Oy, what would Tevye have said?

  • 5774 filddler home
“Fiddler on the Roof” celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Broadway debut last week. But, while it has introduced Jewish tradition to millions of people around the world, the show hasn’t always accommodated those seeking to observe tradition. Two years into its first Broadway run & just a year after Sandy Koufax famously sat out the World Series on Yom Kippur, Fiddler fired an actress/rebbetzen for taking off to observe the High Holidays.
by ANT KATZ | Oct 05, 2014

Ann Marisse, who played Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, said she had notified her managers well ahead of time that she would miss for the Holidays and had alerted her understudy.

“I made it clear to [the show’s manager] that being the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi and the wife of an ordained rabbi, my religious convictions dictated to me that I observe the Holy Days and absent myself from the show,” Marisse wrote in a letter quoted in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

'Sunrise, sunset' for the 18 250th time last week
as 'Fiddler on the Roof' marked the
50th anniversary of its 1964 Broadway premiere

However, Harold Prince, the show’s producer, countered that Marisse had not requested permission in advance, instead calling in sick at the last minute.

According to a 1966 media report, “Fiddler” management admitted that they permitted actors and other personnel to take off  “either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but not both”.


The original JTA dispatch: September 23, 1964:

NEW YORK (JTA) — Thousands of theatregoers stood in three lines for hours last night, seeking admission to the Imperial Theatre here, where a musical based on Sholom Aleichem’s Works “Tevya the Dairyman,” opened on the previous evening, evoking the most unprecedented praise ever voiced for a play on a Jewish theme produced on Broadway.

The winning musical, entitled “Fiddler on the Roof,” stars the noted actor Zero Mostel as “Tevya” and has a large cast which includes other well-known actors. It conveys very successfully and with abounding hum or the life portrayed by Sholom Aleichem, the world-famous Jewish humorist, of the Jews in the small towns in Russia under the Czar. Mr Mostel is extremely good in his role, and is ably supported by the cast. Critics predicted today that 'Fiddler on the Roof' will be one of the most successful plays of the year on Broadway."

5774-Fiddler Tevya

LEFT: Actor Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, taking a curtain call at the Minskoff Theatre in New York in 2005

For the story behind the story, check out recent books by Barbara Isenberg (“Tradition! The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical”) and Alisa Solomon (“Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof“).

Jonathan Kirsch’s blogged on the book:

In reviewing Isenberg’s book for the LA Jewish Journal, Jonathan Kirsch acknowledges some of the longstanding criticism of “Fiddler”:

For those who find fault with the universalising of “Fiddler”, the show is not wholly endearing, a fact that Isenberg readily acknowledges. Philip Roth dismissed “Fiddler” as “shtetl kitsch”. Cynthia Ozick described its book and lyrics as “emptied out, prettified romantic vulgarisation”. More recently, according to Isenberg, the distinguished critic Ruth Franklin found one recent production of “Fiddler” to be “cartoonish, condescending and ‘pure Broadway’.”

My first response: Your point? Who doesn’t need a little shtetl kitsch once in a while?

That said, for all its sappy sentimentalism, “Fiddler” displays a deep and poignant courage, especially compared to other tradition-clashes-with-modernity fare produced in recent decades.

Films like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Bend it Like Beckham” essentially tell immigrant parents to relax - your kids can embrace Western culture and stay true to tradition.

“Fiddler,” on the other hand, has the fortitude to acknowledge that the weakening of tradition, while surely a boon for individualism, can have dire consequences. The musical does not flinch from hard truths: The rise of our modern world means the end of Anatevka. Tevye, his wife and their two youngest daughters are headed to the Golden Medina, but the coming waves of upheaval likely mean a bitter fate for the three daughters and their husbands who stay behind.

To quote myself (you can do that in a blog post, right?): The greatness of “Fiddler on the Roof” is not measured in Yiddish accents or shtick, but by its portrayal of change and tradition as a dangerous dialectic - experienced by a struggling milkman who never loses his sense of humour.


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