Book excerpt

Wonder of Wonders

A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof

Alisa Solomon

Henry Holt and Co.

INTRODUCTION

A Little Bit of This,
A Little Bit of That

Glenn Beck was welling up as he neared the conclusion of his Restoring Courage rally in Jerusalem in August 2011. The conservative, conspiracy-mongering talk show host choked back tears as he bade his audience farewell. As he left the stage, exit music swelled: “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler on the Roof.

A few weeks later, Occupy Judaism was planning an outdoor radical Yom Kippur service as an extension of the demonstrations taking place in Lower Manhattan that fall. To get the word out, one of the organizers made a poster that adapted one of the Occupy Wall Street logos. He took the original image—a ballerina balancing on the back of the bronze Charging Bull statue that lurches in a park in New York’s financial district—and Photoshopped the dancer out. In her place, he substituted the silhouette of a tottering violinist: another invocation of Fiddler on the Roof.

There could hardly be more clashing sensibilities than those of Glenn Beck and Occupy activists—Beck condemned the movement as “worse than Robespierre”—yet both staked a claim to the Broadway musical about the affable dairyman Tevye and his three marriageable daughters living in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1905. Beck’s use of the song from the show was naive and even kitschy, while Occupy’s appropriation of the image winked with postmodern irony, but both operated from the assumption that Fiddler bears talismanic power to endow an event or object with a warm glow of Jewish authenticity.

The show—created by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book), and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography)—was an instant blockbuster success when it opened in 1964, smashing all box office records in its day. The initial production played 3,242 performances—the longest-running show on Broadway for years. It won Tony Awards in nine categories in 1965. National Public Radio featured Fiddler as one of the “100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.” The American Film Institute named Norman Jewison’s movie version among the “100 most inspiring films of all time.” There have been four Broadway revivals, countless national tours, and probably more local productions than the licensing agency can count—more than it even knows about. Some two hundred schools across the country put it on each year. The show has survived censorious dictators, bad productions, and highbrow scolds.

As the first work of American popular culture to recall life in a shtetl—the Eastern European market towns with large Jewish populations—Fiddler felt tender, elegiac, even holy. It arrived just ahead of (and helped to instigate) the American roots movement. It was added to multicultural curricula and studied by students across the country in Jewish history units, as if Fiddler were an artifact unearthed from a destroyed world rather than a big-story musical assembled by showbiz professionals.

Beyond its continuing vibrant life in the theater, Fiddler, like no other musical before or since, has seeped into the culture more widely, functioning in sometimes contradictory ways—which makes sense, since the show’s essential gesture is dialectical: it looks backward and forward, favors both community and individual needs, honors the particular and the universal, struggles between stasis and change, bewails and celebrates. Tevye seems to be constantly caught in these opposing forces and, before our eyes, weighs the arguments of every dilemma—on the one hand, on the other hand . . .

Fiddler has served as a Jewish signifier: “Now, I know I haven’t been the best Jew,” Homer tells a rabbi from whom he is trying to borrow money in an episode of The Simpsons, “but I have rented Fiddler on the Roof and I intend to watch it.” And Tevye or the Fiddler can often be found sharing a rooftop with Santa Claus on interfaith winter holiday cards.

The show has operated as a barometer of Jewish political status: In 1974, Augusto Pinochet banned Fiddler in Chile as a “Marxist inspired” work containing “disruptive elements harmful to the nation.” Thirty-five years later, in 2009 in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez defunded the orchestra for a theater presenting Fiddler because it wasn’t Marxist enough. Fiddler has been a powerful intertextual work, commenting from within in Joseph Cedar’s movie Footnote (a family torn by generational conflict goes to see a performance), David Bezmozgis’s novel The Free World (a Soviet émigré family with a Stalinist patriarch sees the movie while stuck in Rome, waiting for visas), and Nadia Kalman’s novel The Cosmopolitans (Fiddler as a structuring device), to name just a few cases.

Fiddler has become ritual: kids at summer camps sing “Sabbath Prayer” on Friday evening as they light candles in place of the Hebrew blessing, and for decades weddings didn’t feel complete without a rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

And more. The show is a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity, and interracial bridge building, among them. It also solidified the origin story of American Jews as flight from persecution in Eastern European shtetls—never mind the actual origins of those from urban centers or from Sephardic and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

How could a commercial entertainment do all this? The answer lies in large part in where Fiddler came from and how it was made. Wonder of Wonders sets out to tell that tale: to look at what prepared the way for the musical historically, culturally, and aesthetically, how it turned into a show with such abiding power, and where it has been a catalyst for cultural shifts. It is a story about ethnic assertion and cultural adaptation and about the exigencies and outsize personalities of showbiz. Tracing the surprising, enduring, shape-shifting utility of the beloved musical, Wonder of Wonders explores how a work of popular culture can glow with a radiant afterlife, illuminating for different audiences the pressing issues of their times.

Specifically, it is a story about theater, the making of it and the meanings that come from the messy and marvelous collaborations that are its essence—interactions among artists, between artists and audiences, between a show and the world.

The story begins at the source: Sholem-Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer who created Tevye in a short story in 1894 and, over the next two decades, occasionally put a new chapter about his tragicomic hero into the world. Best beloved as a story writer, Sholem-Aleichem also created novels and plays and he was eager to break into New York’s Yiddish theater scene.

His first major foray into the theater, with his first full-length play, was a smash. Called Tsezeyt un tseshpreyt (Scattered and Dispersed), the play, which dealt with intergenerational conflict, triumphed at the Elysium Theater in Warsaw in the spring of 1905. It was performed in Polish (because of the Russian Empire’s standing, if erratically enforced, ban on performances in Yiddish) and the house was packed. At the urging and expense of the producer and translator, Mark Arenshteyn, Sholem-Aleichem traveled from his home in Kiev to Warsaw to see for himself.

“What shall I write you about yesterday’s triumph?” Sholem-Aleichem asked his daughter in a letter the day after he saw the show. In ecstatic detail, he described how the audience “literally covered me with flowers” after the first act and how after every act that followed they called him to the stage repeatedly. In the fourth act, he reported, “the public simply went crazy, applauding every phrase that had any connection to the play’s theme. At the end, hats started flying in the air and some kind of wild, elemental force tried to gobble me up. For a moment I thought the theater might cave in.”

He wondered, with a little false modesty, as to the cause: was it the popularity of the folk writer, the Jewish public’s yearning for a Yiddish theater, or simply the mob’s lack of restraint? In any case, Sholem-Aleichem evaded the “thousand-headed mass that awaited its prey” at the theater’s exit only because a police officer hid him away in a locked loge for half an hour and then slipped him out a back door. “My God! What would happen if it were possible to play in Yiddish?”

With more prescience than he could have guessed, Sholem-Aleichem concluded, “My fate and your future (I mean that of my successors) are tightly bound up with the Jewish theater. Write it down in your calendar.”

She would have done well to mark a date more than half a century later that would not only forever tie Sholem-Aleichem’s fate to the theater but also shape the future of remembered Jewish history: September 22, 1964, the opening night of Fiddler on the Roof.

Copyright © 2013 by Alisa Solomon Alisa Solomon teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she directs the Arts & Culture concentration in the MA program. A theater critic and general reporter for The Village Voice from 1983 to 2004, she has also contributed to The New York Times, The Nation, Tablet, The Forward, and other publications. Her first book, Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender, won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. She lives in New York City.