August 27, 2022
Watching 'Fiddler on the Roof' in Hebrew in Tel Aviv - opinion
By Barbara Sofer
“Summertime, and the living is easy,” says the song. Not always so easy.
The media feature massifs of missing luggage with reports of prices of hotels and flights rising together with global temperatures. Photos of melting glaciers.
Here’s a happy suggestion.
Convinced by the dynamic radio advertisements that the show would be spectacular, my husband and I picked up three close-to-bat-mitzvah-age Sabra granddaughters from three different Israeli locations, none of them Tel Aviv, for a night in the big city.
All three of these granddaughters love to sing.
I CAN remember going with my parents when Fiddler opened on Broadway in 1934. It felt almost like a religious ritual to see this show. My parents drove three hours from our home in Colchester, Connecticut, to New York City and booked a hotel room for us. Tevye the Milkman was played by the late Zero Mostel, whose love of Sholem Aleichem and Orthodox background imbued the character and all future Tevyes with Jewish sound and soul.
The first Hebrew version opened soon after Broadway, in June 1965, at the Alhambra Theater in Tel Aviv, with the late Haifa-born actor Bomba Tzur playing Tevye.
Fiddler was such a big hit that the Israeli opening was covered in The New York Times. Chaim Topol later took on the role, which he would premiere in London in February 1967.
Several years ago, Topol spoke of his long association with Tevye at an English-language Fiddler performance by the Beit Hillel Theater Workshop of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Four months after his London debut, the Six Day War started. Topol swapped his costume for IDF fatigues. When he returned to the stage the following week, the play was more popular than ever and took on the feeling of a victory celebration for the Jewish people. He was so good as Tevye that he was cast to play Tevye in the movie, for which he won an Academy Award.
All this being said, we’d never seen the show in Hebrew. Fortunately, the evergreen musical has returned to Israel in a superb production by Habima under the artistic direction of Gadi Tzadka and his Teatron Ivri repertory company. Israeli-born Nathan Datner, 66, is reprising his role as Tevye after a 14-year break. I don’t know how he was back then, but the mature Datner as Tevye is terrific.
ALTHOUGH “TEL AVIV” is sort of a glowing amorphous concept to our preteens, we realized that they are unfamiliar with the city itself. In the early evening, they’re on the lookout for celebrities as we name the famous streets. There’s easy parking under the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, so we go out for a pre-show dinner. The Landwer Cafe on site is no longer certified kosher, but we have recommendations for what turns out to be an excellent burger place called Memphis. (No sightings of Elvis.)
Lowy Hall of the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv is grandiose, and our girls are wowed. When the play starts, the sophisticated set, the skilled choreography and the brilliant acting are dazzling.
During the break, I fill in the background for the kids, tell them about Broadway or the West End of London, and that the musical has been performed thousands of times there, as well as in almost every non-Muslim country in the world.
This puzzles one granddaughter, who, when the play starts again, whispers a lingering question: “Our version of the play is so Jewish,” she says. She wonders whether the play that drew crowds in New York and London (not to mention other places such as Mexico and Japan) were versions adapted to other religions. Is there a Christian or Shinto version of Fiddler? She is surprised when I tell her that the nearly identical Jewish versions – Shabbat candles, ritual fringes, bottle dances – are as popular in New York and Tokyo.
She’s not the only one surprised by Fiddler’s international popularity. The original backers in New York were worried that it was too Jewish for a general audience. They were alleged to have asked who would come “when all the Hadassah women’s benefits were finished?”
On the way home – in between their singing along with the Fiddler songs which they find on their phones – I try to explain about the particular and the general, how the show is true to details of our own Jewish lives and at the same time expresses universal themes.
The theme song is “Tradition” (Masoret” in Hebrew), but the show actually illustrates the struggle with tradition from one generation to the next. And then, on the other hand, as Tevye would say, despite the portrayal of the struggle of the younger generation, the beauty of the traditional family and the authenticity of Jewish life in Anatevka shines through, even as the daughters bring changes to their own lives – not all of them positive.
Although they know about the Shoah, the difficulties faced by Eastern European Jews in earlier generations are less familiar to them. We talk about their own great-great-grandparents who lived in towns like Anatevka. One great-great-grandfather was much like Perchik, the socialist idealist in the play, and had to convince the parents of his piously brought-up love to let him marry her. Like Perchik, he got into trouble with the local police, and that’s how our family got to America.
We also talk about Sholem Aleichem, which sets me off on an unsuccessful search for a young person’s version of the stories.
As for me, I loved seeing the show with my granddaughters among 2,400 fellow Israelis who understand the references, appreciate the nuances and laugh at the jokes.
There have been various endings to Fiddler the show, and I wondered what ours would be. Sholem Aleichem changed the ending of the original “Tevye the Milkman” after the Beilis libel trial of 1913. Certain early Hebrew productions had the family making aliyah.
In this version, Tevye and Golda move to America.
Like our family. I tell them that we had cousins who did indeed go directly from Eastern Europe to Petah Tikva, and they were here to welcome me when I made aliyah. Then all of us were privileged to welcome the newest cousins to arrive last year, from Denver. Our ongoing family journey.
What a remarkable night in that remarkable city built on sand dunes. No jet lag.