That’s Yiddish for “A fiddler on the roof—sounds crazy, no?”
It’s the opening line of the 1964 musical, Fiddler on the Roof, based on stories by Sholem Aleichem about Tevye the Dairyman and his five daughters. Set in the Pale of Settlement during Tsarist Russia, it represents the effects of change—from traditions to modernity on the family and community. Tevye’s beliefs are challenged when his daughters choose to marry for love, defying the tradition that matchmakers arrange marriages. Ultimately, Tevye and his neighbors, facing eviction due to religious persecution, must leave their beloved village of Anatevka, seeking refuge far from the home they love.
When it opened in 1964, Fiddler became the first musical in history to surpass 3,000 performances and held the record for longest-running Broadway musical for nearly 10 years until Grease usurped the title. In 1971, it became an award-winning movie.
It’s been performed around the world from professional theaters to community groups to high schools. The song “Sunrise, Sunset” is a standard at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs.
It’s been translated into many languages, among them Yiddish, where it was first performed in Israel in 1965. A revival by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, in New York City has been extended twice and is heading off-Broadway in February.
At first, I wasn’t interested. Why see a musical, one that I’ve seen countless times and can sing every lyric and recite every line? Would seeing it in Yiddish make much difference?
Then the show received rave reviews, and I asked my friend Yvonne, another musical theater lover, to join me.
Yiddish was the language spoken by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It’s what my grandparents spoke to their three children, first-generation Americans, one who is my father. My parents would speak Yiddish when they didn’t want my three siblings and me to understand what they were saying. Now my father, at 90 ½, worries he’s losing his fluency, having no one to speak it with. I know several words and phrases, and many sayings have become part of the American English lexicon. (Think schlep, or maven, or oi vey.)
From the first downbeat, I was enthralled in ways I never imagined. Staged in an intimate theater, directed by Joel Grey, and featuring the original Jerome Robbins choreography, the show—albeit familiar- seemed fresh and evermore poignant in Yiddish. At first, I thought I wouldn’t need the subtitles, in both English and Russian, but found myself sneaking glances at the screens. Some of the words are different: If I Were a Rich Man becomes If I Were a Rothschild, among many others.
At one point, Yvonne turned to me and said: “This makes all other performances a caricature.”
Unfolding before us is a story of immigrants fleeing persecution, of families being separated by beliefs, long distances, totalitarian regimes, and intolerance.
And that’s a story in any language, in any place.