky’s consciousness. He took to entertaining the children who would come with their families to arrange burials. On high holidays, his family would progress from shul to shul, keeping up the relationships that made the business successful. He would listen in on his father’s conversations: “He was always talking about World War II, always talking about the Russian pogroms.”

Keith Parsky as Tevye. Courtesy of Susan Boehm

To play Tevye, a character always speaking to God, and always, in doing so, masking his pain in his humor — it’s difficult to imagine a childhood that could offer a more disconcertingly apt preparation. “I had been this closet actor, nobody knew about me,” Parsky said. But his whole life had readied him for the role. “I felt this was just, this was going to be my time.”

It was Parsky’s Tevye that, more than anything, shaped the production. He was brilliant in the role, at least per the accounts of his castmates: Boehm said he was “luminous.” (The school newspaper’s entertainingly formal review: “Keith equaled and surpassed the audience’s expectations.”)

“In productions, they say the person at the top sets the mood,” said Boehm. “He just had a deepening of this character, from his heart, that was far beyond his years.”

That spirit — not just depth, but also, Boehm said, “this very powerful joy” — was, for many, healing. The cast didn’t just bring the stories of their parents and grandparents to the show. They brought the miseries, large and small, that they were beginning to confront in their own lives.

Rochester had experienced racial upheavals in the ’60s, during the civil rights movement. “It was a bigoted city,” Parsky said, and, increasingly, the teens in sheltered Brighton knew it. The Vietnam War seemed like it might be approaching its end, but not rapidly or clearly enough for anyone to feel safe. “We thought we were all going to be in it,” Parsky said. “Ours was the last group — we had lottery numbers, but it was our year when they stopped picking.”

And there were intimate, personal pains, many of them too tender to discuss openly.

Ginny Hammond Sobota as Tzeitel and John Sloman as Motel the Tailor. Courtesy of Ginny Hammond Sobota

John Sloman was still in shock over his mother’s sudden death a year and a half before. Time had passed, but he had barely begun to grieve. “I have kind of a spotty memory about those couple of years of high school,” he said, “because, you know, I was — I now know — experiencing PTSD.”

“No guidance counselor talked to me — nobody talked to me,” he said. He took up acting as an outlet. “In rehearsal — or working on a character, or in performance — just being someone else was such a respite for me,” he said.

“Being John, at that point, was super painful.”

Anna Lank was grappling with the isolation that came, she said, from being “a little fat girl.” Karin Kasdin had always been shy and insecure. Taking the stage as Golde, at the center of the family and the center of the show, “completely changed my life,” she said. Rebecca Dvorin Strong had just broken up with her high school boyfriend: “I was absolutely shattered,” she said, “I was crying every day.”

Ginny Hammond Sobota was recovering from an eating disorder that had left her feeling isolated. “It was so long ago that nobody knew what it was,” she said. “It was meaningful to have such a unifying experience in the light of that.”

With the exception of sophomores Karin Kasdin and Andy Hammond, Ginny’s brother, who played Perchik, most of the main cast were seniors. They looked forward to graduating with the standard mix of anticipation and trepidation. Some were eager to escape from homes where they had rarely felt happy or safe. Some were reluctant to move far from a community they felt close to.

What “Fiddler” brought them was a new sense of family. Like any high school, Brighton had its cliques: “We had greasers and we had jocks and theater people and artists and writers,” said Strong. During other productions, each group had stayed in some way aloof from the others. In fictional Anatevka, those boundaries dissolved. For much of its cast and crew, they never came back. “It was,” said Kathleen Wakefield, “an amazing experience.”

Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding scene, after Perchik and Hodel start the controversial mixed-gender dancing. Courtesy of Ginny Hammond Sobota

That strange openness was reassuring, even propulsive. It gave the students a sense that even as they were beginning to separate, with various degrees of readiness, from their families, the world would present them with opportunities to make new ones. Tevye’s family fractures and reforms, but the musical ends hopefully: The Jews have been exiled, they are going their separate ways, but they are clearly and determinedly looking forward.

So, too, the cast felt the possibility of reformation — a glimpse of it, just when, for many of them, it was needed.

“It gave my life meaning at a time when I didn’t feel I had any,” Kasdin said. “It gave me an identity, and it gave me love.”

There was almost no set to speak of, just a few scraps of painted wood. The cast made many of their own costumes. The theater crowd wasn’t big enough to round out the cast with Cossacks, so the football team was strong-armed into filling out their ranks. Anna Lank taught them to dance, with “frustration, elation and pride.”

It was a high school production if ever there was one: a bit ramshackle, very homemade. It didn’t matter. The heart was there.

“A friend of mine reported to me that when she attended the play she happened to be sitting behind my mother in the audience,” Strong said, “and that my mother pretty much just cried from the moment the orchestra started straight through to when it ended.”

Rebecca Dvorin Strong as Chava (L) and Ginny Hammond Sobota as Tzeitel (R) perform “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Courtesy of Virginia Hammond Sobota

Strong loved “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” best. Performing it with Kathleen Wakefield and Ginny Hammond Sobota was an experience of intense connection. “We were holding hands, we were just revving ourselves up for bursting onto stage with the most excitement we could muster,” she said.

Keith Parsky, as Tevye, performs “If I Were a Rich Man.” Courtesy of Ginny Hammond Sobota

Parsky was partial to “If I Were a Rich Man” and the show-closing “Anatevka,” but best of all was “To Life.” He loved the sense of community in that scene, and the simple hope of its message. It was about, he said, “everybody’s aspirations to have a good life, and to be that happy.”

Lank was touched most by Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding. Susan Boehm loved “Do You Love Me;” so did Karin Kasdin. Singing that song with Keith, she said, “I felt like his wife through and through.”

The magic behind the scenes found its way to the audience. “People seemed to like the show, and they talked about it for years,” Parsky said. For decades, whenever Anna Lank went back to Brighton, people still identified her as Fruma Sarah

The theater was at capacity every night, and each performance ended, according to the student newspaper, with a standing ovation. “The play was certainly an excellent experience for BHS,” its reviewer wrote. “One that will long be remembered.”

And then, with much of the cast crying as the final curtain went down, it ended.

A review of “Fiddler on the Roof” in the Brighton High School newspaper, Trapezoid, from December 20, 1971. Courtesy of Rebecca Dvorin Strong

“There was a profound sense of loss,” said Rebecca Dvorin Strong, “of this imaginary family that I was a part of, and these imaginary parents who were my parents onstage, and the whole imaginary village and community.”

“People knew me as Tevye, after that,” Parsky said. “It was like peaking at 18. Where does it go from here?”

The seniors left. The family broke apart. Dealing with school after they left “was impossible,” said Karin Kasdin. “I hated it. I absolutely hated it.” She kept acting in community theater, but no student production could ever measure up. “I never did another big musical at Brighton High.”

In the spring, just before most of the main cast graduated, many of them made a pilgrimage. A nearby Catholic high school was performing its own “Fiddler,” and they wanted to see.

“When they were doing one of the scenes at the start of the Sabbath prayer, the guys took their hats off,” Ginny Hammond Sobota said. It was a misunderstanding of Jewish tradition if ever there was one. “We were cracking up. We thought that was so funny.”

“Their set was so unbelievable,” John Sloman said. “It looked like they lived in the Swiss Alps.”

It wasn’t just that watching a Catholic high school’s idiosyncratic take on their very beloved, very Jewish show was strange. It was also that after their own “Fiddler,” nothing else would ever compare.

Anna Lank, in the green gown and pearls, performs as Fruma Sarah. Courtesy of Rebecca Dvorin Strong

Kathleen Wakefield never saw the musical again: “The experience of the play was what I wanted to hold dear, and close to me,” she said. For many, the movie was a disappointment. “I don’t really have any recollection of it being important,” said Sloman. “I thought that, you know, ours was the be-all and end-all.”

“I didn’t love Topol, in that role, to be honest” said Susan Boehm. “I thought Keith was more appealing.”

The resonance they found in the show, together, was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. “I still, whenever I hear ‘Tradition,’ I lift my hands and do the hand motions we did,” Sobota said.

For some of the cast, it wasn’t just the ending of a play, but also the ending of a way of Jewish life they would never quite recapture.

Some Brightonites stayed their whole lives, but the “Fiddler” cast scattered. Their sense that they lived in a changing world, a force that had helped make “Fiddler” so powerful, carried them forward. In the end, many of their lives looked little like the lives that their parents — who, Anna Lank said, “all made that deliberate decision to live in a community with like-minded and like-religioned people” — might have imagined.

Many of those changes were for the good. Like Tevye’s three oldest girls, the Brighton students chose their own paths. Some of the Jewish cast stayed observant, and some didn’t. Some sought out close-knit Jewish communities for their own children; for others, it wasn’t a high priority. Despite his family’s warnings, Keith Parsky married someone who isn’t Jewish. So did Lank, although Lank’s husband recently converted, and Strong. “I don’t think that’s because I played Chava,” Strong said. “I think that’s just a coincidence.”

John Sloman, as Motel, and Ginny Hammond, as Tzeitel, stand under the chuppah during their wedding scene. Courtesy of Ginny Hammond Sobota

But one of the lessons of “Fiddler” is that even choices that bring happiness have costs. When Hodel joins Perchik, her joy is inflected by grief at leaving home far behind. Like Anatevka, said Kasdin, Brighton’s Jewish community was “very tight, very supportive.”

Leaving was hard, but she didn’t regret it. Even so, she said, “I never did find that again.”

“The Jewish communities I’ve found since then gave rise to different sorts of communal experiences,” Anna Lank said. “But never that intense.”

“In my mind, they’re inextricably linked — my leaving Brighton, and leaving Anatevka.”

In some ways, Brighton hasn’t changed. Rochester’s population has continued to decline, but Brighton’s has stayed level. Effectively the same number of people live there now as in the 1970s. My dad’s childhood home — “stucco,” John Sloman recalled, “with a little triangular entranceway” — looks just the same. My grandmother still lives there.

But synagogue membership has gone down. And the high school recently renovated its theater. “It’s only recently that I’ve stopped expecting to be recognized when I go back,” said my dad.

Sloman became an actor and acting coach. You’ve seen him on “Mad Men,” or perhaps “General Hospital.” He came to the theater in a time of personal crisis, and it helped him move forward.

That was in part, he said, because of the guidance of Tom Avery, who directed “Fiddler.” “No one ever loved the theater more than him,” Sloman said. “He was tough on me, because he knew that he had to toughen me up. He knew where I was going, maybe before I did.”

Susan Boehm and Tom Avery

Susan Boehm and Tom Avery, who directed “Fiddler on the Roof,” performing in a community theater production in Brighton. Courtesy of Susan Boehm

After college, Susan Boehm moved to New York and studied with Sanford Meisner, one of the great acting teachers of the 20th century. She performed on and off Broadway, and across the country, doing some theatrical producing along the way. In the late ’90s, she decided she’d had enough of performing, but kept working on the business side of the film industry.

Lank spent years in the theater, including as a founding member of an avant garde Jewish theater company, The New Artef Players, that aimed to capture the spirit of the old Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side. Karin Kasdin founded a community acting school in suburban Pennsylvania, the Kasdin School of Dramatic Arts, and ran it for close to two decades. Rebecca Dvorin Strong became a painter, and Kathleen Wakefield, a poet. My dad did some musical theater, mostly Gilbert and Sullivan, late in college and early in graduate school. After that, he stopped performing until the pandemic, when he began taking voice lessons, surprising us all with a singing voice so powerful that, if you’re around when he’s practicing, you sometimes have to leave the house to concentrate.

And Keith Parsky — well, he almost became an actor. He studied theater in college, and environmental law, with the understanding that if theater didn’t work out, he could fall back on his legal training. He graduated in three years, and had an audition lined up at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world. One night in January 1975, living with his family in Brighton while he planned out his future, he and his father had a heart-to-heart. They drank a six-pack, and Parsky told his father that he knew he wanted him to pursue law, not acting.

“He said, ‘No, son, I’m your biggest fan, I just want you to have something — like any father,’” Parsky said.

Parsky left to see a friend. He was there for about five minutes before his mother called and said, “Come home quickly, your father’s sick.” There was snow, and the roads were difficult. “I get there in time to see my dad being carried out,” Parsky said. “I was the last person to talk to him. He had a massive coronary, he passed away that night. So I went to law school.”

He didn’t mind practicing law, and when he made a midcareer switch to being a TV anchor, spending a few years as an evening news host in Guam, it felt like a way of honoring his old dramatic dreams. (These days, he’s back to the legal side of things and working at the Department of the Interior.)

And Tevye, his one tremendous role, stayed in his life.

“One of my sons got to play Tevye in junior high,” Parsky said. “I said to him, his son — or daughter — is destined to play Tevye. ‘Fiddler’ has been good to our family.”

It’s the end of the night. The students of Brighton High School pace the stage in a slow circle. Their characters will always exist in relation to one another, but their footsteps suggest a journey: They are moving further and further from home.

“It was solemn,” said John Sloman, “and horrible.”

A ticket for “Fiddler on the Roof.” Courtesy of Susan Boehm

With the release of the movie, just weeks before a full spot first came up on Keith Parsky, center stage, “Fiddler on the Roof” had become a true global phenomenon. Across the world, people of all faiths and cultures watched Tevye, Golde and their girls try to hold their own in a changing world, and saw, in that clan of weary, fierce Jews, their own families, and their own stories.

The stories of Brighton High could, in a way, belong to anyone in the world who happened to hear Jerry Bock’s songs and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics at the right moment, and found, within them, a small but accurate portrait of the world.

And yet.

The final bit of dialogue in the movie belongs to Tevye. “All right, children,” he says, to his two youngest daughters, “let’s go.” It’s an instruction, and an invitation. The eldest girls, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, have made their own way. Soon, even with the long and difficult road ahead of them, these two girls will, as well. There is a clarity, in those words, about the perpetual moving away involved in human life — from youth, home, family, health — that is both universal and particular.

Tevye is addressing his girls, with all their individuality, and with all his unspoken questions about where their uncertain futures will take them, and who they will become. And he is addressing all of us. We will all, at some point, have to leave the familiar behind. We might as well do it briskly, and with humor.

Every person to experience “Fiddler on the Roof” becomes, for a moment, Tevye’s child, looking out alongside him at a waiting expanse, preparing to go. For the students of Brighton High, that moment was a perfectly individual experience.

It was new, because it was theirs.

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