Beit Hillel returns to its roots with ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ production

Inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters, the story relates a gripping tale of life in a small Russian shtetl in the early 1900s.

Beit Hillel returns to its roots with a stunning production of  ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (photo credit: PR)
Beit Hillel returns to its roots with a stunning production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’
(photo credit: PR)
The phenomenal success of Fiddler on the Roof is legendary, the stuff of theater history. Playing to enthusiastic packed houses from the day it opened in 1964, it won nine Tony Awards, became the first musical theater run ever to surpass 3,000 performances and held the title for the longest-running Broadway musical for nearly a decade. At the same time, it was also setting new records around the globe, from England to Japan and beyond.
The play resonated with people everywhere, evoking tears of laughter and anguish across cultures, and now, more than a half century later, with revivals virtually all over the place, this classic play is demonstrating that its appeal transcends not only geography, but also time.
Inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters, the story relates a gripping tale of life in a small Russian shtetl in the early 1900s, a time of horror as pogroms plagued Jewish communities with terror, murder and destruction. Attempting to cope with this threatening reality, Tevye and Golda seek to eke out a meager living and marry off their daughters as well as they can – even as the girls inevitably move further and further from the traditional ways of the past.
Attending a rehearsal several weeks before opening night, In Jerusalem was impressed with the compelling performance and how near the play was to readiness for opening night. The phenomenal talent of the major characters and the entire cast of over three dozen actors from every walk of life worked its magic. The costumes and scenery evoked the shtetl setting, the blocking made excellent use of the entire theater space and the pacing is fast-moving, gauged to ensure that the audience remains attentively at the edge of their seats throughout the performance, with eyes riveted to the action.
We spoke with Michael Berl, director of The Beit Hillel Theater Workshop and some of the key actors:

Why have you chosen to perform Fiddler on the Roof?
Berl:
Fiddler begs to be performed. It transmits a critical message at a point in time when antisemitism and assimilation are rampant. It’s the perfect choice at a very imperfect time for Jews all over the world. It touches on themes more relevant now than ever – tradition, ideology, family values, intermarriage, assimilation, antisemitism, love and modernity. The challenges presented throughout the play are still the challenges of Jewish life today.
As a theatrical piece, it has all the elements of classic musical theater – great story, great music, humorous and dramatic scenes, and poignant moments of warmth. The classic character types of Tevye, Golda and Yenta can be found in Jewish families throughout the generations. Songs like “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Matchmaker” are a part of the anthology of great theater music.”
From what we’ve observed here today, this is a must-see production. Who is your target audience?
Berl:
Everyone. Like favorite books, movies and music, people who know Fiddler love to experience this show again, see it brought to vivid life. In addition, it is for the next generation that hasn’t yet been exposed to it. The matinées are rapidly selling out. Parents and grandparents are bringing in young people who often don’t have the foggiest idea of what Fiddler on the Roof is, and introducing them; that is important to us.
ONE FASCINATING and unique aspect of this Beit Hillel Theater Workshop production is that when the theater group began in 1985, Fiddler on the Roof was its first-ever production. The theater group was the dream of Joey Silverman, a student who wanted to portray Tevye so much that he essentially willed the Hillel stage and theater group into existence. More than three decades later, Dr. Silverman returns to the Hillel Stage to star in the very show and production company he helped to found.
Because you live in the States, you must be making heroic efforts to appear in this production. Other than the fact that we witnessed tonight that you make an incredible Tevye, what motivated you?
Silverman:
It’s something I strongly want to do. I feel like I’m coming full circle. I give credit to my wife. Not for any other part would she let me essentially leave home for three months, but she knows how important this is to me.
This is a theater group I started as a 19-year-old kid for the sole purpose that I wanted to play Tevye, so I convinced Michael [Berl] to do it; I convinced Hillel to do it, and it happened – and for the past 33+ years, it’s been a huge part of my life. I don’t want to say I’ve become Tevye, but I do act like Tevye, I talk to God when I’m in my car by myself like Tevye. What you see on stage – I’m a little embarrassed to say – I actually do. This has always been a part of me. Everybody who knows me is always saying it to me, pointing it out.
So when this chance came to do this again – for the program that I started, for the same director that I worked for – to just come out to Israel and do it. Even my wife understood that. This is a very special thing to be able to do, a special experience that I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to do again.
You played Tevye as a 19-year-old; now you are 52 years old – just the perfect age for Tevye, actually. Does your perspective on the play change now that you are older and have grown-up kids of your own moving away?
Silverman:
The difference is huge. Now I do things onstage that I couldn’t have done when I was 19 years old. I didn’t fully understand it then like I do now. Now I can relate to Tevye’s daughters as my own kids. Perspective has a big effect – my understanding is deeper, more mature. Hopefully I’ll be able to convey that to everybody.
CHAGIT MORIAH GIBOR, who performs the role of Tevye’s wife, Golda, shared a bit about how meaningful her involvement is to her.
What is it like to work opposite Joey Silverman (Tevye)?
Gibor:
Joey is amazing – so invested and dedicated to this play. He has definitely nailed the role – he’s like Tevye come to life. It’s a lot of fun working with him – and with the entire cast, for that matter. Every one of them puts their heart and soul into what they are doing.
We witnessed that intensity in the rehearsal tonight. This play is obviously so special to all of you. Why?
Gibor:
One special thing about this play is how it speaks to the core of each of us, how it resonates with something deep in the heart of every Jew. For us, bringing it to life is like a mission. It’s an “oldie,” but it’s also somehow current and relevant; it never ages. All the questions that this play makes us ask, those are the ones I ask myself in my own life. Like tradition – there’s my history, my heritage, what I am connected to, but should it not change ever? Halacha is supposed to “walk,” to bend, but how far? At what point do you draw the line, and say “this far, and no farther?” This is a big question that we are all asking.
And then there’s the other issue of how precarious life was and still is for Jews. We are a tiny and vulnerable people in such a huge world, and people push us around. In Anatevka, there were violent pogroms and expulsions, and authorities telling the Jews where they can and can’t live. Today we have much of the same, but updated: terrorism and rockets; and the international community dictating which neighborhoods in our homeland are permitted to us and which are “problematic settlements.” Still other adversaries are threatening to eradicate the “Zionist enterprise” entirely. It’s not hard to see – to feel – the parallels.
The hardest scene for me is at the end of the wedding. The festivities in Anatevka end in a devastating pogrom. There are casualties. There was a wedding a minute ago and dancing... and suddenly, just because they’re Jews, everything is a mess. It seems obvious that we are safe from such violence in Israel, but actually we are not. My stepbrother was killed in the [2008] Merkaz ha Rav massacre. That’s where the scene takes me. There was this Purim party; one moment my brother was sitting down and studying Torah and a minute later it’s a bloodbath. Because we’re Jews.
One of the strongest – or most gut-wrenching – lines in the play may be when the villagers are told they are being evicted. Someone asks the rabbi, “Rabbi, wouldn’t this be the right moment for the moshiach?” At every point in our history there has probably been a Jew in distress asking that. The play sheds light on our past, but somehow remains as cutting-edge and up-to-date as today’s news.
HAREL SARIA TSAFARTY, a musician/actor who portrays the rabbi’s son, summed it up.
“Fiddler is one of my favorite musicals. On one level, the play is specific to the narrative and traditions of the Jews, yet on another level it speaks a language that is somehow simultaneously universal and personal. When you have a whole village singing together, ‘Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,’ it touches people across generations, countries and religions.
“Something else special and rare that impresses me about this play is that even the smallest character has color. Each one – from Tevye on down – is a person, not a caricature or comic relief or plot twist. The story is moving because it becomes larger than any one person, it’s about a community, a village with a shared vision and a common fate.
“If we can deliver a production that conveys these messages, if the audiences – even people who just come to see a play – are affected, and if even people who know the play by heart, are moved and understand and appreciate it in new ways, we will have achieved our goal.”
There will be 10 performances (including three matinees) December 19 to 29 at the Rachel Simon Hillel Theater, Beit Hillel, Hebrew University, Mt. Scopus. All seats: NIS 90. Online reservations:
https://buff.ly/2oItw3v Additional information: 055-962-8523 /
055-962-8524.