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Fiddling With Tradition: Does Musical Misstep?

Mel Gibson isn’t the only director generating a heated debate over his depiction of Jews.

As “The Passion of the Christ” racked up more than $200 million at movie theaters in just two weeks and generated loads of media attention, a burgeoning debate has emerged over the latest Broadway incarnation of “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by David Leveaux. Reviewers in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the New York Jewish Week and the Village Voice have all complained that the new production is not Jewish enough, while other critics, including John Heilpern of the New York Observer, have essentially dismissed such complaints as unmerited carping fueled by a misplaced sense of nostalgia.

Leading the attacks on the current production is novelist Thane Rosenbaum, a child of Holocaust survivors who frequently writes on issues of Jewish identity and memory.

“The sense is as if you’re sampling something that tastes great and looks Jewish, but isn’t entirely kosher,” Rosenbaum wrote in his February 15 review for the L.A. Times. Among other things, he complained about the choice of the non-Jewish Alfred Molina to play the Eastern European milkman made famous by Zero Mostel in the original 1964 production. Given the “immersion of Jews in American culture,” Rosenbaum wrote, “it should come as no surprise that the new-look Tevye doesn’t have to be a played by a Jewish actor….as if Tevye is now a universal paradigm of every persecuted, over-labored working stiff and not some artifact of vanished European Jewry.”

In an even harsher critique, published in the February 27 issue of the Jewish Week, Ted Merwin argued that Molina “never even seems remotely Jewish” and accused Leveaux and his crew of having “expunged [the show’s] Jewish soul.”

The problem, however, is not Molina’s Spanish-Italian roots or Leveaux’s refreshing creative choices, but the critics themselves, or more precisely, their misguided definitions of Jewish authenticity and lack of imagination when it comes to “Fiddler.”

“I don’t remember any fuss when Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard, played Guido, an Italian, in ‘Nine,’” wrote Heilpern in the March 4 New York Observer. “Actors act, and Mr. Molina is a very fine actor. He isn’t Zero Mostel or Topol; nor is he trying to be. But where is it written that only a Jew can play a Jew? If that were the case, Laurence Olivier, the son of a priest, wouldn’t have given us his memorable Shylock, and Nathan Lane, a Catholic, wouldn’t have been able to play Max Bialystock.”

Critics are also standing on shaky ground when they take aim at Leveaux’s set — as if the original production supplied an accurate portrait of shtetl life. As several critics of the critics have pointed out, the decades-long romance between American Jews and “Fiddler” has always been fueled by nostalgia not for an actual place but a mythical past, the virtual memory of which brought comfort to a people cut off from their roots by immigration, the Holocaust and assimilation.

Leveaux’s real crime, then, is robbing an aging Jewish crowd of the comfort that its derives from a “Fiddler” performed just like Mostel would have done it four decades ago, replete with Yiddishy shmaltz. The only problem is that such a performance would work for younger audiences about as well as Henny Youngman taking Jerry’s place in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

As Heilpern put it in his review for the New York Observer: “If you’re going to revive Fiddler for what seems like the hundredth time, you either stage it as a museum piece to pander to the traditionalists, or you upset the milk cart by trying to breathe new life into it, as Mr. Leveaux has boldly done here.”

A key change — and probably the most difficult for critics to accept — is that Molina plays a more subdued Tevye than his predecessors. But that hardly makes the show less Jewish, unless you define Jewishness as scene-stealing Mostellian shtick.

By offering up a relatively straight Tevye, Molina and Leveaux have demonstrated that the show can be something more than a time-warp for Jewish audiences of a certain vintage.

For starters, Molina’s performance allows the daughters to claim a more prominent role, establishing a compelling dramatic balance between generations — something lacking in two recent cinematic efforts that also grappled with the universal themes that so infuse “Fiddler.” Both “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Bend it Like Beckham,” chronicled the struggle of a daughter of immigrants to shed some of the seemingly backwards traditionalism of her two-dimensional, albeit loveable, father.

More than either of these sleeper hits of recent years, “Fiddler” has the courage to acknowledge that the weakening of tradition, while surely a boon for individualism, can have dire consequences. The musical does not flinch from the reality that change is often a tradeoff: Tevye, his wife and their two youngest daughters are destined to experience the greatness of America, but the fallout from the Russian Revolution will probably spell the end of the three daughters and their husbands left behind.

In the end, the Jewishness (and greatness) of “Fiddler” is not measured in Yiddish accents or shtick, but by its portrayal of change and tradition as a dangerous dialectic — experienced by a struggling milkman who never loses his sense of humor.

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