Fiddler On The Roof Film Analysis Essay


by Edward Shapiro

It has been fifty years since Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway on Tuesday, September 22, 1964 at New York City’s Imperial Theater. To mark its golden anniversary, two histories of the musical have recently been published. One is Alisa Solomon’s incisive, comprehensive, and scholarly Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof” (2013); the other is Barbara Isenberg’s more popular and lightly researched Tradition! The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of “Fiddler on the Roof” (2014). (Also valuable for students of the Fiddler phenomenon is Jeremy Dauber’s engrossing 2013 biography The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye.) In the past half century Fiddler has attained a mythic status among American Jews. There are few adult American Jews who are unfamiliar with stage or cinematic portrayal of the tribulations of Tevye, Golda, and their three eldest daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava.

No one associated with Fiddler anticipated that the show would be a smash, and they would have been happy had it lasted a year. Previous (and later) Broadway shows with Jewish themes had been at best modestly successful, and few thought Fiddler would attract many gentile theater-goers. One potential producer turned it down because he believed its appeal would be limited to Hadassah theater parties. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Fiddler was one of the great successes in Broadway history, and its original backers made a fortune. Its eight-year run of 3,242 performances surpassed that of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and South Pacific, and until Grease came along in 1979 it held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical or non-musical show. There have been five Broadway revivals of the show, and every year at least five hundred productions of Fiddler are staged in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s the musical was performed in Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Greek Swedish, Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages. The Japanese version became the longest-running American musical in Japan, and the British version played in the West End for four and a half years. The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes gushed in 1967 that Fiddler, after only three years, had become “a living, breathing classic. To criticize it would be like criticizing motherhood, and, like motherhood, it’s here to stay.” Pauline Kael, the notoriously critical movie-reviewer, said the 1971 film of Fiddler, that year’s most financially successful movie, was “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

Yet there were many people who, despite Barnes and Kael, disparaged Fiddler. Part of this stemmed from an elitist disdain for Broadway’s appeal to middle-brow tastes, and it certainly is true that Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) were not in league with Verdi or Puccini. But criticism of the show, particularly by Jews, was motivated by more than cultural snobbishness. First of all there was the matter of historical accuracy. Jerome Robbins, the director of Fiddler, took great pains to portray Jewish life in Russia as truthfully as possible, transporting the cast to Orthodox weddings in New York City and providing them books on the history and sociology of Eastern European Jews. In the competition between historical verisimilitude and the demands of theater, however, the latter emerged victorious. Thus the matchmaker in Fiddler was a woman, but matchmakers of Fiddler’s era were men. No tailor would come to a Friday night Sabbath meal with a tape measure around his neck, nor would any rabbi dance with a woman. Neither the sets nor the characters ring true.

In his 1964 Commentary essay “Tevye on Broadway,” the Yiddish literary scholar Irving Howe described Fiddler as “gross,” “disheartening,” “a tasteless jumble of styles,” and “the cutest shtetl we’ve never had.” For Yiddish purists, Fiddler was a sacrilege, a reflection, to quote Howe, of the ignorance of American Jews of East European Jewish life and of “the spiritual anemia of Broadway and of the middle-class Jewish world which by now seems firmly linked to Broadway.” Howe was not alone. The novelist Philip Roth called Fiddler “shtetl kitsch,” and the writer Cynthia Ozick said it was “shund” (romantic vulgarization). Ironically, in 2002 YIVO presented Bock and Harnick with its Special Cultural Arts Award.

Then there is Fiddler‘s distortion of the eight Sholem Aleichem short stories upon which the musical was supposedly based. An example is the contrast between how Sholem Aleichem and Fiddler handled Chava’s conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and her intermarriage. Sholem Aleichem made clear that transgressing these ultimate Jewish taboos was unacceptable to Tevye’s world and that he would never forgive Chava. She is dead to him, and he and Golda sit shiva for her. When Tzeitel begs Tevye to show some pity toward Chava, he replies, “Don’t speak to me of pity. Where is her pity for me? She is not my daughter. My daughter died long ago.” Despite his love for Chava, traditionalism triumphs over universalism.

The message of the musical and movie, however, is different. Here Chava and her husband, Fyedka, come to see her family off after it has been expelled from the village. Tevye initially wants nothing to do with the couple, and Fyedka responds, “Some are driven away by edicts, and others by silence.” In other words, there is no fundamental difference between the anti-Semitism of the Czar and Tevye’s opposition to intermarriage. Tevye is moved by Fyedka’s words, and he acquiesces in the life the couple has chosen. “God be with you,” he says softly to them. Here Fiddler reflects the liberal sensibilities of Jerome Robbins and Joseph Stein, who wrote the musical’s book. Harry Stein, Joseph Stein’s son, said that his father did not object to his own marriage to a gentile, but he did regret that his son did not marry a black women since that would more clearly demonstrate the family’s liberal and integrationist bone fides.

Jewish survivalists strenuously objected to Fiddler’s take on the Chava story. Ruth Wisse, the Harvard Yiddish literary scholar, noted that “it must have felt perfectly innocent to change a Jewish classic into a liberal classic. . . . But if a Jewish work can only enter American culture by forfeiting its moral authority and its commitment to group survival, one has to wonder about the bargain that destroys the Jews with no applause.” Fiddler reflected the fundamental conflict within the liberalism of the 1960s between the celebration of ethnic and cultural pluralism on the one hand and the applauding of individual autonomy and the rejection of ethnic and religious divisions on the other. In esteeming Fiddler, American Jews were generally oblivious to the fact that they were being asked to simultaneously respect the values of Tevye while accepting the imperatives of the American melting pot. They have remained conflicted, and this tension has remained at the center of the debate over the nature of American Jewish identity.

The Americanized version of Tevye and his daughters has a typically American happy ending. Tevye leaves his village for the golden land and beckons the fiddler to join him, while Chaya and Fyedka are off to Cracow where they supposedly will live happily after. Why a couple from the Ukraine would select a Polish city is left unstated. “What the show ultimately celebrates was this melting pot called America,” its producer, Hal Prince, recounted. “At the end of the show, that’s where they were going. . . . And that’s the strength of this country—its identification with so many cultures and religions. It’s an amazing experiment that worked.”

Sholem Aleichem, in contrast to the Americans responsible for Fiddler, was not enamored of America. In his story “Tevye Goes to Palestine,” his daughter Bielke marries Padhatzur, a wealthy man embarrassed by his lower-class father-in-law. Padhatzur wants to get Tevye out of the war and says he will pay if Tevye relocates to the United States. “The colossal nerve of this contractor,” Tevye says. “Telling me to give up an honest, respectable livelihood and go off to America.” Padhatzur then suggests Palestine as an alternative destination, and Tevye prefers immigrating to primitive Palestine is better than remaining in his village and being subjected to the insults of his son-in-law.“ But Padhatzur goes bankrupt, is unable to fund Tevye’s relocation, and flees along with Beilke to America one step ahead of his creditors. “America is “where all the unhappy souls go, and that’s where they went.” Padhatzur was not the only one of Sholem Aleichem’s characters forced to move to America. Another is the son-in-law of Ephraim the Matchmaker, a crook and wife-beater. It would appear that for Sholem Aleichem is a refuge of scoundrels, and this might reflect his own troubled life in the United States.

In “Get Thee Out,” the last of the Tevye stories, Tevye is left wondering where he will end up after being forced out of his village. He resembles a cork on an ocean wave, and the possibilities where he might land include Odessa, Warsaw, and even America. In any case, the choice is not his, and he is a passive onlooker. In Fiddler, however, Tevye in an act of affirmation sets off to America with Golde (in the short story “Get Thee Out” Golda is deceased) and three of his daughters.

But what about Palestine? Tevye had looked forward to settling in Palestine courtesy of Padhatzur’s money. “I’ve been drawn for a long time toward the Holy Land,” he says. “I would like to stand by the Wailing Wall, to see the tombs of the Patriarchs, Mother Rachel’s grave, and I would like to look with my own eyes at the river Jordan, at Mt. Sinai and the Red Sea, at the great cities Pithom and Raamses.” Palestine is not a possible destination for Tevye in Fiddler, for Tevye, but it is for Yente, the town’s busybody. She declares she is going to take her “old bones” to Palestine and continue her career in matchmaking. “Children come from marriages, no? So I’m going to the Holy Land to help our people increase and multiply. It’s my mission.”

In the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler, Yente is no longer a soldier in the demographic war between Jews and Arabs but a feminist unconcerned with the future of the Jewish state. Joseph Stein, who also wrote the book for the revival, now has her proclaim, “I just want to go where our foremothers (sic!) lived and where they’re all buried. That’s where I want to be buried—if there’s room.” Israel is overcrowded, where old Jews come to be buried, and where the problems between Jews and Arabs have miraculously dissolved. If Palestine for Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye is the Promised Land, for Fiddler’s Tevye America is the land of promise. Here again Fiddler reflects the political sensibilities of its makers.

Edward Shapiro is professor of history emeritus at Seton Hall University and the author of A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflections on American Jewish History and Identity (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot (2006).

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No creative work by or about Jews has ever won the hearts and imaginations of Americans so thoroughly as the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary and next year will have its fifth Broadway revival.

Everyone enjoys this show, whose musical numbers—“Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker,” and others—not only enliven Jewish weddings but are commonly understood to represent something essential about Jews and Jewishness. Jeremy Dauber opens his new biography of Sholem Aleichem with Fiddler because Fiddler is how the beloved Yiddish author is known—if he is known at all—to English readers. “Forget Sholem Aleichem,” writes Dauber, “there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.” And Dauber ends the book by tracing the stages through which Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters were transformed by successive translators and directors into what, by the time the movie version of Fiddler was released in 1971, the New Yorker’s normally severe critic Pauline Kael would call “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

Soon after the stage production opened in 1964 (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, with Zero Mostel in the title role), I was urged to see it by my teacher, the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who had just completed his History of the Yiddish Language. Unlike some purist defenders of Yiddish culture who were expressing mixed feelings about a classic work being hijacked for the American stage—and in contrast to several highbrow Jewish intellectuals, offended by what Irving Howe blisteringly called the play’s “softened and sweetened” nostalgia—Weinreich was delighted that Sholem Aleichem’s masterwork would be accessible to audiences who could never have come to know it in the original. He even defended as legitimate some of the changes that had been introduced in order to appeal to an American audience. I, too, loved the show, not least because Yiddish literature had become my subject of study, and I appreciated the boost.

Even livelier than the stage production was the 1971 movie, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Chaim Topol, which exploited the freedoms of the film medium to veer still further from the original Yiddish conception. By this time, though, my own reservations about the enterprise had begun to mount. In the original series of stories and in all of their many adaptations for the Yiddish stage, whenever Tevye is defied by his daughters and challenged by his potential sons-in-law, he emerges morally intact. This is how we learn to appreciate his resistance to the historical forces that are trying to undo him. Economic hardship, Communism, internationalism, materialism, persecution, expulsion, and, by no means least, romantic love: powerless as he may be to stop their advance, Tevye is not mowed down by any of them.

So thoroughly does Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye command the plot line and its outcome that even Hava, the daughter who converts to Christianity in order to marry her Ukrainian lover Fyedka, does not get the better of him. However persuasive her arguments for a universalist ideal may be—why should God have separated people into Jews and Christians, and isn’t it time we repaired the breach?—Tevye does not sanction love over the integrity of the Jewish people. Nor do his paternal feelings for Hava excuse her defection; instead, he pronounces her dead to the family and observes the traditional seven days of mourning. Only when she repents does he accept her back; only because he has stayed firm is she able to return to a still-Jewish home.

Of course, it was the generous side of Tevye’s nature that made him so readily adaptable for an American audience. An observant Jew who prides himself on being able to quote traditional sources, he is also an accommodating parent who jokes at his own expense and uses prayer as an opportunity to argue with God. He may be conservative in his beliefs, but he is liberal in his instincts. Indeed, much of the humor in Sholem Aleichem’s stories about him pivots on the tension between his faith and his doubts, his tenacity and his lenient heart. But this only makes all the more striking the single point on which he will not yield. His “No!” to Hava is the dramatic and emotional centerpiece of the work.

 

And here the critics were right: the authors of Fiddler took the stuffing out of the derma. In both the Broadway and film versions, Tevye not only makes his peace with his daughter’s conversion and marriage but accepts the justice of her Christian husband’s rebuke of him as the couple departs for Cracow, Poland. (Ultimately, they would go to America.) “Some,” says Fyedka, “are driven away by edicts—others [that is, he himself and Hava] by silence.”

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Let’s understand what lies behind this sentence. Fyedka is daring to equate Tevye’s refusal to accept Hava’s conversion to Christianity with the czarist persecution of the Jews of Russia. The accusation is outrageous and brutal—but to it, Fiddler’s Tevye replies meekly: “God bless you.” Charged with bigotry for upholding the integrity of the Jewish people, he ends by endorsing the young couple’s intermarriage as the benign culmination of a leveling ideal. We might be tempted to turn Fyedka’s accusation against the accuser: some drive the Jews out of Russia, others drive Jewishness out of the Jews. But the “others” in this case include the authors of Fiddler, who demolish the dignity of their hero without any apparent awareness of what they have done.

A similar insouciance characterizes a recent “cultural history” of Fiddler on the Roof. Entitled Wonder of Wonders, after one of the show’s catchiest musical numbers, it is written by Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and teacher of journalism at Columbia. In this abundantly researched study, we can follow the path by which Sholem Aleichem’s drama of Jewish resistance evolved into a classic of assimilation. Although Solomon doesn’t make the connection, the process she describes closely resembles an earlier transmutation of a different Jewish work for the American stage: namely, the replacement in the 1950s of the original dramatization of the Diary of Anne Frank, by the novelist Meyer Levin, with a thoroughly de-Judaized version by the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

As is well known, Levin fought back. He could not abide the suppression of the Diary’s gritty Jewishness in favor of the upbeat, treacly, universalized message voiced by Anne in the Broadway production’s most quoted line: “[In] spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Over the decades, Levin’s pursuit of intellectual and moral restitution became an obsession, which is the one-word title he would give to his story about the American Jewish theater and the Jews. By contrast, Alisa Solomon hails the triumph of all that Levin mourned, writing with cheerful mien about Fiddler’s shift from kosher to “kosher-style.” Her celebratory work has won the plaudits of reviewers and academics alike.

 

I voiced some of my concerns about Tevye’s theatrical fate in my 2001 book The Modern Jewish Canon, and I return to them now with broader questions. Certainly, the authors of Fiddler were not the first to sacrifice Jewish identity to the universalizing ethos. One day, I’d finally sat down to read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 classic German drama Nathan the Wise, a plea for interreligious tolerance I had often seen praised for its positive representation of the Jew who is its title character. Nathan’s wisdom and nobility were known to have been modeled on the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But just as, in real life, Mendelssohn’s offspring left the Jewish fold, so, too, Lessing’s fictional Nathan leaves no Jewish heirs. It struck me that I would much have preferred a lesser Jew at the head of a large and living family to this generous paragon who leads his people to a dead end. It was as though the Jew could be celebrated only at the expense of his tribe’s survival, which is just the sort of happy ending that the team of Bock, Harnick, and Stein provide for their wise Jew, Tevye the Dairyman.

In fairness, I should note that Jews are not the only people whose integrity the authors casually cancel. Fyedka, an aspiring Ukrainian intellectual with his own sense of universal responsibility, leaves with Hava for Poland in generous-hearted protest against the expulsion of the Jews from Anatevka. Poland: really? Here our American authors betray little familiarity with, or patience for, the kind of ethnic-religious-linguistic-national rivalry that claimed—and has continued to claim—the lives and loyalties of Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles.

Liberal fantasy delights in improbable unions, and Fiddler on the Roof approaches the issue of Fyedka, Hava, and the Jews much like Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy Cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, got married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/. . . danced by the light of the moon.” In the same cockeyed spirit, Sholem Aleichem’s adapters, liberating the couple from the complicating features that sustain Tevye and the Jewish people, blithely ignore the likelihood that staying in Cracow would only have embroiled them in new enmities and eventually landed their descendants in Auschwitz.

It was the Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill who, having married a Gentile woman and abandoned his earlier Zionist commitment, supplied Americans with their own enduring image of harmonious amalgamation in his 1908 play The Melting Pot. The happy ending that Zangwill conjures up for David Quixano, a quixotic Jew who seeks refuge in America, takes the form of marriage with the daughter of the pogromist from whom he had managed to escape in Russia. Thus does the American melting pot liquefy the antagonisms and violence of Europe in a bland but warming stew.

Zangwill’s concept of misfortune is associated with threat from without. Sholem Aleichem’s concerns were all about the collapse of Jewish confidence from within: flight from Jewish responsibility, erosion of Jewish language, the snapping of the chain of Jewish transmission. Evidently, by the time we come to mid-century America and Fiddler, Sholem Aleichem’s talented adapters were all too ready to assume that the past was truly past, and that the problems of the Jews, like the “Jewish problem,” had finally been solved.

What is it about America—or about the American theater—that leads to such assumptions? I have often wondered why the team of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein gave up their original idea for West Side Story as a story about Catholics and Jews on New York’s Lower East Side. Could it be that only the substitution of Jets and Sharks as the warring parties allowed them to imagine a truly tragic outcome? To fight and die—albeit unintentionally—as the lovers do in Romeo and Juliet, and as Tony, the white Jet, does in this American adaptation of Shakespeare, is to possess something one is willing to fight for, like family honor or group pride. Puerto Ricans or Poles might go to the mat for such values—but Jews?

I suspect Bernstein and Robbins couldn’t imagine Jews in such a scenario—and certainly not when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was already becoming commonplace. In fact, in every Al Jolson or Benny Goodman story, it is the Jewish parents who must demonstrate their largesse by accepting their son’s marriage to a Christian. Refuse, and they would be labeled bigots, which is precisely the fate visited on Tevye by his American handlers.

 

Guaranteed rights, freedoms, and civic obligations were the great gifts that America offered its Jews, and these, combined with upward mobility, were surely enough to be grateful for even when marred by discrimination. Toleration came somewhat more gradually, but faster to Jews than to “people of color,” and the lure of assimilation was correspondingly stronger among Jews than among many other ethnic and religious groups. Indeed, many liberal Jews became so wedded to the universalist ideal as to become intolerant of fellow Jews who wished to stay identifiably Jewish.

This illiberal form of liberalism, practiced by Jews as well as non-Jews, has always objected to the nexus of religion and peoplehood that has historically defined the Jews and their civilization. Judaism invites in anyone who truly wants to become a Jew, but differs from universalist creeds in not expecting or requiring that everyone do so. Paradoxically, this makes Jewish Jews more tolerant of others than those who cannot abide the idea of a people apart—like Fyedka, who equates Tevye’s stubborn Jewish loyalty with czarist xenophobia. With that in mind, one might venture that if Fiddler on the Roof marks a high point in American Jewish culture, the triumph of American-style Fyedkaism represents its low.

Great art requires a moral seriousness that allows for the possibility of tragedy as well as the relief of comedy. Sholem Aleichem endows Tevye with this potential. His concluding words in Sholem Aleichem’s concluding chapter are: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” The conclusion of Fiddler on the Roof, in Alisa Solomon’s approving summary, shows that Tevye belongs nowhere, which she takes to mean that he belongs everywhere. Meaning, everywhere the “old God of Israel” is not.

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Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

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