Chaim Topol was one of Israel's unofficial ambassadors on both stage and screen as well as in his philanthropic activities. In addition to his screen portrayal of Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, he immortalized himself in stage productions of Fiddler which were performed in places as geographically distant from Israel as Australia.
Chaim Topol was one of Israel’s unofficial ambassadors on both stage and screen as well as in his philanthropic activities. In addition to his screen portrayal of Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof, he immortalized himself in stage productions of Fiddler that were performed in places as geographically distant from Israel as Australia.
Topol first visited Australia in the early 1970s and then at least two more times for long runs of the stage version with which he will forever be identified.
All in all, he played Tevye for 43 years and more than 4,000 times.
If that isn’t achieving thespian immortality, what is?
Just as Sholem Aleichem’s book Tevye der Milchiker has been translated from Yiddish into many languages and has immortalized a fictional character who represented the typical Russian or Polish village Jew who always had too many children and not enough money, Chaim Topol, who portrayed him, forever will be identified with Tevye, no matter how many other productions there may be.
Although he was a great portrait artist, he is far less recognized for his sketches than for his acting and singing, despite illustrating numerous books. His portraits of presidents appeared in a philatelic series.
Though also well known for his involvement in the Jordan River Village, a year-round camp for all special-needs and fatally ill children in the region, it is less known that he was among the founders of the Israel branch of Variety, which cares for children with disabilities.
In the many news items and obituary notices about his death, no mention was made of his warm friendship with industrialist and philanthropist Dov Lautman, who was the founder of Delta Galil, which from its outset employed Jews, Druze and Christian and Muslim Arabs. He encouraged them to work together in friendship and harmony. Lautman was also a big philanthropist, giving mainly to educational projects.
Both men were born in Tel Aviv within a year of each other, and each, in his own right, was awarded the Israel Prize.
Lautman, who was once a very active individual, was afflicted in middle age with ALS, and Topol became one of his major caregivers.
Though confined to a wheelchair and unable to use any of his limbs, Lautman’s brain remained clear and alert, and he continued to involve himself in numerous projects. Topol could often be seen pushing the wheelchair from one place to the next.
Despite Topol’s fame, he was no prima donna. He remained a kind, down-to-earth person.
On his first visit to Australia, it was my good fortune to interview him. Because I was familiar with the Yiddish version of Tevye, which contained much of the pathos that used to be part and parcel of the Yiddish stage, I was not particularly enamored with Topol’s screen version of the character, which I found to be too commercial – and I told him so.
He wasn’t insulted.
He explained that his grandfather came from that background and that when he played Tevye, he was in essence honoring his grandfather.
Maybe that’s why he remained so popular. So many of us had grandfathers or great-grandfathers reminiscent of Tevye, and therefore of Topol.