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Fiddler on the Roof at 50 Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, January 3, 2014

Every now and then there is a book, a play, a movie or even a tv show that somehow captures and influences the mood of a community.

Exodus, by Leon Uris was a book like that for mid 20th century America,”The Daily Show” is a recent tv show that fills that bill. It not only expresses something about how we feel but also influences our lives moving forward.

When “Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway in 1964, it was that play. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been Jews on Broadway—as our speaker will assure us when he comes January 11th- there was hardly a Broadway production at which one couldn’t gather a minyan- but Fiddler was different. It was about the old world rather than the new. It wasn’t secular but expressed religiosity without being a religious drama.

Alisa Solomon, a drama critic and professor at Columbia, in her new book Wonder of Wonders, A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, argues that “Fiddler on the Roof” has played a special and unique role in American Jewish life. She asserts that both when it opened in 1964 and then in a different way when it was released as a film in 1971 “Fiddler” helped the American Jewish community manage our ambivalences and express our Jewish identity.

The story of Fiddler begins of course with Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish Mark Twain, and his cycle of 8 Tevye stories, but those stories are different than what we know of as “Fiddler on the Roof”. For starters, the stories are harsher, more tragic than comic. The criticism of life in the Pale was more biting. Sholom Aleichem’s satire was not just about Jewish Gentile relations, but also about issues within the Jewish community. In the stories, Tevye’s 4th daughter commits suicide after being jilted by her Jewish fiancé, whose wealthy family doesn’t want to be associated with a pauper like Tevye. The story cycle also ends differently. Instead of Chava and her husband leaving Anatevka in solidarity with the Jewish community, Chava leaves her non-Jewish husband, who is cruel to her. It is also significant that in the stories the family heads to 1914 Palestine; it’s only on Broadway that they come to America.

Sholom Aleichem dreamed of bringing Tevye to life on stage, but he was not successful as a playwrite in America. Though welcomed by crowds when he first visited America, in 1905, the plays he wrote for the American Yiddish theater either closed after short runs or were not produced at all. When Sholom Aleichem arrived in America a second time in 1914, he was weakened by the loss of a son and by the impact of World War I on the Jewish community. He was forced to support himself by travelling around the country giving readings. He died of exhaustion just two years later. Sholom Aleichem’s funeral in 1916 foreshadowed the role of the play which would be created from his writings- it expressed the feelings of the people not just about his death but about themselves. I/6 of the Jews of New York attended the funeral-- the crowd was estimated as over ¼ of a million people. The funeral included the leadership of the entire American Jewish community of the time, from Reform rabbis to the famous Orthodox Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Zionist, Yiddishist, and Bundist leaders all spoke and 100 Yiddish writers participated. They were mourning Sholom Aleichem, but also in the wake of WWI and the destruction it had inflicted on Eastern European Jewry, they were mourning his world, the world of their parents and grandparents as well.

There were several productions of the Tevye stories in the years after Sholom Aleichem’s death. Maurice Schwartz produced Tevye The Milkman, which focused on the loss of Tevye’s traditional way of life. In Soviet Russia, Sholom Aleichem’s works were presented as criticism of life under the Czar. After World War II Maurice Samuels did a dramatization for “The Eternal Light”, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s tv series. In that version Perchik goes off to University rather than to Siberia – leftists were definitely out of fashion in the era of Joseph McCarthy. There was also much romanticizing of the lost world of the shtetl in these productions, forgetting that Jews also lived cosmopolitan lives in large urban centers. In one notable production of the 1950’s, Sholom Aleichem was taken up by remnants of the American left. It was a well received production at the small hall of the Barbizon Hotel and was popular with the Hadassah crowd, but it was in fact written by a blacklisted writer, directed by a blacklisted director and produced with a blacklisted cast of actors.

The story of how Fiddler on the Roof came to the Broadway stage, is an exciting one with interesting twists and turns. The material was first optioned by Rogers and Hammerstein, but they let it drop as they were busy with “The King and I”. Then as the 1960’s began the time was ripe. The Jewish world was changing as Jews became more comfortable with Jewish distinctiveness, and assimilation had replaced anti-Semitism as the greater Jewish concern. The success of a Broadway drama about the Amish, made people think that a particularistic story would be well received by a diverse audience.

The two key players in the creation of Fiddler on the roof were Jerome Robbins, the director, and Zero Mostel, the quintessential Tevye, “the man of unshakable faith who constantly questions God”. The two could not have been more different. Robbins, born Rabinowich, was tightly wound, restrained, full of insecurities, a dancer and choreographer, from an upper class background. In addition Robbins, perhaps in fear of being exposed as a gay man, had named names before the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Zero Mostel, born Shmuel, was in his physique and manner Robbin’s opposite. In addition he had been blacklisted for many years and could barely speak civilly with Robbins. During rehearsals he flouted Robbins authority at every turn—and yet there was professional respect between the two. Robbins and Mostel, along with Jerry Block, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, all felt great ambivalence about their Jewish identities. Though Mostel’s upbringing was the richest in Yiddishkeit, he had also experienced the most wrenching break when he married a Catholic woman and his large Orthodox family cut him off. Robbins, who seemed the most assimilated, had actually spent time visiting his grandparents in a shtetl in Eastern Europe before World War II. In the 1950’s when he had been back In Warsaw dancing in a ballet, for a U.S. Government sponsored tour, he went to look for his family’s shtetl only to find that nothing remained.

The team struggled- what was this play really about? Initially they called it, “Where Poppa Came From”, and imagined it a universal story about people who just happened to be Jewish. They purposely hired non-Jewish actors. , in a world of Brotherhood Week and more positive inter-religious relations, they struggled about what to do with Tevye’s rejection of Chava and her non-Jewish husband. In assessing the role of the constable, they wondered how far they should go in foreshadowing the ultimate fate of Anatevka. Should he feel like a Nazi? Above all else they struggled with the questions: What was this play really about? It was not just a man and his three unmarried daughters that was hackneyed. Finally they came to the conclusion that it was about the struggle to preserve tradition in a changing world. The audience would have a past to adore and to proudly leave behind. Tradition would be their central theme and just weeks before its opening on Broadway, the song and dance about the Poppas, the Mama’s, the sons and daughters was added to the play in out of town rehearsals.

As we all know “Fiddler on the Roof” was a runaway success, sweeping the Tony’s, it was the longest running play on Broadway in its day. It was successful with non-Jewish as well as Jewish audiences, in the United States, in Japan (where it was viewed as so essentially Japanese that they wondered about its run in America) and in Israel, which also had unhealed wounds in terms of the sabra’s rejection of their own Eastern European past.

Solomon dwells on the question of why “Fiddler” was so successful. Even where critics were dismissive and intellectuals complained that Sholom Aleichem had been bowdlerized, the audiences loved it. It is the most performed school play and melodies from Fiddler continue to find their way into contemporary music. It is used as a talisman in asserting Jewish identity in settings as diverse as the Occupy Movement and Glen Beck’s rally for Israel.

Solomon thinks Fiddler succeeded for several reasons. First, the struggle between tradition and modernity, between the Old World and the New is a universal struggle- as it’s the generational conflict. It is the struggle of every generation of immigrants from wherever they came from. Further, the play cast the residents of Anatevka as American pilgrims, running from religious persecution to the freedom of this new land, a motif that was sure to resonate.

Secondly and especially for the American Jewish community, this play allowed a solution to the struggle with tradition without making serious demands on the audience. She writes: “By turning Toyre ( Jewish law and religious practice) into Tradition, it handed over a legacy that could be fondly claimed without exacting any demands. Heritage after all is not something one does; it is something one has.” Finally, in both the stage and movie versions, Jewish survival is underlined at the conclusion. That is how a tragic ending, the destruction of Anatevka, becomes also triumphant—for the audience knows that what will follow is the amazing success of American Jewry and the rebirth of Israel. Tevye emerges, not as a lovable shnook or a grandfatherly Molly Goldberg, but as something stronger, a male Mother Courage, a symbol of strength and endurance.

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