If, like me, you’re an Ashkenazi American Jew whose grandfather was a poor tailor who fled Eastern Europe for America at the turn of the last century, you tend to think of “Fiddler on the Roof” as family history.
The story of “Fiddler” tailor Motel Kamzoil is my grandfather’s story, which is the way a lot of American Jews have always viewed the show.
Alisa Solomon, author of “Wonders of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof,” describes how the musical became the “Jewish American origin story.” Imperfectly, of course, since not everyone’s ancestors came from a poor shtetl, or Eastern Europe, or a pious family.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to separate “Fiddler,” which opened in 1964, from the very American Jewish milieu from which it sprang and to which it spoke. Rabbi Edward Feinstein writes that for American Jews, “Fiddler” is “the narrative we would like to believe about our beginnings.”
Which is why it was a little surprising to see Israel’s Mission to the United Nations host a by-invitation-only performance of the current Broadway revival to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Wednesday night’s audience of diplomats, Jewish organization types and assorted machers nibbled on cheese and crackers and sipped prosecco before sitting down to a performance of the musical, introduced with brief remarks by Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon.
“Fiddler” never struck me as a very Zionist musical, to say the least. When Tevye and his fellow villagers are forced out of Anatevke by the czarist police, they head for New York, Chicago and Krakow. Only Yente, the matchmaker, declares that she is going to the “Holy Land,” a detail I had completely forgotten from the movie and previous revivals. Perchik, the presumably socialist revolutionary, wants to transform Russian society, and doesn’t say a word about the political Zionists who sought to create a workers’ utopia in Palestine.
“There is nothing explicitly or even to my mind implicitly Zionist about it,” Solomon said in an interview this week. And yet, she said, “any story of Jewish persecution becomes from a Zionist perspective a Zionist story.”
That is the approach Danon took in his remarks. Watching the musical, he said, he couldn’t help think, “What if they had a place to go” where the Jews of Anatevke could “live as a free people in their own land? The whole play could have been quite different.”
His office also explained that the evening — the mission’s largest Yom Haatzmaut event to date — was part of an ongoing effort to present Jewish culture to U.N. diplomats who might have a one-dimensional view of Israel and Jews. In a statement, Danon called the performance “a window for the leaders of the world into our rich heritage,” saying it “allows them to better understand how vital the modern State of Israel is to the Jewish people.”
Israelis have always had a complicated relationship with “Fiddler,” Solomon told me. The first Hebrew production was brought to Israel in 1965 by impresario Giora Godik. American Jews were enthralled by its resurrection of Yiddishkeit, the Ashkenazi folk culture that their parents and grandparents had left behind and the Holocaust had all but erased. Israelis were less inclined to celebrate the “old country.” “Israelis were – what? – not exactly ashamed or hostile, but the Zionist enterprise was about moving away from that to become muscle Jews, and even denouncing the stereotype of the pasty, weakling Eastern European Jews,” said Solomon, warning that she was generalizing about a complex reality.
Still, Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish genius whose stories formed the basis for the musical, was – in Hebrew translation — a national literary hero. His plays and works based on his stories were already a staple of the Hebrew theater before 1965. In part as a result of Godik’s “Kanar Al Hagag” – a big Broadway-style production following his successful staging of “My Fair Lady” – Israel experienced a “kind of claiming and celebration of Yiddishkeit,” said Solomon.
And when Chaim Topol starred as Tevye in the 1971 movie, he immediately became the best-known Israeli outside of the country since Moshe Dayan and Golda Meier.
Composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and bookwriter Joseph Stein set out to write a hit musical, not a political statement or a Jewish version of a passion play. But that has never stopped audiences – and directors – from shaping the musical to their needs.
In the previous revival, in 2004, director David Leveaux excised a line from Yente’s speech about going to the Holy Land. In the original script, Yente tells Tevye’s wife Golde, “All my life, I’ve dreamed of going to one place” – Jerusalem. Adds Yente: “And you want to know what I’ll do there? I’m a matchmaker, no? I’ll arrange marriages, yes? So I’m going to the Holy Land to help our people increase and multiply. It’s my mission.”
The “increase and multiply” line was gone from the 2004 production – which was staged in the middle of the second intifada. In a review of “Wonder of Wonders,” Edward Shapiro conjectured that the producers of the revival didn’t want Yente to be seen as “a soldier in the demographic war between Jews and Arabs.”
Yente delivers the “increase and multiply” line in the current production.
Most reviews of this revival – starring Danny Burstein as a very affable Tevye – have noted its brief nod to current events. Burstein appears in the first scene bare-headed and in a present-day parka, reading the play’s opening lines from a hardcover book – a tourist, it seems, visiting the ghost town known as Anatevke. Burstein returns as the tourist in the final scene, joining the line of villagers as they drag their meager belongings behind them.
It’s an unmistakable reminder of the mostly Muslim migrants flooding Europe at the moment. In his review in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood calls the final tableau “an image that might have been taken from the front page of a newspaper on almost any day this year.”
There’s another image in the second act with contemporary echoes: soldiers pointing rifles at unarmed villagers, kerchiefed women huddled in their ramshackle homes. As old as the original production, it’s an image bound to give some Jews agita, and some critics of Israel ammunition. Solomon recalled a 2008 staging at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv – coinciding with Israel’s 60th anniversary – in which director Moshe Kepten drew a subtle comparison between the Jewish and Palestinian narratives of dispersal.
“He really wanted people to understand the dispossession of Palestinians through the exile of the Eastern European Jews,” said Solomon. “It was no big change, but it was something that concerned him.”
If anyone minded, it didn’t hurt the box office – the revival played for six years.