What’s not to like about Fiddler?
Foot tapping, hum–along, memorable music and lyrics, stunning choreography, and a story that resonates, 52 years after the show first appeared on Broadway.
Based on Ukraine writer Sholem Aleichem’s (1859- 1916) short stories, “Tevye the Dairyman,” Fiddler on the Roof is set in the Pale of Settlement, Tsarist Russia, in 1905. Tevye, a poor milkman, and his wife Golde, have five daughters and live in the village of Anatevka.
Underfed overworked Anatevka.
Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?
Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,
Where I know everyone I meet.
It’s a story of traditions, particularly those maintained by Jews, and challenges to those traditions amid political turbulence and discrimination, resulting in the eviction of the Jews.
It’s my grandfather Abraham’s story. At age 16, he left his family to journey to the United States, speaking no English. He was alone, without a job or family, and joined the Diaspora of Jewish immigrants fleeing Tsarist Russia. Processed through Ellis Island, NY, his last name was changed—perhaps because of pronunciation, to Klein.
Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
At this week’s matinee of Fiddler, I shared this story with my nieces, Sonia and Dasha, the only descendants of my paternal grandfather and grandmother who have the Klein last name. I’d met them, my mother and brother for the outing. Dasha’s school musical next year is Fiddler on the Roof and she hopes to audition for a part. Neither girl knew the story or music and loved it.
I first saw the 1964 Broadway musical in New Haven, CT, as soon as it went on tour from New York City. My parents had seen it on Broadway and loved it. My father would prance around the kitchen, imitating Zero Mostel’s Tevye interpretion, singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” or taunting my mother with his rendition of “Do You Love Me.” I loved the 1971 film version, mostly because people said I resembled one of the daughters.
Since then, I know I’ve seen it a few more times at various professional and community theaters. I know the songs by heart. This time, I found myself comparing life then and now.
Politically, there are refugees worldwide escaping violence and discrimination, resulting in floods of immigrants to strange new lands, many not so willing to take them in. Their exodus is brought to us minute by minute via social media. We witness drownings on our phones and then move on to browse for bathing suits.
Technology too has changed the personal aspect. Children going off to distant lands can stay in touch via phone, text, Skype, email and so on. The world is smaller than it was in the early 1900’s. Airplanes make visiting possible. During intermission, I mentioned to my brother how he must be used to saying goodbye to Sonia, who attends college in Scotland and is about to leave for a year in Australia.
How can I hope to make you understand
Why I do, what I do,
Why I must travel to a distant land
Yet at its core, Fiddler is a story about parenting. Accepting the choices your adult children make, no matter how difficult, is probably the most challenging part of being a parent. It’s about trusting that you did everything you could to prepare them for the world, and hoping they retain the values you tried to impart.
As in “Sunrise, Sunset”:
Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
The original Broadway production of Fiddler held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years and remains Broadway’s 16th longest-running show in history and has been performed in translation around the world, proving that Tevye’s story is universal.