Other than the figures in the Bible, no Jewish character has captivated the world’s imagination as much as Tevye, the humble Jewish dairyman from Anatevka. But while he is most familiar from the 1960s Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and its 1971 film version, his creator, Sholem Aleichem, wrote many stories about Tevye and his family that did not end up being used in the musical. Now comes “Tevye Served Raw,” an irreverent Off-Broadway take, in Yiddish, of some of these other tales, along with other stories, unrelated to Tevye, from the author’s canon. The show arrives just as the venerable Folksbiene is premiering its own version of “Fiddler” in Yiddish. For those who have never encountered Tevye in his native language, the time is ripe for taking a new view of Tevye’s relationship to Yiddishkeit, and for deepening our appreciation of the religious and cultural roots of this now-universal character.
Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich grew up in the shtetl of Voronko (now central Ukraine). His mother died from cholera when he was 13. After graduating from a Russian gymnasium and starting to write — his first effort was an alphabetic glossary of his stepmother’s Yiddish curses —he got a job tutoring the daughter, Olga (Hodel) Loev, of a wealthy landowner. Three years later, he married her and was hired as crown rabbi — not a religious functionary, but a Czarist-imposed registrar of Jewish births, marriages, divorces and the like.
The couple soon inherited her father’s estate, but then lost everything in a stock speculation; they had to flee from their creditors. The pair had five children and then, with the rise of pogroms against the Jews at the turn of the twentieth century, emigrated to New York. Although he had started writing in Hebrew, Rabinovich became a Yiddish writer, ultimately penning more than 40 volumes, including not just short stories, but novels and plays as well. He died in 1916; his funeral attracted hundreds of thousands of mourners, making it among the largest funerals ever seen in the city.
Ironically, the author’s own stage adaptation of the Tevye stories was never performed in his lifetime. He sent it to the Yiddish actor and producer Jacob Adler, with a cover note: “You will find only a simple Jew, the father of five daughters, an honest, clean, wholesome, and greatly suffering character who, with all his misfortunes, will make the public laugh from beginning to end.” But Adler turned it down, because it did not contain a romantic lead role for himself. Three years after the author died, Maurice Schwartz of the Yiddish Arts Theatre bought the rights from his widow and starred as Tevye to great acclaim. Schwartz’s film version, which was released in 1939, is considered a masterpiece—the film, as Judy Stone, the late movie critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, memorably wrote, “first showed Tevye the Dairyman in his full light as a mensch for all seasons.”
“Tevye Served Raw” grew out of an appearance by Shane Baker, the well-known non-Jewish Yiddish translator and performer, at the annual reading of Sholem Aleichem’s will, which is a major event in the Yiddish world in New York, although much of the evening’s festivities are conducted in English. In tandem with the married couple Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, Baker presented “S’a Lign” (It’s Baloney!), in which the banter between a man and woman who are seated next to each other on a train turns into an increasingly heated and tense interaction.
Along with a couple of Teyve stories, the trio performed it again at the New York Public Library in 2016, which was the centennial of Sholem Aleichem’s death. Over the last few years, they have presented it in Los Angeles, Kiev, Toronto and other cities. A planned production in New York during the run of the most recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” starring Danny Burstyn, failed to materialize, but now that “Fiddler” is being done in Yiddish by the Folksbiene, the stars finally seem to have aligned for “Tevye Served Raw.”
In an interview, Baker, who calls himself the “best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage,” told The Jewish Week that Sholem Aleichem “tried to catch Yiddish with both hands like sand from a beach. His stories capture the changes from the shtetl to the modern world.” In addition to “S’a Lign,” the show includes “Kotoynti” (What, Me Worthy?), “Lekh Lecho” (Get Thee Gone), “Mayne Loshn fun a Shtifmame” (A Stepmother’s Trash Talk”), and other stories, some of which use Aleichem’s own theatrical adaptations. The show will be performed in Yiddish with English supertitles.
Like “Fiddler,” Baker said, the Tevye stories have a universal appeal. When he performed a Tevye monologue in South Africa, he recalled, “the black South Africans completely understood Tevye’s situation—they had been themselves evicted from their homes.” Now, with so much movement of immigrants and refugees across the globe, the dispossession of the Jews from Eastern Europe cannot help but resonate. “It’s all, still, bizarrely, going on in the world,” the actor pointed out. Baker knows well how universal a Yiddish play can be; he has also performed all over the world as Vladimir in his own Yiddish adaptation of “Waiting for Godot” for the New Yiddish Rep.
Rickman and Shmulenson appeared together in the Coen Brothers film “A Serious Man.” Rickman has also performed in numerous films and television shows, including the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in which he played Red Skelton. In an interview, Rickman, who plays Tevye (and also directs, and who did the translation) told The Jewish Week that there are important differences between the Tevye who appears in “Fiddler” and the one who was invented by Sholem Aleichem. “In the musical,” he said, “the religious element is treated as quaint and sweet, as a reminder of what grandpa used to do. It’s written for humor.” In the original stories, by contrast, “Tevye’s religion is much more real and intense; he is fiercely devoted to it. He is a deep feeling person, with no craft, no calculation. He has a certain amount of pride, but no vanity.”
Furthermore, Rickman explained, “there is more of an organic connection in the stories between the situation of Eastern European Jews and Tevye’s family problems. Sholem Aleichem knew that he was preserving something that was ending. Like a sociologist, he wanted to preserve a picture of the life that was there.” Rickman pointed out that there was a real person named Tevye, a dairyman whom the author knew from his family vacations in Boyarka, a resort town about an hour outside Kiev, who brought milk, butter and cheese to their door. “He loved how colorful Teyve’s speech was,” Rickman said. Before long, the budding writer was crafting stories in which Tevye, in the first person, was supposedly dictating to him his adventures and family troubles.
Rickman, who hails from Far Rockaway, grew up in the 1960s watching television, which he calls “predigested, flavorless stuff cooked up to sell detergent.” He lamented that “all of our culture is designed to be chewed up and spit out.” But people “want to know where they came from. People are interested in roots, and that brings them to Sholem Aleichem.”
Shmulenson, who has also appeared in many films and television shows (including “Boardwalk Empire” and “Orange is the New Black”), grew up in the former Soviet Union, where, she recalled, every Jewish family had a six-volume edition of Sholem Aleichem’s works. Reading them in Russian when she was a teenager, she “never thought of them as folksy, or stereotypical—they were just what he was writing at the time.” She is enjoying playing a range of Jewish female characters in “Tevye Served Raw,” from the sweet-tempered Chava to “sharp-tongued harpies — shrewish Jewish women” like the screaming stepmother. But she noted that it is “always an uphill battle to convince people that this isn’t for your grandparents — this is for you. You’re the one with the connection to this language and culture.”
“Tevye Served Raw” runs through Aug. 14 at the Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St. There are two performances on Thursday, July 12 (3 and 7 p.m.), but then the show will be presented on Sunday-Tuesday at 7 p.m. For tickets, $38, call (800) 838-3006 or visit brownpapertickets.com.