Read Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof Online
Authors: Alisa Solomon
A chief accomplishment of this period was the completion of the Tevye cycle—though Sholem-Aleichem added a new ending later—with the seventh story, “Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel” (1909). The daughter at the center this time, Beylke, attaches herself to a man her father approves. Golde, his wife, has died, sending Tevye into a fit of nihilism—“What’s the point of the whole circus, this whole big yackety racket of a world on wheels? Why, it’s nothing but vanity, one big zero with a hole in it!” Hoping to prevent further troubles for her father, Beylke weds the nouveau riche boor suggested by the local matchmaker, even though Tevye sees she cannot bear him. The new son-in-law schemes to send the embarrassingly low-class Tevye away, if not to America (which does not interest Tevye), then to Palestine, “where all the old Jews like you go to die.” The story ends with Tevye recognizing his part in obedient Beylke’s unhappiness—“To tell you the truth, when I think the matter over, the real guilty party may be me”—and selling off his belongings, even his horse, as he prepares to leave for the Land of Israel. Two years later, in 1911, Sholem-Aleichem published the entire series of stories, written over seventeen tumultuous years, in a single volume,
Tevye der milkhiker
. It seemed he was shutting the book on his voluble hero, as if, remarkably, there were nothing more he could say, as if just when Tevye stood on the brink of “going up” (the literal translation of the verb for moving to the Land of Israel), there was no lower point to which Sholem-Aleichem could bring him.
But things got worse for the people Tevye had come to embody. In March 1911, as Sholem-Aleichem was publishing the complete Tevye cycle, a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy disappeared on his way to school in Kiev. When his mutilated body was found a week later, the local right-wing movement seized the misfortune to inflame opposition to liberals in the Duma who had considered abolishing the Pale—elections were coming up—by distributing leaflets at the boy’s funeral claiming he’d been slain by Jews who needed his blood to bake matza and calling for pogroms to avenge the death of the “martyr.” Though local police linked the murder to a criminal gang, the Kiev district attorney dismissed their findings and prosecuted the case as a ritual murder. In July, authorities arrested Menachem Mendel Beilis, an unassuming clerk in a brick factory located near the scene of the crime. He languished in prison for two years as the case ground forward.
When the trial finally came to pass in the fall of 1913, it riveted the worldwide press as well as Sholem-Aleichem, who eventually linked Beilis’s fate to Tevye’s. High-profile writers and intellectuals, Jewish and Gentile, spoke out against the obvious scapegoating. In New York and in other cities around the globe where Yiddish theater scraped by, a spate of Beilis plays rushed onto local stages, provoking denunciations of the theaters’ shameless exploitation of a national tragedy for commercial ends—in newspapers that did not fail to advertise the plays. In New York, even Jacob Adler threw a
—or “picture of the times”—onto the boards. And soon so did Kessler and Thomashefsky.
Sholem-Aleichem, too, could not help but respond to the trouble riling up the city where he once lived and cowered as pogromists rampaged through the streets. He wrote a novel called
Der blutiger shpas
The Bloody Hoax
), whose plot centers on a high-stakes prince-and-the-pauper reversal (perhaps influenced by his association with Mark Twain): as they graduate from high school, two friends, Hersh Rabinowitz and Grigori Popov, agree secretly to trade places for a year so Popov, a wealthy Gentile, can learn what life is like for the Jews in czarist Russia. Starting out as a standard comedy of inversion, the novel takes a bitter turn when Popov is accused of a blood libel. (Sholem-Aleichem adapted the novel into a play a few years later, giving it a more comic twist and a new title,
Shver tzu zayn a yid—Hard to Be a Jew.
Sholem-Aleichem followed the Beilis case obsessively and as he pondered the deadly farce onstage in the Russian courtroom, Tevye marched back into his imagination. He pulled from his drawer a dramatic adaptation he had tinkered with some years earlier at the suggestion of a friend, and, predicting that the new medium of cinema would supplant the stage, and even literature, he wrote two screenplays based on his Tevye cycle. One, drawn from the first story, in which Tevye returns the lost ladies to their dacha, uses film’s unique capacity to show fantasy sequences—Tevye could imagine his passengers as witches with a dissolve; spectators could visually enter his dreams of becoming a miller, a store owner, even a banker doing business with Rothschild as he contemplated his reward. The adaptation of “Khave” relies on flashbacks—Tevye visibly recalling his daughter’s image as he bewails her shattering choice. (In this version, she drowns herself in a well at the end.)
Visiting Berkowitz and his family in Berlin in the fall of 1913, Sholem-Aleichem tried to peddle these screenplays to local filmmakers, along with one adapted from
The Bloody Hoax
. But the directors passed on the material—they didn’t want to show Russia in a bad light at a time when German-Russian relations were strained—and, according to Berkowitz, his father-in-law stashed the scripts for better times, perhaps in America. At least there was the good news of Beilis’s acquittal, which made Sholem-Aleichem break into “a hysterical shaking.” He sent Beilis a congratulatory gift: a set of his collected works.
When Sholem-Aleichem returned to his family in Lausanne, Tevye was still tugging on his psyche. He went back to work on the dramatization, and he kept revising it when—unable to bear the cold winter—he moved on by himself to the Italian Riviera. He didn’t seem to worry that a change from the original genre would alter the way his protagonist frames his own experiences as stories—onstage, Tevye would speak directly to spectators instead of to the unseen yet mediating Sholem-Aleichem persona. Rather, he was thrilled with the outcome, as he told his wife in a letter the day he finished a completely new dramatic version, in four acts with seven scenes. In the last scene—the most touching, he told her—Tevye takes leave of his home, kissing the naked walls and bidding a sad farewell to the cat that is about to be abandoned.
The story he put at the center was Khave’s—the daughter who marries a Ukrainian man and is mourned as though dead—but this time he gave it a happy ending: in the play, Khave leaves her husband and returns to the family fold when she hears that Jews are to be expelled from their homes. Sholem-Aleichem was responding directly to edicts that followed the Beilis affair (and, in an early draft of the play, he even had Khave’s husband believing the blood libel). Writing the play forced him to revisit the set of stories he thought he’d completed in 1911: if Tevye was going to be kicked out by czarist edict, he couldn’t already have left for the Land of Israel. So he opened the new story, “Lekh Lekho” (“Get Thee Out”), with Tevye telling the author, who must be surprised to see him still clamoring around the village, that just as he was getting ready to leave, his son-in-law Motl suddenly died and he had to stay behind to take care of his daughter Tzaytl and her children. That set up the plot possibility (which would prove crucial to
) for the local officer to come and throw him out. And in the story, as in the play, Khave returns to accompany her father and sister into the wilderness.
The title—recognizable to Sholem-Aleichem’s readers—hints ironically at some possibility of redemption: it quotes God’s words to Avram in Genesis, telling him to leave his home for a land where God would make of him a great nation. Tevye’s prospects may be more humble and uncertain. Nevertheless, he tells Tsaytl, “We ought to be counting our blessings. Even if we didn’t have a penny to our names, we’d still be better off than Mendel Beilis.”
When Sholem-Aleichem first thought about dramatizing the Tevye stories, he knew that the role—“the crown of my creation,” as he called him—would require an extraordinary actor, one who could combine grandeur and humbleness, draw equal measures of tears (but not too sentimental) and laughter (but without ridicule). It would take an artist of great skill, sensitivity, and charisma. As the play progresses, he predicted, “the audience loves him all the more.” He’d thought originally of Rudolph Schildkraut, when the legendary actor was still in his heyday, but now he had that grand old shark Jacob Adler in mind. “Although a hard man to do business with,” Sholem-Aleichem admitted in a letter to a friend in New York whose help he was requesting, Adler was “truly an artist, and I realized that Tevye was made for him.”
Even before he finished his script, Sholem-Aleichem drafted a letter—a mash note, really—to Adler. The address at the top of the page alone slathered on the flattery: to “the great artist and master of the Yiddish stage, Mr. Jacob P. Adler, New York.” It went on to insist, “only an artist like you is able of creating and revealing the soul of this character.” Sholem-Aleichem spared no praise for his own work. He elaborated its merits at length:
Great master of the stage! In my play you will not find any of the effects for which the Yiddish theater public has been cultivated for so many years. No heartrending, teary scenes of little corpses in cribs, of crazy women, disheveled maidens who scream as if in a madhouse and make the whole Bowery cry. No saccharine songs that pander to (and overestimate) “Moyshe’s” cheap fandom; also no love-’em-and-leave-’em boarders to whom modest maidens give up their chastity, before shooting themselves right in front of the audience. Also, no vulgar jokes and no tickling the audience’s armpit with the fingertip in hopes of making a buck. No. Don’t look for any of those tricks. You won’t find them from me. Instead, you will find a Jew, a father of five daughters, a simple man but a whole one, honest, devout, suffering. His life is full of tragedy, but he will make the audience laugh from beginning to end, not with derision but with the happy laughter of sympathy and fellow-feeling for all his great anguish and little troubles.… I like to think that this will become the crown role of your long artistic path before you bid your profession farewell—God grant you endless days, amen!
One of your most fervent admirers,
In a postscript, Sholem-Aleichem distributed the other roles to Adler’s wife and daughters. “In short,” he concluded his lengthy appeal, “this is your family play.”
The Adler family never did play those parts (though Jacob Adler’s son Luther would take over for Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original production of
half a century later). Indeed, the author never even sent the letter he had taken such pains to compose. A friend from New York leveled with him, reporting that the directors there no longer believed in the potential of his works, so Sholem-Aleichem spared himself yet one more humiliation and completed the play for eventual publication just in case, maybe someday, Tevye would make his way onto a stage.
By that time, New York’s Yiddish theatrical epicenter had shifted from the ever-seedier Bowery to Second Avenue. In 1911, David Kessler opened the 2,000-seat Second Avenue Theater at Second Street. Thomashefsky, in a loose partnership with Adler, followed a little over a year later when the real estate developer (and father of burlesque impresarios) Louis Minsky built them an Italian Renaissance theater a couple of blocks down, with gold and rose interiors, for $1 million—the National Theater, also seating 2,000 people. Music halls along the same avenue—differentiating themselves from the nickelodeons that offered a vaudeville act or two while movie reels were being changed—began presenting three- and four-act melodramas.
“Second Avenue” became the name for New York’s theatrical
(Jewishness) itself: flagrant tearjerkers, full-blown tragedies, ditty-filled romantic comedies, cautionary issue drama: all might play on a single night along the fourteen-block avenue for rapt and raucous spectators. The critics would never entirely abandon the sharp distinction between venerable artistry and shameless pandering—no more than English-language theater discourse would do without such binary standards—but increasingly both ends coexisted under the rubric of “Yiddish theater.” Often, within a single play.
The recession of 1913–14 pinched the theaters and the auxiliary businesses that had sprung up along Second Avenue—sheet music shops, photography studios, cafés for stars and their devotees to congregate and argue. But when war broke out in Europe, demand for American armaments and other exportable goods surged and, with it, the economy. In the years following, the Yiddish theater, like its English-language counterpart, enjoyed a spurt of growth and stability.
Not soon enough for Sholem-Aleichem. In any event, the great master Jacob P. Adler and his ilk lost their hold on his imagination in the summer of 1914. Only one thing mattered then: getting out of Europe as it was going up in flames.
Sholem-Aleichem and his family were vacationing on Germany’s Baltic coast when the war erupted that July. One day they were beach resort layabouts, the next they were enemies of the state. Germany had declared war on the land of their birth; as Russian nationals (though they hadn’t lived in Russia for nearly a decade), they had to get out. Along with other tourists, the family scrambled for a spot on one of the overcrowded trains heading toward Berlin, hoping, somehow, to get a train crossing out of the country from there. With borders closing and foreigners at the Berlin station fighting desperately to push their way onto trains heading north, Berkowitz and Sholem-Aleichem made their way onto one and, after a harrowing day, onto a boat for Sweden, and then on to Copenhagen. The five women and two little girls left behind in Berlin had to wait two days to find room on a train that then took three days to make the journey to Denmark, where they reunited with the family and tried, once more, to set up a new life.
Sholem-Aleichem fell into a depression as he learned that Russia’s Yiddish press and publishing industry had been shut down in an instant. He spent four listless months in Copenhagen and then, on November 19, 1914, wearily and warily, he and most of his family boarded the
, bound for America.