‘Fiddler on the Roof’: A Tradition for American Jewry

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Fiddler on the Roof will run at the Academy of Music from Oct. 23-28. | Joan Marcus

I was 11 the first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof.

The 1971 film version of the musical left me completely enchanted. I laughed at Tevye and Lazar Wolf’s misunderstanding over the milk cow. I cried when the Russians ransacked Tzeitel’s wedding. A few years later, I even dragged my family to a city a few hours away to catch Chaim Topol, who played Tevye in the film, in his farewell Fiddler on the Roof tour.

For many American Jews, Fiddler has come to define shtetl life. Anatevka and the characters that live there are what they imagine — regardless of its historical accuracy — when they think of their own roots. Its music has been heard at many simchas. The story manages to create a sense of nostalgia for a time and place that most of its audience members never experienced.

“Now, it’s a kind of standard thing that has entered American life, that has entered Jewish life,” said Edna Nahshon, professor of Jewish theater and drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The music is well known. Every other Bar Mitzvah and wedding has a touch of Fiddler.”

Fiddler on the Roof will open at the Academy of Music on Oct. 23. The national tour begins in Syracuse, N.Y., on Oct. 17, but Philadelphia represents the show’s second stop and its first major city. The show will run here until Oct. 28.

“It’s this humor, this Jewish humor. … For me, [Fiddler] has a lot to do with the tradition, with the community,” said Yehezkel Lazarov, the Israeli performer who plays Tevye. “It’s about family. It’s about how a person is bringing his own tragic destiny to himself, how we create our own destiny.”

Fiddler’s roots stretch back to the very time period the story is set in — the turn of the 20th century, which had seen the decline of shtetl culture in Eastern Europe. Industrialization in the second half of the 1800s had led to poverty in the Pale of Settlement and the migration of people from smaller towns to bigger cities. Anti-Semitism, including pogroms and then later the Holocaust, struck the final blow. Jewish communities were slaughtered, forced out or fled.  

In the late 19th century, Solomon Rabinovich began writing Yiddish-language short stories under the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem. His most famous were about Tevye the dairyman and his daughters.

These stories became the inspiration for a 1939 Yiddish-language film called Tevye and then later for Fiddler on the Roof, which debuted on Broadway in 1964.  

There were a few significant differences between Sholem Aleichem’s stories and the Broadway musical. The musical, Nahshon said, presented an Americanized version. For example, at the end of musical when he is forced to leave Russia, Tevye heads to New York, but in the original stories, he doesn’t know where he will go next.

The musical debuted at a time when white ethnic groups were starting to come into their own, Nahshon said. Jewish audiences at the time were mostly third-generation Americans. They didn’t go to the Yiddish theater anymore, but were not yet as accomplished as Jewish people today. They were store owners and accountants, Nahshon said, not in the White House.

Fiddler gave them representation on the stage.

“The [immigration] stories were still somewhat alive,” Nahshon said. “They had heard it in their families, but to have it onstage was a declaration of self, of self-hood, of identity.”   

The musical was a smash hit. It won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, best performance by a leading actor in a musical and best director. It became the longest-running musical on Broadway at the time, until Grease surpassed it a decade later. It gained international popularity as well, with productions all over the world.

“It’s, ‘Yeah, they liked it, we don’t have to be ashamed,’” Nahshon said. “‘We don’t have to talk about it only in Jewish circles. The world likes it. They like us.’”

Lazarov first watched the film when he was child. He saw a stage version a few years ago for the first time as well. In preparation for the performances, through, he has avoided watching Fiddler on the Roof so as to avoid its influence.

As an Israeli, he can’t say he connected to Fiddler in the say way that many American Jews do. He sees it as a story about immigration and longing for a spiritual homeland. He can connect to it in other ways, he said. Growing up in a religious family, he often found himself questioning God and questioning tradition. Tevye’s conversations with God throughout the musical remind him of that.

Yehezkel Lazarov plays Tevye. | Photo provided

“I still keep myself [doing] traditional things, [such] as praying every morning, [such] as keeping kosher, [such] as all those things that are very much connected to the roots that I’m coming from, that dialogue that I’m going through all my life since I remember myself,” Lazarov said. “Right now, I have to play a role like that. It’s quite amazing for me.”

Trying to create a production of a show as beloved as Fiddler can be a daunting task, especially in just a few weeks of rehearsals, Associate Choreographer Christopher Evans said.  

“Everything that happens on the stage is there to serve the storytelling rather than to make a spectacle of itself and say, ‘Look at what we’re trying to do this time, look what we’ve reinvented,’” Evans said. “It’s very self-assured as a piece. It knows what it’s doing. It knows what it’s saying, and it’s there to be enjoyed. It’s asking people just to sit down, from the first word. Let’s get lost in this story that we all love.”

For audiences familiar with the story who are heading to see Fiddler at the Academy of Music, Evans wants them to now that they’re in good hands. As soon as it begins, he said, the show will feel familiar.

Like much of American Jewry, Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof have traveled, from Eastern Europe, to Broadway, to film and now make up a staple of American culture.

“By now, Fiddler on the Roof is a tradition,” Nahshon said. “It’s almost like how they show The Ten Commandments before Easter and Pesach every year on television, that kind of yearly thing. Fiddler is part of the cultural landscape of American Jews. No question about it.” 

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