Shprintze’s suicide

What did Fiddler on the Roof incorporate of the original story cycle and what was conveniently left out because of the constraints of time and ideology?

The cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" performs during the American Theatre Wing's 70th annual Tony Awards in New York, US, June 12, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON)
The cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" performs during the American Theatre Wing's 70th annual Tony Awards in New York, US, June 12, 2016
Although my distaste for sentimentality permeates my writing, teaching, sermonizing, and lecturing, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Broadway musical and movie adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof. I acted in three versions of the play, once in Hebrew and twice in the original English. The collaboration of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick was a grand success. Fiddler is one of the great Broadway musicals and it inspired both Jews and non-Jews to return to the source of the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem. Yet, there is an important element missing from Fiddler that reflects the American audience to whom it was introduced in 1964, the year of my birth.
We distort modern Yiddish literature by stripping it of biting satire and sometime startling violence. S.Y. Abramovitsch (better known by his pen name based on the character Mendele the Book Peddler), Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Shalom Rabinovitch), and Isaac Leybush Peretz – these titans of modern Yiddish literature were not nostalgia peddlers who only used comedy and comic characters for a good laugh. The underlying message in a literature that entertained was a sharp critique of Jewish tradition and the shtetl. At the same time, these writers are not condescending and are not preaching. They treat such figures as Mendele and Tevye with a modicum of both sympathy and empathy.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to examine the original intent of these authors rather than look at them through the lens of second- and third-generation Americans who discover in Fiddler on the Roof a message with which they agree, but was not the intention of Yiddish writers living more than a century ago. Let us look more closely at Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman – what did Fiddler on the Roof incorporate of the original story cycle and what was conveniently left out because of the constraints of time and ideology?
Aleichem composed the tales that comprise the story cycle of Tevye the Dairyman over a period of 15 years. Lovers of Fiddler on the Roof will recognize the stories of three of the daughters: Tsatyl, Hodl and Chava. But there is much that Fiddler omits: the fate of the youngest daughters Shprintse and Beilke, Chava’s abandonment of her Ukrainian husband and her return to Tevye, and Tevye’s attempt to travel to Eretz Yisrael. The tragedy of Shprintze – only a child in the musical – is sobering and should dispel our notion that Aleichem is merely an entertainer who evokes Jewish shtetl life in the Pale of Settlement to make us feel good about having escaped poverty, pogroms, and tradition.
In “Shprintze,” (1907) Tevye’s fourth of his five daughters – the number of daughters fluctuates depending on the specific story – a young man, the son of a wealthy widow in a nearby town, falls in love with Shprintze and intends to marry her. But the widow’s brother balks at the arrangement. In Hillel Halkin’s translation, the young man’s uncle berates Tevye: “Where does a sensible Jew like yourself get off thinking that a dairyman, a common cheesemonger, can marry into a family like ours?” The wedding is called off, Shprintze grows despondent, and one day Tevye comes home from his work to find his daughter dead by her own hand. She drowns in a river. Tevye goes on and the story cycle continues – but this is a side of Aleichem completely absent from Fiddler on the Roof.
What unites the stories of all the daughters is a condemnation of marriages arranged for economic purposes alone, without love. Yet, Aleichem is painting a broader portrait of a traditional Jewish society decaying. Tevye, the paterfamilias, is losing control of his daughters and the age-old institution of shidduchim. Under the weight of political turmoil, revolution, Zionism, the Socialist Bund, and utter poverty in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Tevye’s world is collapsing. Shprintze’s suicide is a manifestation of a much greater death – that of the old order. Aleichem and all modern Yiddish writers can never ignore that reality. Although the old world had been the world of their upbringing and they are not involved in a wholesale condemnation of shtetl life, their satire on that decaying life is potent.
Hillel Halkin, translator of Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (1987), contrasts the Broadway musical with the original stories. He writes: “To begin with, there is the tone: unlike Fiddler which, whether sad or gay, keeps within the range of the safely sentimental, Tevye has a giddy energy, a recklessness of language and emotion, a dizzy oscillation of wildly funny and wrenchingly painful scenes that come one on top of another without letup.” Fiddler on the Roof, even performed in Yiddish, betrays the danger and sharp edge of the original.
In her chapter on “The Comedy of Endurance” of Aleichem in The Modern Jewish Canon (2000), Professor Ruth Wisse writes that “Adaptation is part of the tradition of theater, and Fiddler is in many respects an adaptation of genius, perfectly attuned to the liberal ethos of America and the integrationist theme that was then at its height.” The musical’s book, composed by Joseph Stein, betrays the core of Aleichem’s art and message.
This is not an isolated incident when it comes to Broadway and Hollywood adaptations of books with Jewish themes. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was adapted for the theater and film. The violence done to the original was palpable. The Broadway and Hollywood Anne Frank universalize the young woman’s worldview and erase the Jewish particulars of the diary. For an American audience in the mid-20th century, an Anne who was “too Jewish” would have sabotaged the narrative of an American audience and American Jews. Let us hope that future productions based on Jewish authors remain faithful to the original. In fact, I would like to see a film made based on the works of Yiddish writer Lamed Shapiro. His short stories based on the violence of pogroms in the Russian Pale of Settlement cannot be sugar coated. These stories are brutal and defiant. Yiddish literature deserves to be taken seriously. Yiddish was the language of a civilization that endured for more than 1000 years. It deserves better.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.