Where do you think you are? In Moscow? In Paris? Where do they think they are? America?

When I was on vacation in California (home state, represent), I struck gold. My friend in LA had extra tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.  Now, I saw the show when I was in high school in San Diego, at a bad theater, but starring the great Theodore Bikel. I was excited, as he was one of the 3 big Tevyes, but to be honest, the show wasn’t all that great.

So I decided to give it another shot. And here is where the gold comes in. The show starred Topol! That’s right, Topol, the original Tevye (at least in my eyes) – the guy from the movie! I read his bio in my little Playbill, and honestly, it didn’t matter to me what else he’d  been in, because Topol IS Tevye the Milkman. And lucky for me, I got to see him on his “Farewell Tour.”

Topol Farewell Tour of Fiddler on the RoofWatching the show, I was in awe of how he lit up the stage. His voice has  aged since the film was made, but he was still magical. He danced, he sang and he was funny! He really brought the show to life, I mean, I had tears in my eyes when he tried to give his daughter Tzeitel to Lazer Wolf!

Halfway through the show (the very, very long and quite slow show), I started wondering what other people in the audience thought of the plot. There were people of all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities there. I started wondering how they view this classic Jewish story. I wondered how other Jews viewed the story. Do people think that the lifestyle and opinions of Tevye are just in the past? Do they view the ancient traditions as ridiculous pieces of history? And my biggest question: when Tevye rejects Chava for marrying a non-Jew…do people think Tevye is a bad man who can’t keep up with the times?

Though clearly not the best of musical theater, Fiddler on the Roof has always been very meaningful to me. I remember watching the double VHS set at my Bubbe and Zayda’s house all the time. It was either that or E.T., and that little alien voice totally freaked me out. But beyond sentimental meaning, the story itself carries a great deal of weight about Jewish culture, past and present.  In just three [brief?] hours, Tevye’s family single-handedly defies Jewish tradition.

And beyond defying tradition, they uphold tradition, too. There are scenes that I could pull out of my own life. But would other people watching this show even imagine that these traditions still exist? Picture the wedding scene: all the men are dancing up to Motol and the women are dancing around Tzietel. I had the chance to see this (and participate in it) first hand at my friends’ wedding earlier this summer. Watching Fiddler on stage, it struck me how lasting our traditions are. Whether they are religious traditions or not, we’re still going strong, doing the hora in 2009 and doing the hora in 1905 Tsarist Russia. And that’s only 100 years back – I think we can do even better than that.

But back to my most important question of the night: what do people today think of Tevye when he rejects Chava, his middle child? As a little girl watching the film, I was always frightened when Tevye appears in the field with Chava, yelling “there is no other hand!!” He then tells his wife that Chava is dead to them. This scene is fairly shocking, considering that up until this point, he has weighed both sides of the debate for his older two daughters’ situations. You expect that he’ll give in to “the other hand” and accept Chava back into his life. But this is the straw that breaks Tevye’s horse’s back (I mean, the horse was injured to begin with, right? Of course I’m right).

It’s too much change for Tevye to handle. And I dare say anyone in his position would feel the same way. Take out the whole religious aspect of things: parents often flip out when their kids make drastic changes to their life – or decisions parents feel are terrible ones. But  then add that whole religion thing back into the equation; don’t you feel a little  bad for Tevye? His daughters are all showing him that they don’t need him, that his role in their spiritual and religious lives is not as important as it used to be. That despite how they were raised, they’re going to do whatever the hell they want.

I think all Jews (and non Jews too) should revisit this classic tale. Watch Fiddler on the Roof again, with the stunning performance by Topol, and try to find the parts of it you relate to. You may not find a whole lot, but I’m sure if you look close enough, you will find a richness in this story that you may not have recognized before.

Right? Of course I’m right!

5 Responses

  1. Nice observations. But I think you can even go further.

    Chava marrying a “goy” is not simply a rejection of her father’s authority and values. In the story, it serves as a rejection of Jewish identity, which her family maintained despite the destitution and pogroms.

    It is also a tremendous destabalizing threat for Tevye’s outlook. If the Jews suffer to fulfill God’s will, then Chava is not only rejecting that lifestyle. She’s also rejecting God, Torah, and Mitzvot. For Tevye, that should mean that she loses God’s protection. But what is really going on here? Tevye is being slaughtered while Chava is being liberated. Tevye has to cut her off, because anything short of that would lead to painful theological and social questions, which he can not abide.

  2. Don’t feel like you need to second guess your instincts, Margalit! FIDDLER ON THE ROOF sticks in your mind–and the minds and hearts of many people around the world, jews and non-jews alike–because it actually is in the category of “the best of musical theater”. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who wrote the words and music, are superstars of the musical theater world, and considering that they were working with the stories of Sholom Alecheim, one of our greatest story-tellers, well, ever — they had a good team going. It’s worth checking out ZERO HOUR next month in the theater, which tells the life story of Zero Mostel: Tevye #1. Zero was very influential in keeping the original production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF true to Alecheim’s spirit and intention. He was raised in an Orthodox household, his father and uncle were torah scholars; that said he ended up leaving his first wife (Jewish) for his second wife (non-Jewish), with whom he then spent the rest of his life. So Chava’s story rang very true to him–his relationship with his family was greatly changed when he married his second wife. However, when they decided to make a movie of FIDDLER they hired Norman Jewison to direct (rather than Jerry Robbins (nee Rabinowitz) who directed the stage production, but that’s a whole other story). Interestingly, Jewison–despite his name–was actually not Jewish. He hired Topol for the role rather than Mostel–a huge blow both emotionally and professionally for Mostel.

    Your thoughts about the show make a lot of sense, and you seem to be picking up on what was rather revolutionary at the time—FIDDLER’s overtly Jewish content. Jewish writers and composers had been writing musicals for years, in fact it’s tough to name a musical theater giant who was NOT Jewish (save for Cole Porter) but during the golden age of musicals (1940-early 1960s) they were mostly writing about worlds they knew only as observers. These men and women were mostly recent immigrants living in urban areas — but were writing about the Great Plains (Oklahoma) and the Wild West (Annie get Your Gun), only two examples, many more fit that bill. In many ways FIDDLER was the first great examination of a history that was more personal to the writers, and was a seminal production for that reason. And because it really is a fantastic show.

    A lot of these themes show up in ZERO HOUR. It’s a really fascinating slice of both American and Jewish history.

    -Shirley from Theater J

  3. […] our Weekly theater J emails) I was struck by the serendipitous nature of Margalit Rosenthal’s blog entry on the DC JCC blog(The Blog at 16th and Q). Margalit wrote about seeing Topol perform the role of Tevye in Los Angeles […]

    • She was fortunate: this from Wikipedia —

      On 20 January 2009 Topol began a farewell tour of Fiddler on the Roof as Tevye, opening in Wilmington, Delaware. It is notable however, that Topol is often replaced by an understudy for the performance, particularly the daytime showings.

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