As the good book says

Alisa Solomon takes on the history and cultural impact of the beloved ‘Fiddler on the Roof ’

Fiddler on the Roof 521 (photo credit: Illustrative photo)
Fiddler on the Roof 521
(photo credit: Illustrative photo)
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess a bias before writing this book review. It’s not that I know the author, or that I have been paid to give it rave reviews. No, it is simply that I am a Fiddler on the Roof fanatic. I’ve seen the film dozens of times and the play three or four, including one very memorable occasion when Chaim Topol reprised his role as Tevye in a farewell tour several years ago.
And I’m hardly alone. As Alisa Solomon explores in her newest book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and his five daughters have become cultural touchstones across the globe. Even almost 50 years since the musical had its Broadway debut, and well over 100 years since Sholem Aleichem first published his Yiddish tales of the poor Russian milkman, the images and sounds of the play and subsequent film still hold powerful sway.
In her meticulously researched book, Solomon traces the journey of Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish tales to their Broadway debut and eventually the award-winning film and openings on stages around the globe. Symbolically the book is divided into two periods – the first half building toward the Broadway opening, and the second exploring the cultural reverberations from that day forward.
Portions of the book drag a bit in their retelling, while others are fast paced and engaging. In the early chapters, Solomon details the life and travails of Sholem Aleichem (born Solomon Rabinovich), including his mostly failed attempts to bring his writings to the stage, and his penniless death. Yiddishists and Jewish history enthusiasts will likely enjoy the details of his life and struggles, while others may find this section dry and slow-moving.
She focuses also on the historical mind-set that made New York ready for the curtain-raising of a show about Jews, noting in particular the release of the 1960 film adaptation of Leon Uris’s Exodus, starring heartthrob Paul Newman.
“Brave and brawny Ari Ben Canaan made mainstream culture safe for Tevye the dairyman,” writes Solomon.
At the book’s heart is the four-year build up to the Broadway opening of Fiddler on the Roof, from writing the score, to casting, set design, rehearsing and the intense research that director Jerome Robbins (born Jerome Rabinowitz) put into the production.
Part of that fact-finding included regular attendance at hassidic weddings in New York, first for Robbins and then the rest of the cast and crew, organized by Jewish dance expert Dvora Lapson.
“For a fee of $500 – plus reimbursement of $37.50 that covered cab fare, tips at weddings and two dozen yarmulkes – Lapson became Robbins’s regular date for the devout,” Solomon recounts.
With her detailed retellings, Solomon places you in the wings of the stage amid the scoring, choreography and rehearsals, in particular the legendary clashes between Robbins and Zero Mostel, who played the first Broadway Tevye (and reprised the role many times in his life).
“‘What are you doing?’ Robbins demanded at one rehearsal as Mostel touched the doorpost of Tevye’s house and then brushed his fingers over his lips,” writes Solomon. “‘I’m kissing the mezuzah.’ Robbins responded bluntly, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But Mostel insisted that Tevye, like the Orthodox Jews with whom the actor had grown up, would never neglect to make the customary gesture of devotion that acknowledges the case of sacred parchment affixed to doorways of Jewish homes… Robbins demanded that Mostel stop. The actor relented. And then, when he walked through Tevye’s doorway once more, he crossed himself. He’d made – and won – his point. The mezuzah kissing stayed in.”
Solomon goes on to describe the stagings of Fiddler on the Roof around the globe.
She devotes significant space to two in particular: one in a Brooklyn public school with black and Puerto Rican children during the height of Black-Jewish tensions; and one in a small town in Poland that had a chilling history of turning a blind eye to the massacre of its Jews in 1939.
The chapter on the Brooklyn production in 1968 could almost be a book in itself, a narrative set against the backdrop of racial riots and anger, which Solomon elegantly portrays. But within the book as a whole, it feels overplayed, as though Solomon is overreaching to moralize on the play’s powers. While she dedicates dozens of pages to these particular productions of the play, she writes only a short chapter on the 1971 film, which won three Academy Awards and ultimately brought the tale of Tevye into the homes of millions – a much further reach than any play.
The narrative arc of the book – from Sholem Aleichem’s first attempts at writing, to the current preponderance of Fiddler on the Roof kitsch items (like a bottle of vodka with a black hat for its screw top), musical mash-ups, modern-day stagings and translation into dozens of languages – is a pleasing full circle.
As the author notes in her conclusion, the current acceptance of the show into even Yiddish culture – which earlier shunned the Broadway adaptation – shows how “the show about tradition has become tradition.”
“The frequency and undiminished pungency of Fiddler references after all these years speak to the unusually abundant and various entry points the show continues to provide for people of all persuasions,” she writes.
For the reader, it is the little details, the laugh-out-loud moments and little-known revelations that provide the book with its heart. Did you know the name “Fiddler on the Roof” came not from any Sholem Aleichem work, but from a Marc Chagall painting after the Broadway team had tired of attempting to select a title? Did you know the original matchmaker was a man named Efrayim, whom the playwright Joseph Stein replaced with the character of Yente? Did you know the Broadway team originally gave Tevye a 10-minute dance number of grief over his daughter Chava’s marriage to the non-Jew Fyedka? It was trimmed down to two minutes, including the song “Chavala.”
Most casual readers – even the Fiddler enthusiasts like myself – probably won’t know these things, though they will revel in the discoveries within Solomon’s delightful book.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said of the first English stage adaptation in 1953 (yes, she had a syndicated newspaper column): “Don’t think because it’s about Jews you won’t like it.”