Fiddler on the Israeli Roof

‘Too Jewish.” That’s what potential backers said about Fiddler on the Roof when it was proposed to them in 1964. It could never bring in a general audience.

A SCENE from the Beit Hillel Theater Workshop’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’  (photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)
A SCENE from the Beit Hillel Theater Workshop’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’
(photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)
‘Too Jewish.”That’s what potential backers said about Fiddler on the Roof when it was proposed to them in 1964. It could never bring in a general audience. They were alleged to have asked what they would do when there were no more Hadassah benefits. They passed.
As they say in another show recently on Broadway: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
Critics also blasted the new musical. New Yorker magazine critic, none other than novelist Philip Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, called Fiddler shetl kitsch. Cynthia Ozick castigated it as “emptied out, prettified romantic vulgarization.” Famed theater critic Walter Kerr called it “a very near miss.”
They, too, were wrong. Opening in 1964, Fiddler went on to 3,242 performances on Broadway, not counting its four revivals. It’s been beloved in Japan for 50 years. This year you could see Fiddler in Smyrna, Tennessee and Timisoar, Romania. The show is a favorite in Vienna, Johannesburg, Mexico City – you name it – any non- Moslem metropolitan center. Hundreds of school and community groups perform Fiddler every year. The latest New York revival in Yiddish, which closed on January 5 and was based on a script created in Israel in the 1960s, was a big success. Huge.
Not to mention the movie. Everyone wanted to be Tevye in the 1971 Academy Award winning movie – Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Richard Burton – but the role went to our very own Israeli superstar, Chaim Topol.
Thrillingly, Topol was actually in the audience when I recently saw Fiddler in Jerusalem, sitting in the front row with a large contingent of my sabra children and grandchildren. He was accorded a few minutes to reminisce about playing Tevye more than 3,000 and to wish the cast and audience enjoyment.
Remember that Topol, a young sabra who was then most famous for playing the role of Yemenite Sallah in Sallah Shabati, subbed for his mentor Shmuel Rodensky for 10 weeks when Rodensky fell ill. He was later called on to open as Tevye in the London production. It was in London that Topol started introducing himself by his last name only. In London, they reportedly pronounced his first name “Shame.” The best Topol story is how he left His Majesty’s Theatre in London to entertain troops during the Six Day War. A hero on stage and off.
Topol had to learn English to get the part in London, I tell my grandchildren. Part of my enthusiasm for exposing them to Broadway musicals in Israel is to encourage them to polish their English, too. We are regulars at the annual Hanukkah performances of Beit Hillel Theater Workshop of the Hebrew University, which brings Broadway to Jerusalem. Fiddler was the first musical the group did. That was 1985, and it was at the insistence of then 19-year-old student Joey Silverman. Now 52, Silverman, a dentist in the US, is back playing a more mature Tevye. I’ve bought 17 tickets.
I HAVE seen the Fiddler film many times, but I haven’t seen the live performance since I was a teen. My American-born parents frequently made the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Colchester, Connecticut to take my sister and me to the theater in Broadway. Fiddler was a must. Although by high school I’d already begun my romance with Jewish reading, like the novels of Leon Uris, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud, Fiddler was exotic.
In Colchester, I didn’t know a matchmaker or a hassid. No one wore headscarves, and certainly not visible ritual fringes outside of synagogue, not even the rabbi. I certainly hadn’t been to a wedding with a bottle dance.
When the Beit Hillel shows start each year, I’m always a little nervous. Even though we’ve prepared, I’m afraid my grandchildren whose first language is Hebrew will feel lost in the story lines and lyrics.
But as soon as the opening number begins this year, I relax. Watching the show in Jerusalem, I’m immediately conscious of how much more conversant my children and grandchildren – sabras all – are with the culture of the play than I was at their age. They not only know hassidim, some of them are hassidim! The wedding scene is lively, even the bottle dance, is familiar. The fiddler? They’ve been to the klezmer festival in Safed. Anatevka may be foreign, but the hurrying to get ready for Shabbat, the taking in of guests, the expressed yearning for Messiah – are part of their lives. Even facing up to the hard reality of nearby enemies – nearly all have waited out missile attacks in safe rooms – is more a part of their world than it mine was growing up in Connecticut.
I think of a family discussion before the show. A grandson has expressed concern over the ending of the musical. He likes the songs, which they’ve been listening to in the car, but he’s worried about the show ending on a tragic note like last year’s Hillel Workshop West Side Story. He and his cousins agree that they liked Annie best because of the happy ending.
My daughter, his sabra mother, had good advice He shouldn’t think of the ending as leaving Anatevka, but instead as going to a better life. It’s our family story, and everything turned out well. Indeed, Fiddler is set in 1905 Russia, the same period when my own grandparents and my husband’s left Eastern Europe for the United States. My grandchildren’s great-great-grandparents left towns like Anatevka. Great-great-grandfather Fischel was discovered taking part in the Jewish self-defense movement fighting back against pogroms.
Specifically, he threw an antisemitic policeman, like the ruffians in the play, over a fence. As a result, his great grandparents were born in America, although their mother tongue was Yiddish. His grandparents – us – were lucky enough to make aliyah and return to our homeland in the State of Israel. And here we are watching Fiddler on the Roof on Mount Scopus, the Jerusalem hilltop where the Roman Emperor Titus proclaimed there would never be a Jewish presence here again. He was wrong, too.
After the show, the kids run to take selfies with the cast. A few even get photos with Topol.
Driving out of the Hebrew University campus, I take a minute to look towards Anatot, home of the Prophet Jeremiah. He said in times of trouble to buy a home in Jerusalem.
Good advice.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.