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Austrians Flock to Events Promoting Jewish Culture

July 10, 1997
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Violinist Alexei Biz knows what he did not want. “I never wanted to be `the Russian Jewish fiddler,’ the official `fiddler on the roof’ of Vienna,” he said. “I wanted to be cosmopolitan in music, exactly as I am in life.”

Biz’s latest high-profile job conflicted with that wish — to some extent.

The Moscow-born Jewish musician, who is in his mid-20s, played the fiddler in a successful Austrian run of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” this spring.

The production, called “Anatevka” in the German-language version, ran for two and a half months at Vienna’s leading musical comedy theater, Theater an der Wien, after premiering last year in the southern city of Klagenfurt.

It was the sixth time “Fiddler on the Roof” has played in Vienna since 1969.

The theater was packed every night and tickets were hard to get.

This was partly because of the show’s fame, but the main draw was Karl Merkatz, the star of a popular Viennese television sitcom, who played the lead, Tevye.

As the fiddler, Biz began the show, with a violin solo played from a box high in an ornate balcony overlooking the stage. He then remained on stage for much of the production.

“I love this musical,” said Biz, a short, lively man with dark curly hair. “Ever since I saw the film when I was 11 years old, I dreamed of playing it.”

Biz, who studied violin in Moscow, arrived in Vienna in 1989, at the age of 17.

“I walked across the Hungarian border with my violin on my back,” he said.

He continued his studies in Vienna and began working widely in the Austrian music scene, with live concerts, in theater productions, and for film and television.

He plays regularly with an Austrian Jewish singer, Timna Brauer, who sings Israeli, Yemenite and other Jewish music. The duo tours widely in Austria and elsewhere in Europe.

“I got the `Fiddler on the Roof’ job because when the late Shlomo Carlebach was on tour in Austria in 1994, I was asked to play with him,” he said. “We did a gig in Klagenfurt, where someone heard me and then contacted me to play `Fiddler.'”

About 180,000 Jews lived in Austria in 1938. Approximately wo-thirds of them fled before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, but virtually all who remained were killed in the Holocaust.

Today about 9,000 Jews are registered with the Jewish community, although community officials say as many as 20,000 Jews may live in the country.

Despite the small numbers of Jews — or perhaps because of them — there is increasing interest in Jewish culture in Austria.

The Vienna Jewish community sponsors a Jewish culture festival twice a year, and last November a monthlong festival of Austrian Jewish music, organized by an Austrian diplomat and sponsored by the Austrian government, took place in London.

“I know that in the light of recent history, a festival of Austrian-Jewish culture sounds like an oxymoron, but Jewish cultural life in our country is reawakening,” Emil Brix, the Austrian diplomat who conceived the festival, said at the time.

“We want to show in a Western European context the vitality of Jewish intellectual and cultural life in Austria today and the recognition it has received from state and city authorities,” Geraldine Auerbach, director of the London-based Jewish Music Heritage Trust, also said at the time.

There are three Jewish museums in Austria — one in Vienna and two in small provincial towns where no Jews have lived since the Holocaust.

At least six music groups in Austria specialize in klezmer and other Jewish music — some have Jewish members in the band, others are composed of non- Jewish musicians.

“One of the better klezmer groups is called the Goyim,” said Biz.

“None of them are Jews, but they are playing the music with great respect, with a great sense of taste.”

An official of the Vienna Jewish community said recently that Austrian interest in Jewish culture was a mixture of “displaying a stuffed Indian” and “honest efforts to do something with cultural and historical legacy.”

The lavish program for the Vienna production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” for example, included evocative photographs of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Eastern Europe, the words to traditional Yiddish songs and brief essays on Jewish culture.

Biz said that from his experience, the audience for Jewish music in Austria comes from leftist intelligentsia, from the middle class and from people with a guilty conscience about the past.

Some Austrians go to hear Jewish music as a political statement, to show solidarity with Jews and, by extension, with other minorities at a time when the far right is gaining strength.

Biz said this makes him uncomfortable.

“I don’t want it to be a political statement,” he said. “I want to go onstage and to hear, `Yeah! You play great, man!’ That’s it. I make music; I don’t make politics.”

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