In 1953, an off-Broadway show called The World of Sholom Aleichem opened for a 40-performance run in a Manhattan hotel auditorium and became an unexpected smash. This adaptation of three Yiddish stories, two of them by the beloved titular writer, was the highest-grossing off-Broadway show up to that time, played for a year, toured for several more, and was filmed for television. In 2018, an adaptation of another theater piece derived from the work of Sholom Aleichem premiered in Manhattan under the name Fidler Afn Dakh. In this new show, the libretto and lyrics of Fiddler on the Roof were translated into Yiddish. The original English words written by librettist Joseph Stein and lyricist Sheldon Harnick were projected onto panels flanking the stage while the actors spoke and sang in the mamaloshen.
Fidler Afn Dakh was also scheduled for a brief stay at an unlikely New York City site—the Holocaust memorial known as the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It slowly became a sensation, selling out for six months at the museum before transferring to a large off-Broadway theater on 42nd Street. Now called Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, it is familiarly known in the theatrical community simply as “Yiddler.” No one expected such success. “One year ago today,” cast member Jackie Hoffman reported on Twitter in early June, “we started rehearsal for Yiddish Fiddler. We thought we’d have a two-month gig and we’re still going.” They’re still going because Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is not a gimmick. It is, rather, an unprecedented transformation of a well-known work, and it blows you through the back of the theater—for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.
So: two unlikely hits, one an English version of Yiddish stories by Sholom Aleichem and one a Yiddish version of an American musical based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, 55 years apart. As Tevye says in Fiddler, “sounds crazy, no?” But in truth, these surprising successes are converses of each other in ways that offer a unique perspective on the differences between American-Jewish culture in the 20th century and American culture today, as we approach the third decade of the 21st.
The playlet in The World of Sholom Aleichem that hit audiences the hardest was the one that didn’t derive from a Sholom Aleichem tale. It was an adaptation of “Bontshe the Silent,” an 1894 story by the fearsome and forbidding Yiddish intellectual I.L. Peretz.
Bontshe is a lowly Eastern European Jew who bears his life’s unthinkably sad indignities and sorrows entirely without complaint. When he dies and arrives in heaven, a court is convened to determine whether he should be permitted entry. An angel speaks in praise of Bontshe’s heroic forbearance, and his argument is so airtight that even the prosecutor won’t bother to contest it. The judge of the heavenly court offers Bontshe whatever his heart desires. “Everything in Paradise is yours,” the judge says. After a lifelong silence, Bontshe finally speaks. He tells the judge happily that he would like “a warm roll with butter every morning.”
The ineffably sweet-faced Jack Gilford played Bontshe, and these words were greeted with tears by the audience. “The moment, in its simplicity, was heartbreaking,” recalled the theater critic Mel Gussow. Bontshe, according to Frank Rich, “rises to the celestial dignity that becomes a man who, for all his heartbreak, ‘never felt a moment’s hate in his life.’”
Alas, this was a complete perversion of Peretz’s meaning. His story ends not with Bontshe’s seemingly poignant request but with the alarmed heavenly reaction to it. “A silence falls upon the great hall, and it is more terrible than Bontshe’s has ever been,” Peretz writes, “and slowly the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at the unending meekness they have created on earth. Then the silence is shattered. The prosecutor laughs aloud, a bitter laugh.”
Peretz’s point is that Bontshe could have been gifted with the wisdom of the ages, or could have chosen to sit at the right hand of the Maker—anything. But his imagination is so limited, his sense of the world so circumscribed, that the best thing he can conjure up is a buttered roll. The unassuming Jew who is celebrated onstage in The World of Sholom Aleichem is, in Peretz’s view, a figure out of a nightmare—a beaten-down wreck, the detritus of two millennia of exile, no longer even capable of conceiving a life of value.
The conversion of Bontshe from Peretz’s symbol of Jewry’s crumpled condition to a figure of sympathetic pathos made him an example of the prevailing positive cultural stereotype of the Chosen People at midcentury. The Bontshe of The World of Sholom Aleichem is a sweetie-pie Jew, a cuddly and lovable creature who asks for so little—just please if you wouldn’t mind maybe a warm crust of bread oh so delicious.
The show’s Bontshe was one of those gentle and well-meaning urban folks with darling accents and charmingly archaic customs peculiar to his long-suffering and inward people.
He had been transmuted into a transcendent version of Mr. Kitzel, the endearing little fellow who made appearances on Jack Benny’s radio and TV programs, responding to Benny’s questions with a puckish “hoo hooo.” He was a gender-flipped Mrs. Nussbaum, the adorable malapropism artist who appeared weekly on Fred Allen’s radio show. He was every secondary character played by the Hungarian-Jewish actor born Jacob Gero, who would prove so effortlessly endearing and snuggly (most notably as Carl the waiter in Casablanca) that he would be billed on movie posters as S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall.
The Cuddles Jew, the sweetie-pie Jew, was a cultural default—a way for the Jews who were playing significant roles in the creation of American popular culture to portray their own people as winsome and harmless. This was an understandable default, maybe even a necessary default, given the horrific cultural portrayal of Jews in Western literature—from Shylock to Fagin, from the woman-poisoning Jew of Malta to the woman-controlling Svengali (with only the occasional relief provided by Walter Scott’s Rebecca or George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda). More than any other minority, Jews truly understood the long-term existential dangers of a bad cultural rap.
One of the signature shows of the radio era was The Goldbergs, written by, produced by, and starring Gertrude Berg, a daughter of the man who may have been the earliest Jewish hotelier in the Catskills (where she learned to write humorous skits about Jewish life). Beginning in 1929, first every week and then every day, Berg provided America with a self-consciously heartwarming example of an upstanding and upwardly mobile Jewish family: “Yoo hoo, is anybody?” Molly Goldberg would call as the program began. Her show aired for 29 years on radio and TV. In this as in most depictions of Jews in American popular culture at the time, the general idea imparted by The Goldbergs was that Jews are just like everybody else, only maybe a little cuter.
The impulse to soften the musculature of American Jews and Jewry to make them seem inoffensive and appealing was one Jews themselves appreciated and enjoyed. They bought books laden with it by the millions, like the overdrawn and clotted comic accounts of Harry Golden, whose biggest bestseller was called Only in America.
The cultural embrace of what might be called the “unserious side of Jewish life” was a terrific irritant for the Jewish intellectuals of the time, especially the ones who wrote for this magazine. Theodore Solotaroff wrote in these pages in 1961 that “garnished with a little Manischewitz horseradish, the perplexed banalities of the middle class come back to [Golden’s readers] as the wisdom of the ages.” Commentary was dedicated to the proposition that you could be fully American and fully Jewish and therefore that Jews did not have to beg for cultural table scraps. Our writers, our thinkers, our academics, our scientists were leading figures of the age, and the creators and purveyors of the common culture should strive for nothing less. To aim lower was to consent to cultural ghettoization. Jews were the creators of civilization and should not be satisfied with being petted. It was time for Jews to take their proper place at the table, not tummel for the Gentiles. What was Philip Roth, after all, but the Oedipal slayer of the sweetie-pie Jew?
The problem for the Commentary crowd was that, even as American Jews swelled with pride at being co-religionists with Einstein, Freud, Frankfurter, and Brandeis, they truly loved being seen as lovable and charming on radio and in movies and on television—and truly loved seeing themselves this way. Indeed, from the distance of three generations or more, they had every reason to love it. It did them a world of good. Nearly a century’s worth of positive depictions of Jewish life in popular culture has played no small role in the fact that America is the least anti-Semitic—indeed, perhaps the only affirmatively philo-Semitic—country on earth outside of the Jewish state.
It’s worth remembering that the first talking picture, the movie that cemented the cinema’s domination of 20th-century culture, was The Jazz Singer in 1927. It tells the story of an Orthodox cantor’s son whose decision to sing contemporary secular music leads the old-man father to disown him. Ten years pass until the wayward boy returns to lead Kol Nidre in place of his ailing papa—which makes the old cantor so happy he drops dead in his bed (conveniently located on the second story of the synagogue, with a window overlooking the bimah).
For traditional Jews, The Jazz Singer might tell a highly problematic story of assimilation and intermarriage, but its respectful and accurate depiction of Jewish ritual observance certainly burnished the reputation of this immigrant group in exactly the way it needed its reputation to be burnished.
The Jazz Singer was the most popular cultural representation of Jewish life until the opening of Fiddler on the Roof 36 years later, in 1964. For most American Jews, Fiddler was and remains an exuberant, thrillingly danced, wonderfully tuneful, touching celebration of Jewish rural life long since gone. Fiddler also serves as a kind of prequel to American Jewish life in its account of a town in the Pale of Settlement whose people are forced at the show’s end to leave in three days’ time—a tragedy that’s not really a tragedy, since it appears they are going to make their way across the ocean and serve as the grandparents and parents of so many in the audience. Indeed, and oddly for a show in which America is only mentioned, Fiddler has become something very close to the national epic of the American Jew. One of its showstopping numbers, “Sunrise, Sunset,” has become the Jewish equivalent of Schubert’s wedding march.
Despite dire warnings that he was to do no such thing, the cantor at my own nuptials took matters into his own hands and set the sixth of the seven traditional blessings to “Sunrise, Sunset” when we had no way to protest. For me and my wife, the introduction of something from Fiddler into a ceremony that followed most ancient traditions and was led by my own rabbi father-in-law seemed incongruous and inapt. I think that’s because Fiddler has become a source of Jewish tradition and ritual for those Jews who don’t really know much about Jewish tradition and ritual, and there is something cringe-inducing about that.1
As a matter of fact, many of the specifics of daily Jewish life were all but unknown to the makers of the show—librettist Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and composer Jerry Bock, highly assimilated Jews all. The show’s director and choreographer, the monstrous genius Jerome Robbins, was perhaps the greatest malefactor among them. In his diaries, Robbins said he hated the weakness he saw in his father and the rabbi who trained him for his bar mitzvah. “I never wanted to be a Jew,” he wrote in notes found by his biographer Amanda Vaill. In her splendid book, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, Alisa Solomon describes a startling conflict that broke out between Robbins and the star of Fiddler, Zero Mostel:
“What are you doing?” Robbins demanded at one rehearsal as Mostel touched the doorpost of Tevye’s house….Mostel offered the obvious answer: “I’m kissing the mezuzah.” Robbins responded bluntly, “Don’t do it again.” But Mostel insisted that Tevye, like the Orthodox Jews with whom the actor had grown up, would never neglect [to do so]….Robbins bristled. Mostel held firm and kissed the mezuzah again….Robbins demanded that Mostel stop. The actor relented. And then, when he walked through Tevye’s doorway once more, he crossed himself. He’d made—and won—his point. The mezuzah kissing stayed in.2
Fiddler is a big, loud, brassy Broadway show, not a guide to Jewish observance. Librettist Stein was a comedy sketch writer from the Bronx, not a historian. The stage Tevye speaks many of the words of the Tevye in the story, but Stein’s book cannot convey the rich complexities of the language Sholom Aleichem puts in the mouth of this subsistence worker—a mixture of rueful Yiddish folk sayings, not-quite-accurate quotes from the Torah and the daily liturgy, and his own hard-won wisdom filtered through a deeply kind and capacious heart that just keeps getting broken, again and again. Instead, Tevye occasionally becomes the butt of classic Jewish jokes that seem more Catskills than Pale of Settlement.
For those who knew and loved Tevye in the original Yiddish, this was all just horrible.
If the theatrical presentation of “Bontshe the Silent” was a desecration of I.L. Peretz’s literary tomb, Fiddler on the Roof was seen by many as nothing less than the calculated slaughter of everything that was great about the Yiddish literary tradition. Irving Howe took to the pages of Commentary to denounce Fiddler in no uncertain terms in 1964:
Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof is the cutest shtetl we’ve never had. Irresistible bait for the nostalgia-smitten audience, this charming little shtetl is first shown in the style of Chagall—itself a softened and sweetened version, sharply different from Sholom Aleichem—and then prettified still more. It all bursts with quaintness and local color, and the condescension that usually goes along. The condescension is affectionate, though not innocent, for while the creators of this play clearly want to do right by their subject, they must pause now and again, as Walter Kerr has remarked, “to give their regards to Broadway, with remembrances to Herald Square.” For they too work in a tradition, and it is a fatal one: the pressure to twist everything into the gross, the sentimental, the mammoth, and the blatant.
Gross, sentimental, mammoth, blatant! There is something comic in this threnody, given that Sholom Aleichem himself was desperate to be a man of the theater and wrote a dozen plays, none of them known for their subtlety—or known at all, really. But Howe’s pain was real. It was the agony of the highbrow admitting defeat at the hands of the middlebrow. “If a future historian of the Yiddish epoch in American Jewish life will want to know how it came to an end,” Howe concluded portentously, “we now can tell him. Yiddish culture did not decline from neglect, nor from hostility, nor from ignorance. If it should die, it will have been from love—from love and tampering.”
Never mind that one of the greatest of all Yiddish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, was still producing bracing work even as Howe was writing these words. Never mind that in point of fact, there really never had been a period of time grand enough to be worthy of being called “the Yiddish epoch in American Jewish life.” And never mind that if there ever had been such an epoch, Sholom Aleichem did not play a part in it. He lived in America for four only years out of his 57 on this earth, and our country was not his subject.
What Howe was really bemoaning here was what he took to be the appropriation of Sholom Aleichem and the subsuming of his Tevye into the great swamp of sweetie-pie cuddliness that had, Howe believed, laid waste to the higher culture represented by Yiddish literature. This criticism is given some weight by the character of Yente, the only one that does not appear in any Tevye story; she acts more like a nudnik mah-jongg-playing friend of Tevye’s wife Golde than she does a 19th-century village matchmaker.
As for Tevye himself, both in song and speech, he is literally a “yeidle-deedle-deidle” Jew—indeed, those are among the nonsense scat phrases he sings in “If I Were a Rich Man.” Even his piety is adorable in the show; after he reflects upon how his wealth would allow him to sit by the eastern wall of the shul and discuss books with the wisest men, he lets out a darling “oyyy.” The vulgarity of Fiddler on the Roof was, in Howe’s view, an example of the Jewish role in destroying what was best about Jewish culture in pursuit of mediocre bourgeois comforts.
And yet. And yet. Howe was clearly allergic to the very quality that made Fiddler on the Roof the most successful musical of Broadway’s golden age—more than the shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein, more than My Fair Lady, more than West Side Story, all written by Jews but with only a few Jewish characters popping up here and there. Yes, the creative team behind Fiddler was working within the limits imposed by their desire to produce an undeniably crowd-pleasing musical meant to tickle the funny bone and bring a tear to the eye. They did not set out to produce a stage version of Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World.3
But however inherently vulgar the musical form might be, when it is at its best, it breaks loose from the bonds of its own conventions and—through a mysterious alchemical process uniting its book and song and dance—achieves something transcendent. There is no musical of which this is truer than Fiddler on the Roof, and much of that is due to the labors of Jerome Robbins. This self-hating Jew undertook a study of Orthodox Jewish life in New York City to find fresh inspiration for his direction of the show.
Robbins and his collaborators went to a Borough Park community prayer house to witness Simchat Torah, the holiday on which Jews celebrate with dance and drink at the conclusion of the annual reading of the Five Books of Moses. What they saw stunned them. “The secular showmen expected gentle folk forms of all hold hands and mosey one way round a circle and then the other,” Solomon writes. “Instead, they felt the room shake from floor stomping, body twisting, athletic flinging, and writhing.”
Robbins began to sneak into Orthodox weddings, mostly on the Upper West Side. He wrote this magnificent diary entry about what he saw:
Hats flew off, chairs overturned—but the rough dominant force that was released by all this kinetic energy was overpowering—for in spite of each man improvising as he felt—in spirit of primitive variations of the basic rhythm—two things held them together. Their constant hand grip…And secondly, the deep & powerful assertion—a strength I never knew—a dedication to a rite, claiming survival & joy, procreation & celebration.
Robbins believed this gorgeous frenzy “said Yes I am here & I celebrate the continuity of my existence.”
As Solomon writes, “this dancing provided the proof positive, and further inspiration, for his demand that the show express Jewish robustness and resilience—the strength that…had been obscured in popular representations for decades.”
It was Robbins’s discovery and repurposing of what might be called the physicalized expression of Jewish belief at the shtiebels of Brooklyn and the wedding halls of Manhattan that gave and gives Fiddler on the Roof much of its extraordinary force and power. The characters simply do not move the way other characters in musicals move. Tevye shakes his hands and arms both in defiance and supplication as he demands to know of God why it would spoil some vast eternal plan for him to be a wealthy man.
The opening number, “Tradition,” features all the inhabitants of Tevye’s shtetl—the papas, the mamas, the sons, the beggar, the men of business, the rabbi—dancing in small circles and then weaving in out of one another’s circles in a gloriously intricate version of a classic hora.
Robbins adapted a trick he saw “a man with a rusty beard” perform at several weddings. Robbins had four of his dancers take glass bottles and place them on their black hats—no tape, no cutouts on top of the hat to keep the bottles in place.
He rehearsed them for hours as they learned how to keep the bottles from falling while sliding to their knees and snapping up again to a standing position and moving side to side in a 90-second tour de force—to my mind, the greatest choreographic coup de théatre in all of American theater.
In these moments and many others, the men who made Fiddler weren’t falling back on the mid-century desire to deracinate and defang the Jews; they were writing and directing a show about Jews capable of wild abandon and deep feeling, and who would experience tremendous sorrow before the evening was through.
Fiddler, Robbins wrote in his diary, must avoid “making all the Jews & all of the people understanding, philosophic & hearts of gold, wry of expression & compassionate to the point of nausea.” In other words, he was conscious of the sweetie-pie-Jew problem and worked tirelessly to pare as much of it away as he thought possible in favor of something that was at once more textured and more visceral.
Unquestionably, his efforts were stymied to some degree by the conventional demands of the musical form—demands Fiddler fulfilled so remarkably that its original production had a then-unprecedented 3,242-performance run.4 Three successful revivals in 1991, 2004, and 2015 added another 1,500 performances to the tally.
But it would take the production of Fiddler Afn Dakh, 20 years after Robbins’s death, to complete the task he had set for himself as he, in Solomon’s words, “labored mightily to burn away the schmaltz that…had encased the world of the shtetl like amber.”
The Israeli theater pioneer Shraga Fridman rendered Fiddler on the Roof into Yiddish in the mid-1960s for a Yiddish-speaking audience in Israel. His translation is the one used in Fidler afn dakh, and it is revelatory. I am not a Yiddish speaker, but I know enough to pick out words and phrases I learned at the foot of my grandmother, for whom English would always be a second language even though she lived in America for 76 of her 93 years. And hearing the show performed in Yiddish has the immediate effect of de-vulgarizing it in exactly the way Robbins wanted without knowing that’s what he wanted.
Stein and Harnick knew they were introducing terms and ideas that would be new to many people in the audience, as they were new to Stein and Harnick—and so their characters tend to speak about Jewish matters in a way that can act on the ear like chalk dragged across a blackboard.
The characters wish each other “Good Sabbath,” for example—when saying “Gut Shabbos” would have been perfectly clear. One of Tevye’s catchphrases is “As the Good Book says.” The “good book” is a Christian, not a Jewish, formulation.
Individually, these are tiny infelicities, but they add up; at times they make it seem like you are not watching a dramatic piece of theater but a didactic pageant. They also feel like a kind of deracination of the midcentury kind, a near-neurotic expression of the creative team’s excessive worry about seeming too strange and foreign.
Fridman’s translation is not literal, and that is the glory of it. Since he was intimately familiar with Sholom Aleichem’s Jewish and Yiddish references and wordplay in a way Stein and Harnick were not, he was able to go back to the original in wonderfully clarifying ways. The most obvious is the retitling of “If I Were a Rich Man” as “Ven Ich Bin a Rothschild”—which happens to be the name of a Sholom Aleichem story that is not about Tevye.
The specificity of it—a poor Jew in a Russian backwater dreaming that he might be a scion of the world’s best-known rich Jewish family—somehow drains the song of its yeidle-deedle-deidleness and gives it the indelible combination of sharp wit and dreamy naiveté that characterizes Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye.
One of the Borscht-Beltiest scenes in the show comes when Tevye makes up a dream involving his wife’s grandmother. Golde asks him how her grandmother looked. In the English, Tevye says, “For a woman who is dead 30 years, she looked very good.” Ba-dum-bump. The same joke is there in the Yiddish, but with a single word change that again adds that crucial specificity and elevates the joke: “Far a yidene vos lebt shoyn nit draysik yor hot zi gants gut oysgezen.” Tevye calls Grandma Tseytl a yidene—a Jewish woman.
The lyrics that follow immediately do the same. The ghost of the grandmother sings, in classic Yidlish:
“A blessing on your head…
to see a daughter wed…
and such a son-in-law
like no one never saw…”
In the Yiddish:
A simcha do bey nacht…
A chasene gemacht…
An eydem a briliant
Vu zet men dos in land?
Attentive listeners can pick out words they might have previously encountered that work to take something general and cutesy and make it focused and witty: simcha, celebration; chasene, wedding; eydem, groom; briliant, jewel. The overall translation is this: “A celebration here tonight / A wedding made / A son-in-law, a jewel / where does one see this in this land?”
In scene after scene, conflict after conflict, the use of the Yiddish somehow raises the dramatic stakes and makes the characters seem more real—and their troubles and pains more piercing.
The monumental performance of Steven Skybell as Tevye—one of the greatest I have ever seen, and even more astonishing when you discover he learned the part phonetically—hits you with the force of Tevye’s native wit, his cockeyed determination to prove himself a scholar, and what Joseph Epstein called Tevye’s “fathomless love” for the daughters who will mostly bring him grief. The stories are tragicomedies, and the Yiddish version of Fiddler makes it clear how close to the tragic they really are; the only thing that spares us from collapsing in grief at the cosmic injustices visited upon Tevye is his dogged refusal to do so.
Mostly, though, what Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish represents—though it does not mean to do so—is a quiet and potent rebuke to the kind of mushy universalism that animated the Jewish popular culture of the midcentury. It was shot through The World of Sholom Aleichem and helped cause the terrible betrayal of I.L. Peretz’s purpose in writing “Bontshe the Silent” even as it made the show a sensation among Jews—and led the way a decade later to the staging of Fiddler on the Roof.5
The message of the heroes of popular culture who helped make Judaism and Jews palatable figures on the American landscape was that we are deep down all the same, all of us just wanting our buttered piece of bread. Our differences are superficial, and to the extent they are evident, they are just emanations, bits and pieces of charming folk behavior that provide delightful local color.
The Jews for whom this was true in 1964 when Fiddler premiered, the ones for whom Jewish tradition would end up being expressed by the playing of “Sunrise, Sunset” at a wedding, the ones who took all that universalism to heart—many if not most of them have by 2019 allowed much of what made them specifically and noticeably Jewish to wither away. That universalism came at a cost.
As Jerome Robbins discovered when he found himself swept away by the ecstatic dancing of the black-hatted men who provided him with the (perhaps divine?) inspiration he needed to bring Fiddler on the Roof to indelible life, and as Fidler Afn Dakh shows us in its every gorgeous minute, the beating heart of Judaism can be found in the affirmation of Judaism’s permanence—“Yes I am here & I celebrate the continuity of my existence.”
1 The convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff, visible at conservative parties in Washington in the 1980s due to his yarmulke, said that the movie version (which earned the equivalent of $500 million in today’s dollars at the box office when it was released in 1971) led him to Orthodox observance. (What a blessing.)
2 It is notable that in the Yiddish production now running, the characters are constantly kissing invisible mezuzot all over the stage.
3 Robbins studied Vishniac’s photographs of rural Jewry in Poland in the years just before World War II as he was preparing for Fiddler, but the real influence of A Vanished World can be seen in Norman Jewison’s superb film version of 1971, whose visual scheme was based on Vishniac’s work. The movie makes you feel every step Tevye takes in the Eastern European mud as he drags his milk wagon behind him.
4 In fulfilling them, Fiddler proved vastly more popular than Robbins’s more innovative and far more tough-minded previous productions, West Side Story and Gypsy. He did these three shows in a row, from 1957 to 1964. Think of it.