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Finally, Sabbath-Observant Musicians Find A Home Off Broadway — In Yiddish ‘Fiddler’

Tradition was not lost when “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish moved uptown last month to Off-Broadway’s Stage 42 and the production decided to keep their Sabbath-observant orchestra players. It’s an unusual act for a high-caliber commercial show to permit subs during its opening weeks, and Tevye would be pleased.

Although most of the musicians identify as secular, its conductor, Zalmen Mlotek, also Artistic director of National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, is Sabbath-observant, along with trumpet player Jordan Hirsch and cellist Laura Melnicoff.

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish orchestra members

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish orchestra members: Sabina Torosjan, Lauren Thomas, Joshua Jönsson, Laura Melnicoff, Dmitry Ishenko, Valeriya Sholokhova, Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch and Oren Neiman. Image by Laura Melnicoff

The previous production ran from July through December last year at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is closed on Saturdays, therefore it automatically did not hold performances on Shabbat, aside for some rehearsals that ran into Shabbat eve – when those who were observant were permitted to leave early.

Directed by Joel Grey, the show remains the same (with just some minor stage changes), featuring the same lead actors and musicians. The looming question, as the show moved uptown, was whether the Broadway production would honor the past Shabbos-observant schedule, especially since Broadway usually demands the first 20 shows are withheld – which meant no substitutes.

“When we first discussed the production here, the idea of ‘shomer Shabbos’ [Sabbath observance] came up, but the commercial producers felt that Friday nights and Saturdays are the most popular days to attend,” said Mlotek, who became Sabbath-observant about 31 years ago.

After weeks of negotiations with the musician’s union for the orchestra, whose representative, Marlena Fitzpatrick, fought for their religious rights — the theater is now working with the orchestra’s Shabbos schedule by allowing Shabbos observers to find subs.

The authentic quality of the performance in the mame loshon lends a particularly real feel for the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1905, which makes the production’s respect for Shabbos observance all the more meaningful — particularly with the show’s powerful “Sabbath Prayer” segment.

For Mlotek, who has directed music for Broadway (for Tony nominated “Those Were the Days”), Off-Broadway and performed across the world, it’s the culmination of a dream come true. Ever since he heard the “Fiddler” album recorded in Yiddish in 1966 (a recording of the Yiddish performance in Israel), two years after it premiered in America on Broadway, Mlotek always wanted to conduct it in Yiddish. After 20 years at Folksbiene, whose mission is to bring Yiddish cultural works to new audiences, he finally got the chance last year by helping to secure the rights and mount the first “Yiddish Fiddler” to ever show in America.

“For me, conducting the show is an honor as it’s an incredible work in American National Theater and it’s a synthesis of my own yiddishkeit as well,” said Mlotek. “Since it’s based on works of Sholom Aleichem and since Yiddish was my first language it has special resonance for me.”

Mlotek lives in Teaneck, NJ and when Shabbos ends early enough before showtime, he performs in the Saturday evening performances. “After conducting the show five times a week it’s poignant for me to go home on Fridays and know that several hundred New Yorkers are spending Shabbos seeing Fiddler,” said Mlotek. “That’s their Shabbos. The vast majority of American Jewry are not shomer Shabbos, but the idea of them doing something connected to their Jewishness, whether it’s their intention or not, the fact that they see a family observing Shabbos on stage, is poignant for me.”

The troupe performed at Museum of Jewish Heritage a total of 134 performances, with over 50,000 people attending packed audiences. It’s now been extended through September, and is hosted by the largest Off Broadway space in New York City, with a capacity of 499 seats.

Growing up on New York’s Upper West Side, Melnicoff began learning cello at age six. She joined school orchestras and chamber groups, playing quartet in Tel Aviv University and interning with the Israel Philharmonic. She later became observant and is now a Hasidic mother living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she performs with local musicians at community events for women. “Fiddler” was a big break in her career as a religious female musician.

“Because I’m a woman, I don’t get hired for gigs like weddings, so I can’t look for Orthodox music gigs,” Melnicoff shared. “If you want growth, it’s not coming from there.”

Melnicoff’s sub for Shabbos is Valeriya Sholokhova, a fellow cello student from her childhood. They shared the same cello teacher for years, attended middle school together at Special Music School at the Elaine Kaufmann Cultural Center, and took music classes together there through high school. Both further pursued classical music; Sholokhova is a graduate of the Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. Valeriya was the original cellist for the production of “Fiddler” at the Museum, and passed the chair on to Melnicoff when the show was extended so that she could pursue other projects.

“Now that we’re working the standard Broadway/Off-Broadway schedule, I need a steady stream of non-Jewish subs to be available to play for me on Shabbos,” said Melnicoff. “Valeriya and I have found our relationship to have worked out beautifully for this. I have a consistent sub to rely on for Shabbos, and she remains an important member of the orchestra for a show that means a lot to her too.”

Trumpet player, Jordan Hirsch, also became observant on his own — at the age of 13 — and now lives in Teaneck. “I never expected to play seriously as a musician because I’m shomer Shabbos,” he told the Forward. His early career started with playing weddings, NCSY shabbotons and events in the commercial Jewish music business. “I grew as a classical trumpet in the Brooklyn College Conservatory program, but it was not on the menu to go far with it. I played kleyzmer and Yiddish, but if you don’t work [in that niche] you can’t get far.”

About ten years ago, Hirsch met Mlotek while performing for “Shlemiel The First” in NJ. “Many at Folksbiene were sensitive to Shabbos observers. Because they were not having performances on Shabbos, I felt I could participate in Fiddler Downtown, it was a big step up,” Hirsch said. “A precedent has been set for the future, so now if an observant musician gets a job for a Broadway show, the union can advocate and say it’s been done, as long as you have a sub. It creates opportunities for high-level music, and here a high level production is making it possible, it’s very miraculous.”

Miracle of miracles, indeed.

Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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