Talking about Tevye before he gets lost.
As Woodstock was not the birth of a new nation but a farewell party for the 60’s, “Fiddler On The Roof” was not the resurgence or reemergence of historical Jewishness, but the wake, funeral, and elaborate gravestone for it. The revivals of the show, then, are a sort of Jahrzeit or Kaddish. I didn’t understand this at the time; not until years later, actually. Only after I had read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and his Daughters, the original story that Fiddler was based on, did I even begin to see this. Aleichem’s Tevye is likable enough, but nowhere near as endearing. None of the characters are. The hues are more somber, the poverty and pettiness more apparent; it is all much more foreign. The 1960’s version is a disneyfied shtetl in tsarist Russia.
To those who weren’t connected to the phenomenon – my connection was through theater rather than Judaism – it isn’t easy to describe the peculiar intensity that would pop up around this musical. Everything would be going along as with any other rehearsals, when there would suddenly be a young woman with some schoolchildren, or an older man with moist eyes standing in the back. References to the show among theater people wouldn’t be any different than references to “Man of La Mancha” for 90% of the conversation, and then there would be some Jewish theater person – sometimes someone we had not even realised was Jewish – talking about the importance of the show, and of getting certain details right. Parents would sit their children down and make them watch the movie, wanting to talk about it afterward. When I did the show in 1972, strangers started showing up the last week before opening. Could they make authentic foods for a party after? They had some family objects from the old country they could bring, in case we wanted to do a display of some sort in the lobby. Producers for “Brigadoon” or “The King and I” have to scrounge and badger for such stuff.
Yet the script celebrates the vanishing of that culture. In American musical theater, romantic love is often the god worshiped, so it’s presence in Fiddler as a competitor to Judaism may not be that significant. But the minor gods and goddesses also win out in the end as well. Tzeitel undermines the parental and village authority in choosing her husband. Hodel pushes the envelope further in choosing Perchik. Chava creates the final rip, choosing a gentile husband. The Russians persecute, the rabbi can do nothing, men dance with women, the world spins out of control. But at least, Tevye sighs, we will always wear our hats. Except that Jews don’t wear such hats now, unless they are Hasidim. That world is gone. Fiddler on the Roof is the effort of the older Jews to tell the younger “Yes, that’s all gone and it’s better now. But there were some things worth saving, or at least worth knowing, so you will understand why we are the way we are.” The younger reply “Okay, that looks charming. Which things are worth saving?” To which the final reply is “We don’t know anymore.”
BTW, I was tempted for years to join one of the local productions of Fiddler, but somehow was always too busy. I would have made a great Tevye.