Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (8 page)

BOOK: Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
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Centered, as it is, on the Khave story, the play sounded a question that had rushed to the surface of communal consciousness with the war—an implicating question that the popular audience, perhaps, didn’t have breath to ask directly. Khave’s marriage raises it obliquely as it conflates the threats of antisemitism and intermarriage: Would Jews survive?

Reviewing the production for the
in 1919, B. Vladek was exactly right when he noted how the play touched the public’s nerve at a time when “the whole Jewish people is in danger of being wiped out, when no day goes by without news about Jewish misfortune.” The audience broke out in thunderous applause, he reported, “when Khave comes back and Tevye turns out to be the conqueror in spirit and in belief.” Vladek suggested that their ovation conveyed their own steadfast conviction that “no one can break the Jews.”

In that instance—and in the myriad forms
Tevye der milkhiker
has taken over nearly a century since then—the play served as a touchstone for communal pride and commitment to continuity in times of turmoil, no matter how extensively or fractiously that community may revise, or internally dispute, its essence. As a drama about cultural adaptation that itself has been adapted repeatedly for shifting cultural circumstances,
has grappled with the anxieties and the promises of constancy and change in form as well as content.

*   *   *

Maurice Schwartz’s regular revivals and world tours helped bring
Tevye der milkhiker
into the international Yiddish repertoire—as did Jewish history itself. Artists around the world created versions of the drama that responded to their own local upheavals.

In Warsaw, amid the interwar groundswell of Jewish culture, the actor Rudolf Zaslavsky staged an adaptation of the story “Tevye Goes to the Land of Israel” in 1928. Polish Jews, who had not gone through the kind of rupture from the homeland that American immigrants had experienced, received the production as a touching rendering of a revered classic, but in that time and place the play could not help but feel like a bit of a throwback. Eight years earlier, the Vilna Troupe (which had moved to Warsaw in 1917) revolutionized the Yiddish theater with its production of
The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds
, the mystical play by S. Ansky based on his ethnographic expedition through western Russia just before World War I. The expressionistic staging (directed by Dovid Herman in Warsaw and then, in 1922, by the avant-garde pioneer Evgeny Vakhtangov in a Hebrew-language production in Moscow, while Maurice Schwartz’s production in New York in 1921 took a less stylized approach) challenged the folksy realism of plays like
. In another two decades or so, the village milkman would acquire tragic new resonance on the killing fields of Poland, of course, but while Yiddish modernism flourished in Warsaw
laid a claim for Yiddish classicism—the pleasing standard against which a new aesthetic could define itself.

The Tevye material seems to call for at least a measure of theatrical realism. Apart from the story’s demand for empathy with its characters, which abstract stage styles typically spurn, the breaking down of the Old World has an emotional impact only if that world is established through the experiences of engaging characters. Post–World War I modernism, after all, rejected everything Tevye stood for: convention, tradition, belief in an all-powerful God. If a Tevye play has already disassembled such values in its very form, there is no place for the play to go, no means by which the action can unfold a process of dissolution. So the artists of the Soviet Yiddish stage understood. A five-hour adaptation of the Tevye stories was a triumph at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (or GOSET, the Russian acronym by which it’s usually known) only after the regime officially repudiated avant-garde approaches.

GOSET belonged to the sweeping Soviet program for spreading the revolutionary gospel to the masses in the languages to which they’d most readily respond. Recognizing Jews as a “national minority” (along with such groups as Uzbeks, Tatars, and Ukrainians), the state subsidized Yiddish-language schools, newspapers, publishers, and theaters; GOSET’s charge was to produce work that was, as the regime sloganeered, “national in form and socialist in content.” The theater, which opened in 1921, managed to walk the tightrope of that seeming contradiction for some three decades, producing some of the greatest productions in the USSR in any language. The state often pointed to GOSET as a shining jewel of cultural achievement. And Sholem-Aleichem was one key to its success. Reviled by early Soviet critics for “romanticizing” prerevolutionary Jewish life, Sholem-Aleichem was quickly rehabilitated, heralded as a sly satirist of czarist oppression. GOSET’s debut production, in 1921, was an evening of Sholem-Aleichem one-act plays adapted from the Menakhem-Mendl stories notable, among other things, for set designs by Marc Chagall, who decorated the entire theater with murals as a means of erasing the boundary between audience and stage. Across the walls and ceiling, multisized figures danced, leaped, and rolled in a carnivalesque pageant featuring the theater’s artists, proletarian spectators, an emerald cow, and repurposed folkloric motifs. An acrobat wearing tefillin cartwheels as though overturning religion; a Torah scribe writes “once upon a time” onto a scroll, thereby secularizing a sacred text; and a green-faced violinist wearing a striped tallis that juts properly across his cubistically rendered clothing stands astride the rooftops of two little houses.

The staging was also emphatically antirealistic. Chagall “hated real objects as illegitimate disturbers of his cosmos and furiously threw them off the stage,” the art critic and GOSET dramaturg Avrom Efros recounted. In costumes and makeup also designed by Chagall, actors moved in an angular, mechanical choreography and their faces were painted with brash geometric designs—half green, half yellow for Solomon Mikhoels, who played Menakhem-Mendl with one eyebrow raised two inches higher than its natural position. The production, Efros wrote, looked like “Chagall paintings come to life.” Chagall was long gone from the USSR by the time GOSET got around to staging
, but his work would eventually be identified with Tevye’s story.

About a decade into GOSET’s history, the Soviet regime demanded adherence to “socialist realism,” and the theater had to change gears; the original director, Alexander Granovsky, defected to Germany, leaving the theater’s reins in the hands of Mikhoels, reportedly one of the nation’s greatest actors in any language. In 1939, he directed and performed in GOSET’s version of
Tevye der milkhiker
. As
had been at the Yiddish Art Theater in New York, its Soviet cousin became one of GOSET’s greatest hits. And as in America, the version in Moscow swayed with the local prevailing winds. Mikhoels, a small man but a sturdy presence onstage, played Tevye as a sympathetic relic of what he deemed a “fossilized patriarchal life of the Jewish family,” whose Scripture quoting showed how inadequate the “dead dogma” of Judaism was for explaining “the contradictions that develop with changed social relations.” Luckily, Perchik comes along not only to woo Hodl but also to teach Tevye the merits of dialectical materialism.

That same year, Maurice Schwartz made a movie version of
Tevye der milkhiker
, using for exteriors a wheat and potato field near Jericho, Long Island—Schwartz said it looked just like the Ukrainian countryside near his birthplace. While filming, the company heard the shocking news that Hitler and Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact. It wasn’t just the planes blaring into and out of nearby Mitchel airfield that disrupted the filming. Political discord strained life on the set. Like any other Yiddish cultural project of the period,
’s company comprised participants with conflicting commitments—Depression-era Communists, anti-Stalinist socialists, unaffiliated lefties, apolitical artistes. What united them was dread: as the filming fell behind schedule and work was extended past the end of August, the worst news broke—the Nazis had invaded Poland, where many had relatives. And now the story of Tevye’s perseverance and Khave’s return to her people took on an almost sacred temper. It is certainly the most somber of the
adaptations. “There sits upon Tevya’s shoulders the great resignation which is the birthright of his people,” declared a reviewer for the English-language
Chicago Daily Tribune
when the film was released in December.

For audiences, it expressed the anxiety and horror that gripped American Jews reading helplessly of Hitler’s advance across Europe. Schwartz stressed the antisemitism of Tevye’s neighbors. He created an opening scene in which Khave is taunted by a gang of Jew-baiting Ukrainian youths. In general, the film paints Ukrainians in coarse strokes, as violent, gruff, drunk, and brutish. Meanwhile, Schwartz slathered on the pathos. He filmed the sequence in which Tevye tells the local priest he’d rather see his children “perish” than marry outside their faith. (Overhearing the conversation, Khave faints.) And he created another in which Tevye not only confronts the priest in an effort to retrieve Khave (as in the original story) but also throws himself at the priest’s feet (while Khave whimpers upstairs, as if locked away from the home she already pines for). In a drawn-out sequence filled with precise ritual detail, Tevye and Golde sit shiva as if their daughter were dead. Golde soon dies in earnest. Tevye is evicted and Khave pleads to come back because the marriage has turned out a disaster. In what the film critic J. Hoberman calls “a triumphant rebuke” to the typical assimilationist fables proffered by most popular Yiddish movies, the closing shot tracks Tevye’s wagon setting off for Palestine.

The film may have captured the Jewish mood at the beginning of the war, offering some vague hope in the wish fulfillment of Tevye’s defiant survival. But even as critics praised Schwartz’s virtuosity and the film’s unusually high production values, they upbraided him for not representing the real Sholem-Aleichem. Foreshadowing the objections some Jewish critics would level at
Fiddler on the Roof
some twenty-five years later (and indeed at every dramatic and cinematic version of the material), the Communist
Morgn frayhayt
critic said the film “does not at all agree with the spirit and essence of Sholem-Aleichem’s writing.” Schwartz plays “with deep understanding” for the hero, he concluded. “But it is not
Tevye der milkhiker
, it’s something else and something worse.” The
concurred: “Merely a shadow of Sholem-Aleichem remains.” But today’s corruption is frequently tomorrow’s fidelity: what comes to be considered “authentic” is often simply the most recent precedent from which a new interpretation departs. In time, Schwartz’s film would seem like sterling.

Dramatizing the tension between tradition and progress,
would cycle through many rounds of such charges in the years to come, serving as Jewish culture’s always shifting constant. Still, it was no straight line from the Yiddish Art Theater to
Fiddler on the Roof
. The cultural sphere had to absorb Sholem-Aleichem into English after the Second World War. As he had become for the Yiddish-speaking generation after the first war, Sholem-Aleichem became available to their English-speaking children as an icon of the past, employed for cementing a new mode of Jewish American memory making. Cahan and the Yiddish theatergoing public had dismissed him as too outdated to be relevant in 1907. Four decades later, his oldness was useful in a new way. His work would speak powerfully to postwar exigencies—but only when adapted as America commanded.




handful of translators, writers, and artists estab
the ground on which
could eventually
stand. In works produced between 1943 and 1957, they made Sholem-Aleichem accessible to non-Yiddish readers, painted in words and pictures the milieu he represented, and proved his stage-worthiness for the American mainstream. In the complicated postwar period—a time of both exuberance and trauma for American Jews—they taught Tevye to speak English and laid his path to the stage.

These projects came in various genres and styles and from disparate directions, some with the express, urgent purpose of recovering a civilization that had just been extinguished, some propelled by the ideals of a lingering left, some dictated by the personal exigencies of an artist’s imagination. In the aggregate, they performed a crucial cultural task at a devastating time: they created the East European Jewish past for non-Yiddish-speaking Americans. They provided the language, imagery, and conceptual framework through which Americans encountered that world that was no more. For second- and third-generation Jews especially, they sutured a rupture with a legacy that might not have been acknowledged had it not burst.

Two different works titled
The World of Sholom Aleichem
nearly bookend this period of proliferating popular representations of East European Jewry. The first, an elegiac book by the Jewish nationalist Maurice Samuel, published in 1943, set the parameters for much of what follows; the second, a play by the leftist internationalist Arnold Perl, produced in 1953, was the first to bring Sholem-Aleichem (in English) to theatergoers around the country, and did so as a defiant rebuke to the anti-Communist blacklist. And centrally, in between, came two volumes of Sholem-Aleichem stories translated by Frances and Julius Butwin, inspired in part by Samuel’s book and utterly necessary to Perl, and the popular ethnography of the shtetl
Life Is with People
. If in the popular imagination
eventually cemented the image of the shtetl as a metonym for all of East European Jewish culture and fixed Tevye permanently within it, these various works made and mixed the mortar.

BOOK: Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
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