Fiddling With Fiddler


For thousands of years, Judaism has remained constant in its adaptability, as Talmudic disputatiousness and contemporary needs have urged multiple reinterpretations of ancient scripture. Nowadays lesbians get married under the chuppah, boys talk baseball at their bar mitzvahs, and Passover seders proclaim the rights of Palestinians. But one Jewish text has remained resistant to renovation, with strict prohibitions against any alterations to the practice it originally laid out. Call it the 11th commandment: Don’t fuck with Fiddler.

Since Fiddler on the Roof‘s blockbuster debut in 1964, subsequent stagings have been guided in every detail by a famous production book—commonly referred to as its “bible.” For the revival starring Alfred Molina that begins previews at the Minskoff this week, at least some of the show’s sacred precepts have been tossed aside. The director, David Leveaux—whose Bosnia-inflected Electra came from London to Broadway in 1998 and whose frothy version of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers may arrive later this year—is keeping his plans close to the vest. All he would reveal in a recent interview is that he’s maintaining Jerome Robbins’s original choreography but changing some staging. Fiddler was one of the first musicals to use a turntable, but that is hardly revolutionary anymore. “We are responding to a different theatrical language now,” Leveaux explains. “We can be more evocative rather than representational.” Still, he promises that the audience will feel “their Fiddler is taken care of.”

But no matter how faithful Leveaux stays, his production can’t help taking on radically new meanings. “So much has changed since Fiddler responded to issues at stake in the American Jewish community in the ’60s,” says Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers. “Ours is a post-Seinfeld era. We’ve got much more complex and forthright statements about Jewishness in popular art that might make Fiddler look quaint. But this is also a provocative moment to bring the show back in terms of what is going on politically.”

The primary audience to whom Fiddler originally spoke—American Jews in the throes of upward mobility and dispersion from concentrated urban communities into the goyish suburbs—no longer needs to stake a claim to an ethnic past nor be assured of being fully American. The grandchildren of Tevye no longer dream of becoming rich men (and women) in “a big tall house with rooms by the dozen.” In vast numbers, they’re there. And more and more of them are voting Republican. A few even have a hand in shaping Bush’s bellicose foreign policy.

Fiddler evokes pogroms in which Jews were taunted, humiliated, and dispossessed of their lands by state authorities. But the image of Jewish powerlessness represented—even celebrated—in Fiddler was turned on its head only three years after the musical’s debut, when Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and other territories. “Until the Six Day War,” says Shandler, “it was Fiddler that was the source of public Jewish American pride.” In the contemporary context, Tevye’s tenderness, comically puffed-up patriarchalism, and clash with modernity take on a new kind of nostalgic appeal: Fiddler works to remind Jews of our bygone innocence.

The impact of the world created by Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) on America’s sense of Jewish history can hardly be exaggerated. As Shandler puts it, Fiddler “offered everybody—Jewish or not—the zeyde (grandfather) they’d like to think they would have had.” Never mind that Anatevka, the show’s fictional shtetl, has more in common with Brigadoon than with any real Jewish community in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the 20th century. Or that a sizable minority of American Jews comes from Sephardic and Arabic cultures, where Yiddish is as foreign as Chinese. In the popular American imagination, Fiddler defines the mythic Jewish past.

Jews had long been visible on the Broadway stage—from the hugely popular intermarriage comedy Abie’s Irish Rose and all its imitators in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in 1955 and the cheery Zionist musical Milk and Honey in 1961. On television, the J-word thrived as early as 1949, as The Goldbergs crossed over from radio to become one of network TV’s first sitcoms.

But the Y-word was something else. Images of Eastern European Jewry flourished exclusively in the Yiddish-language theaters popular with the immigrant generation; on the Great White Way, Jews had to be white, not green. Responding to a dawning post-Holocaust consciousness, Fiddler was the first big work of popular culture to call forth the Old Country with affection, evoking the richness of a vanished world.

It succeeded, writes the Yiddish literary scholar Seth Wolitz, because it was able to “fill the needs of Jewish cultural adaptation.” Imposing enormous changes on the plot and tone of the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based, Fiddler made what Wolitz calls “a gigantic substitution”: American ideals of individual rights, progress, and freedom of association were presented as also Jewish—except that in Anatevka they were thwarted by oppression. In the golden land of America—where, contrary to Sholem Aleichem, Tevye is heading at the play’s close—these Jewish values would at last find full expression. Thus the show can end on the tragic note of dispossession and still feel hopeful.

In his current musical, Caroline, or Change, set in Louisiana in 1963, Tony Kushner also tracks Jewish desire for merging ethnic tradition with principles of American democracy: The Gellman family’s chirpy Hanukkah song morphs right into “America the Beautiful.” A fan of Fiddler, Kushner sees it addressing the anxieties of second- and third- generation immigrants who were laboring to put distance between themselves and the poverty they came from, at the same time as they were beginning unapologetically to claim a particular identity in the American context. “It’s Jewish dialectics,” he says with a shrug. “The dramatic gesture of the show is that there are two sides to every question.”

Critics charged, however, that by Americanizing Tevye, Fiddler delivered an ersatz Jewish experience. In a famously furious 1964 review in Commentary, Irving Howe railed, “American Jews suffer these days from a feeling of guilt because they have lost touch with the past from which they derive, and often compound this guilt by indulging themselves in unearned nostalgia. The less, for example, they know about Eastern European Jewish life or even the immigrant Jewish experience in America, the more inclined they are to celebrate it.”

That inclination may be even greater today, when many more American Jews know the words to Fiddler‘s curtain-raiser, “Tradition,” than know the prayers and practices that once constituted that tradition. Indeed, for the longest time, Fiddler was the obligatory reference point for any image of Yiddishkayt. Lorin Sklamberg, the lead singer of the rocking roots band the Klezmatics, remembers “living in dread that someone would ask me to sing ‘Sunrise, Sunset.’ ”

But in what turns out to be its most dialectical gesture of all, Fiddler also made it possible for Jewish artists—and others—to stake out more complicated and edgy depictions. Playwright Donald Margulies, whose works often address the sticky underside of comfortable Jewish American life, has recently adapted Sholem Asch’s once censored God of Vengeance, recuperating its underworld of Jewish pimps, petty crooks, and prostitutes. The Klezmatics draw huge audiences for music tripping out into modal territory that Fiddler‘s score could only hint at. “A Yid-oid work like Fiddler held open a space that allowed waves of new Yiddish culture to happen later,” says experimental-theater maker Jenny Romaine.

Nowadays, “If I Were a Rich Man” is sampled into hip-hop tunes, and a block away from the Minskoff, The Producers blows a raspberry to Fiddler. As the chorus vine-steps across the stage and violins saw away, Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock throws his arms toward the heavens, tilts his head back, and jiggles his belly. He then shoves away the image of Tevye (and of Zero Mostel, who also originated the role of Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s 1968 film) with a get-outta-here wave of his hand. Of course the gag also pays homage. You can’t kick up a goose-stepping can-can to “Springtime for Hitler” without first bidding a tuneful farewell to “underfed, overworked Anatevka.”

The makers of Fiddler understood this principle when they pulled a song from the show during out-of-town tryouts in 1964 because it made the audience uneasy, as Harnick recounts on a “bonus track” of a recent release of the original cast recording. The wry and pointed song—whose sensibility seems closer to Kushner’s or Romaine’s than to Fiddler‘s—imagines what will happen when the messiah finally arrives. One verse goes, “When messiah comes he will say to us, I was worried sick if you’d last or not. And I spoke to God and said, Would that be fair, if messiah came and there was no one there?”

Forty years after Fiddler first brought an image of the annihilated world of Yiddishkayt onto the popular stage, such a mordantly comic question is no longer taboo. So why is there still no room for it?

Leveaux insists that the song doesn’t fit “for purely structural reasons,” but there’s another explanation: The cultural work that Fiddler might perform today cannot accommodate such irony if it is going to recall us to a gentler and more generous image of ourselves. The Jewish oppression that Fiddler dared to represent in 1964—just when the civil rights movement was showing its muscle—connected Jews sympathetically to the struggle of African Americans. Too often today, invocations of Jewish suffering are insular, used to justify aggression—just ask Prime Minister Meir in Golda’s Balcony, who blusters self-righteously for 90 minutes every night up the street from The Producers.

I like to think that the nostalgia Fiddler stirs up today is more salutary—speaking to Jewish yearning for the more liberal and expansive ethos that once defined us. Leveaux says he doesn’t mind if the audience sings along. I, for one, fully expect to. And to have a good cry.