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Across the Former Soviet Union with Few Jews in the Theater, ‘fiddler’-like Play Still Hot in Ukrain

On a recent Friday night, hundreds of people at a Kiev theater watched as a few people lit Shabbat candles and said the traditional blessings. This wasn’t a religious service or an outreach session aimed at teaching Jews about their heritage; in fact, there were no Jews among those lighting candles — and probably just a handful of them in the audience.

Instead, the ceremony was part of a sold-out performance of “Tevye the Milkman,” which is enjoying its 16th season this year at the Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theater in Kiev.

The play, by the Russian Jewish author Grigory Gorin, is based on the writings of the Yiddish classic Sholem Aleichem. Its plot is similar to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The ongoing success of the show is attributed to the high quality of the production, the brilliant performance by the actor Bogdan Stupka as Tevye, and the never-ending interest of many Ukrainians in Jewish culture.

One of the spectators said the success of the Jewish story with a mainly non-Jewish public is easy to explain.

“It’s an outstanding story with beautiful music and dances and the spectacular acting by Bogdan Stupka. This combination makes the show a great success in Ukraine, the motherland of Sholem Aleichem,” said Sergei Komissarenko, a former Ukrainian Cabinet member and Ukraine’s former ambassador to London.

He said this was his sixth time seeing “Tevye,” the first being back in 1990 when he accompanied Ukraine’s first post-Communist president, Leonid Kravchuk, to the show.

Stupka, 65, who plays the protagonist, is himself not Jewish. Yet his character seems to know how a non-Jew can so poignantly portray a Jewish man.

“The Ukrainians are the closest to Jews” of all the people among whom they live, says Stupka’s Tevye during the show.

Offstage, Stupka finds another way of explaining this phenomenon.

“The life of an actor is similar to wandering stars, to the fate of Jews,” he told JTA after the performance, referring to the title of another book by Sholem Aleichem, “The Wandering Stars.”

Stupka is widely recognized in his own country as Ukraine’s most famous actor, and many think that Tevye is his most memorable stage role over the last 10 years.

“Stupka gets into the psychology of his character to complete reincarnation on stage. His laugh through tears is the laugh of Sholem Aleichem,” said Alexander Zlotnik, a popular Ukrainian composer and the president of the Association of Reform Jewish Congregations in Ukraine.

Stupka said he had contact with Jews as a child. Born in a region of Western Ukraine once densely populated by Jews, he was brought up and educated in a region where Jewish life and tradition was kept alive even after the Holocaust.

“At home and in the theater — everywhere I lived and communicated with Jews. In Western Ukraine, where I grew up, many Jews were very religious. Sometimes, I got to see how they celebrated Jewish holidays,” recalls Stupka, who on stage as Tevye speaks about the importance of keeping Jewish tradition alive.

Non-Jewish viewers say they come to see the production not only for the quality of the acting and the memorable songs, but also to get acquainted with Jewish culture.

“I’ve always been fond of Sholem Aleichem’s stories. I like them very much and find that the life of Tevye’s family must have been very familiar to my grandparents, who lived side by side with Jewish people,” said Oksana Vishnya, a non-Jewish college student from Kiev whose family comes from Berdichev, a town that was once a major Jewish center.

The Ivan Franko Theater, the nation’s leading Ukrainian-language drama company, stages almost exclusively the works of Ukrainian authors. The theater managers say they consider the works of Sholem Aleichem, though originally written in Yiddish, to be a central part of Ukrainian heritage — and the audiences seem to agree.

We always have a full theater for ‘Tevye,’ and tickets are sold out far in advance of each show, said a theater administrator.

Some of the viewers said they were excited to see the Jewish rituals performed on stage, or even such basic Jewish attributes as yarmulkes and tefillin they rarely see in real life.

But the production of “Tevye” is not only a celebration of the Jewish experience, Stupka says.

This play is an inspiration to us all, Jews and non-Jews, serving as a universal affirmation of the inner strength and faith within each and every one of us, he said.

Stupka says the popularity of the production also lies in the fact that Sholem Aleichem wrote a timeless story while depicting a typical small-town Jewish family of his time.

Stupka adds that to him it was important that the production keeps going in spite of a recent outburst of anti-Semitic sentiments in Ukraine.

“It’s a tragedy when hostility between people has ethnic roots. Against this background of anti-Semitic incidents, we try to prove the opposite — the friendship between Ukrainians and Jews,” said Stupka, wiping sweat from his forehead after three hours on stage.

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