When I was in my early teens and my sister a bit younger, our parents got us tickets to see “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway with Herschel Bernardi in the role of Tevye. “Fiddler” was a blockbuster sensation when it first came out in 1964, and its impact on us was highly emotional. We cried from the first six opening notes played by the fiddler and never stopped throughout the show. “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Sabbath Prayer” were so beautiful and poignant. By the time we reached “Far from the Home I Love”—the song sung by Chava to her father waiting at the train station to move to Siberia to join her revolutionary husband, Perchik—we were a mess! Who of us could ever forget Chava’s iconic line to Tevye: “Papa, God alone knows when we will ever see each other again,” to which Tevye replies, “Then we will leave it in God’s hands.” Sniff, sniff—keep that Kleenex flowing.
As a Jewish teenager, the show was transformative as it completely altered my feelings about our Eastern European Jewish heritage. Prior to seeing “Fiddler,” I felt embarrassed by the “Old Country” and the Jewish experience of persecution and discrimination. All that changed for me when I saw the musical. It validated that history and made me very sympathetic to and disturbed by what my people experienced. The pogrom and forced evacuation of the fictional Russian village of Anatevka as depicted on stage was traumatic. Indeed, it may have been the first time I actually experienced a sense of communal belonging based on modern Jewish history. It’s important to remember that prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, it was very common for Jewish people to feel less than proud of their identity.
By now, I have seen “Fiddler” many times. As a counselor at Camp Tevya, I performed in the show, and I’ve seen several productions in Boston, including Israeli actor Chaim Topol’s farewell tour as Tevye not so long ago. Each production has been thoroughly enjoyable and always moving.
But along came “Fiddler” performed in Yiddish for the first time in America by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, a gorgeously revived section of the city with a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty. This rich Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman in 1965 had actually been performed on numerous occasions in Israel, but never in the U.S.
Yiddish is a beautiful and soulful language, with a rich literature. Speaking and reading Yiddish fills me with joy and affirms my strong ties to Yiddishkeit. My own grandmothers were born in Boston, so Yiddish was not spoken naturally among my relatives. As a student of Jewish history, I studied Yiddish intensively both locally as well as in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Paris. I hope to resume my studies this fall.
The fictional characters in “Fiddler” would, of course, have spoken Yiddish, as the tales of leading Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem about Tevye the Milkman form the basis for the play. So what you experience in this show is entirely authentic by virtue of the Yiddish dialogue and musical lyrics. Of course, there are easy-to-follow subtitles in both English and Russian, but if you understand Yiddish, all the better.
I went to see this show again with my sister with the highest of expectations given the outstanding reviews it had received, and in awe of the talented and iconic Joel Grey as its director. Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed with my initial reaction, as I failed to weep at the outset when the fiddler played her first few notes. But I really had nothing to worry about in the crying department. I sniffled my way through many scenes with tears literally streaming down my face for much of it. You could actually hear audience members weeping throughout the show. Why is this? I’m sure the vast majority of that audience has seen this show already, if not numerous times. But its theme of the tension between tradition vs. adaptation to current realities remains oh so relevant to Jewish life today. And in Yiddish? It only enhanced its power. Many of the audience members were Yiddish or Russian speakers.
The good news is that the Yiddish language is currently undergoing a mini revival both in the U.S. and in Israel. And that is a small miracle in and of itself. My visit to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst this past July to experience its amazingly rich “Yidstock Festival of New Yiddish Music” is a further testament to the revival of Yiddish language and music. This Yiddish revival no doubt accounts for the current thirst to experience this classic Jewish musical in Yiddish—something that would have been unthinkable in 1964 when the Holocaust was still so recent and Yiddish seemed dead as well. In the words of the famous Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, as seen on the wall of the Yiddish Book Center: “Yiddish has magic. It will outlive history.”
So to the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, all I can say is, “To life, to life, l’chayim!” The show has been extended due to popular demand, so nu, what are you waiting for?
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