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Fiddler, Then and Now

By Daniel S. Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith Chief Executive Officer


In the spring of 1969, I took the bus from Durham, New Hampshire, where I was studying at the state university, to Boston to see the national touring company’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Tevye was played by Paul Lipson, who had performed the role of the butcher Lazar Wolf on Broadway.

This production was being presented five years after its opening in New York. Though this was the touring company, it was the first “Broadway musical” I had ever seen. I was prepared: The fanfare that accompanied the Broadway show had rippled through the American Jewish community. Finally, a treatment of the Eastern European experience would be presented to the broader American public, addressing such issues as anti-Semitism, pogroms, discrimination, intermarriage and dislocation, through a brilliant interpretation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories and a score of memorable songs.

The stories had been presented before on the American stage. The acclaimed actor Maurice Schwartz played “Tevye der Milkhiger” in 1926 at his Yiddish Art Theater in New York. Schwartz reprised the role in the Yiddish-language film “Tevye” in 1939. But those productions played to Jewish, largely immigrant audiences.


Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
It would take the 1964 Broadway blockbuster, with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, to take the story of Tevye the milkman, his wife Golde, his five daughters and an assortment of characters from the mythical shtetl of Anatevka to international fame.

No less than five revivals of the show have been staged on Broadway since its original run of 3,225 performances closed in 1972. The original Tevye — Zero Mostel — was followed by such performers as Herschel Bernardi, Paul Lipson (who was Mostel’s understudy, but who appeared in his own right in the lead hundreds of times in various productions), Chaim Topol, Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein.

The 1971 film version, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Topol in the lead role, took the story from Broadway to movie theaters around the world. As with the musical, the movie was a success, explained by reviewers, historians and others as carrying with it a universal message that transcended the actual story of the trials and tribulations of a tiny Jewish town in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1905.

The Latest Revival — in Yiddish!

So, when it was announced that a new revival of “Fiddler,” this time in Yiddish, would be staged, I took note. Yiddish theater productions have been regularly staged in New York in recent years, usually in small venues and for shorts runs. This production, by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, opened last year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. It was an instant — and unexpected hit and received rave reviews. It was directed by Oscar and Tony Award-winner Joel Grey, with a translation by Shraga Friedman, from the Tel Aviv production in 1966.

Earlier this year, the show moved to a larger venue, Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, on 42nd Street in New York. As of this writing, its run has been extended into 2020.

I took no scientific poll of those in the audience, but from standing in line to get in, my guess is that maybe 10% could carry on a conversation in Yiddish. I was not in that group. There are subtitles (the theater calls them “supertitles”) in English and Russian, to accommodate the large Russian Jewish community in New York. The set is minimalist, with a large backdrop adorned only with the word “Torah” in extra-large Hebrew script. The music, so familiar to all of us, is ably conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, of the well-known Jewish musical family of the same name.

If only a small percentage of theatergoers understands the language (indeed, a number of the actors in the show are not native Yiddish speakers), what explains the success of this production?

The Sounds of Music, the Pull of Tradition

For me, it was as much about family as the music itself. Both my parents were born in Eastern Europe (Russia and Lithuania), in shtetlach not unlike Anatevka. As the cast members interacted with each other — in the kitchen or in the wedding scene or even in the brilliant dream scene in Tevye and Golde’s bedroom — I imagined myself looking and hearing exactly how my parents lived and spoke. My paternal grandfather was a tailor, and the storyline about Motl Kamzoyl’s quest for a sewing machine resonated clearly with me. Even the time frame of the story fit my parents experience. My mother was brought to the United States in 1903; my father in 1913.

I am one of those hundreds of thousands of Jews from my generation whose parents spoke Yiddish at home only when they didn’t want us to know what they were speaking about. That said, I did often strain to figure out what they were trying to say, so I can understand a little Yiddish. My father was a subscriber to the Yiddish daily Der Tog-Morgen Journal, which arrived by mail. Sometimes, I would try to figure out the headlines by sounding out the words. My mother also favored the Yiddish expressions of my grandmother, and I can still repeat a few of those.

But this is a three-hour show, so we relied heavily on the subtitles, notwithstanding our knowing the story and the songs. The acting is superb, and the music, because of the quality of the small orchestra, Mlotek’s direction and the excellent acoustics in the theater, made this Off-Broadway production a winner.

It’s the story, though, and its relevance today that was so gripping. With the spike in anti-Semitism globally, the story of Anatevka and its residents, wary and weary of the Czarist police and their fellow travelers, was a striking reminder of the deep vein of hatred aimed at us then, and that has surfaced globally in recent years.

And the story of the edict expelling the families in Anatevka was a stark reminder not only of the great immigration to America, but the miracle of the re-establishment of Israel as a Jewish State in 1948. In both instances, I thought of how fortunate we have been to have had both Ellis Island and Haifa Port in the lives of our people at such crucial moments in our history.

Many know the English lyrics of the songs in “Fiddler” by heart. How many weddings have been graced by “Sunrise, Sunset” over the years? One song in particular gets to me. Now that I have seen it performed in Yiddish, it speaks to me even more: “Vayt Fun Mayn Liber Heym” (“Far From the Home I Love,”) sung by Tevye’s daughter Hodl to her father as they wait at the train station, from which she is leaving to join her husband Perchik, who has been exiled to Siberia for political reasons.


With the Statue of Liberty silhouetted on the horizon, director and photographer Joel Grey imagines a sequel to the “Fiddler” story, depicting the ensemble as newly arrived immigrants in New York.
I think of my parents leaving the only homes they knew, for the New World. Even with the normal feelings of anticipation, and even with the Czarist yoke under which they lived, tearing themselves away from familiar surroundings to the unknown must have been wrenching.

For others, the production surely resonated in other ways. Indeed, when one enters the theater, on either side of the lobby there are tall signs with the word “Tradition!” in many different languages, a nod to the universal appeal of this magnificent production.

So thank you, Sholem Aleichem, Joseph Stein, Harnick and Bock, Jerome Robbins, and Joel Grey for enabling me to immerse myself in a musical that is not only great theater, but also great history.

My history.