For a Jewish audience, among the oddest, least endearing aspects of “Fiddler on the Roof” are its gestures toward universality and inauthenticity. The characters say “Good Sabbath” (rather than “Good Shabbes”) to each other, the pogrom at the end is peculiarly non-violent to the point of seeming fake and the whole thing seems steeped in a retrospective, nostalgic haze, as if the characters are only marking time until their inevitable transplantation to their real Jewish homeland — America, where their love of individual liberty will finally be granted free rein.
This is why “Fidler Afn Dakh,” the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s new production of “Fiddler” in Yiddish, directed by Joel Grey, which opened last week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, is such a mechaye — an unalloyed pleasure. It may sound odd, but the Joseph Stein/Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical has never seemed so Jewish, so firmly ensconced in the particular space of Eastern European Jewish life. By using a translation done by the Polish Jewish theater artist Shraga Friedman that was first performed in Israel in 1965, but never staged in America until now, the Folksbiene has cast a new light on this most iconic of American musicals.
Like the Folksbiene’s glittering production of “The Golden Bride” a few years ago, this “Fiddler” is exceptionally well cast, beginning with Steven Skybell as Tevye. The tall, lanky actor (who appeared in the recent Broadway production of “Fiddler” as Lazar Wolf) bonds with the audience, as all Tevyes must do, in his signature solo, “Bin Ich a Rothschild” (“If I Were a Rich Man”). The song takes on new resonances when sung in Yiddish, the language shaped by centuries of poverty and longing. Indeed, it truly seems like an extension of his entrance line as he drags his milk cans onto the stage, “Haynt bin ich a ferd” (“Today I am a horse”), with its mournful, single syllable words drumming into the ear.
Rather than simply conjure up images of wealth, the song now speaks much more specifically to aspects of Jewish tradition — to be rich, according to the Yiddish lyrics, is to be able to be a “zeydl eydl man” (a noble — literally, “silk” — gentleman), or to have the knowledge to understand not just the rabbi’s words, but the cantor’s singing as well.
Skybell is supported by a solid cast. Mary Illes plays his wife Golde, with a tight-lipped severity, although she melts in winning fashion in their two-act duet, “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” (“Do You Love Me?”). The three principal daughters, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason) and Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy) all have soaring, beautiful voices — the first two have appeared in other recent Folksbiene musical productions, while the third is making a notable New York debut. Their respective beaux, Motl Kamzoyl (Ben Liebert), Pertshik (Daniel Kahn), and Fyedke (Cameron Johnson), also acquit themselves well. (Kahn is a singer/songwriter with the Berlin-based klezmer band, The Painted Bird.) Casting the stand-up comic Jackie Hoffman as Yente the Matchmaker is a clever idea, but her use of Yiddish is awkward and halting, which detracts from her voluble character’s comic brio. Bruce Sabath is credible as the aggrieved suitor, Leyzer-Volf.
Grey is faced with the same challenge that often bedevils the Folksbiene’s productions — the stage is too small for such a large cast. This is particularly evident in the dancing sequences, choreographed by Staś Kmieć, who is considered the foremost expert in America on Polish dance. Reimagining Jerome Robbins’ five major dance sequences in “Fiddler” is popular nowadays; the recent Broadway revival was re-choreographed by the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, who infused the actors’ movements with greater emotional depth and had them periodically sliding along the floor. What stands out in Kmieć’s choreography, much more than the tried and true circle dances and the familiar, crowd-pleasing bottle-dancing in Act II, is the sense of menace that the Russian Orthodox Christian characters bring; after Tevye and Leyzer-Volf’s comic scene in the tavern, the Russians spin Tevye around, scaring him and foreshadowing what is to come at the end.
A less sanitized “Fiddler” is a good thing all around. Rather than Anatevka seeming quaint and old-fashioned, it now vibrates with a new energy. Yes, there are some odd, anachronistic touches, like a villager who, somewhat ridiculously, carries around stacks of bagels on short sticks (in Eastern Europe, the bagels would have been a lot smaller, and the sticks a lot longer). But when Tevye accepts Leyzer-Volf’s gift to his daughter, Tzaytl and her new husband, calling Motel a “frish gebakenem man” (a “freshly baked” husband), or when Tevye finally blesses the engagement between Hodel and Perchik, intoning “Solakhti kidvorekho” (“I pardon, as you have requested,” from Numbers 14:20, which is the Hebrew phrase used on Yom Kippur to anticipate God’s forgiveness of sin), the musical seems much more rooted in Jewish tradition — and in the original Tevye stories by Sholem Aleichem, upon which Shraga based much of the translation — than the English language version ever did.
For the most part, this is a pretty bare bones production. The stage is dominated by large sheets of wrinkled brown paper, with a single word — Torah — written in Hebrew one the one in the center. (It will get ripped in half, and the sutured back together, as the story unfolds.) There were times when I wished for a more lavish setting, as in the elegant, klezmer-infused version that Moni Ovadia staged in Italy in 2003, also in Yiddish. But when the cast sings “Tog-Ayn, Tog-Oys” (“Sunrise, Sunset”), the power of “Fiddler” to evoke tears comes through just the same.
In recent years, thanks to the New Yiddish Rep, “Death of a Salesman” and “Awake and Sing!” have both been performed in Yiddish. Some recent English-language productions of “The Merchant of Venice” have had Jewish characters, including both Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, sing in Yiddish. The awareness is growing that performing Jewish plays and musicals in Yiddish, or incorporating Yiddish in theatrical works with Jewish themes, puts both a new and an old spin on them. Indeed, the use of Yiddish enriches, enhances and enlivens Jewish works by putting the audience in the place of a Jewish immigrant audience a century ago, experiencing Jewish theater as part of the fabric of their being — as, indeed, the expression of their own dreams, like those of the characters in “Fiddler,” of a better, happier, and yes, more prosperous life.
“Fidler Afn Dakh” runs through Sept. 2 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place. Performances are on Wednesdays at 1 p.m., Thursdays at 1 and 7 p.m., Fridays at noon, Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., and Mondays at 7 p.m. For tickets, $75-$120, visit nytf.org or call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111.