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The Show That Made the World Fall in Love With the Jews and Grow Nostalgic for Tevye

Alisa Solomon’s kaleidoscopic look at ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ explores the political and cultural backdrop of the 49-year-old smash

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Actor Zero Mostel, center, who portrays Tevye in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," poses backstage with cast members after the play's opening performance at the Imperial Theatre in New York City on Sept. 22, 1964. Maria Karnilova, who plays Tevye's wife, Golde, is at far left. Playing Tevye's daughters, from left, are, Tanya Everett, as Chava; Julia Migenes, as Hodel; and Joanna Merlin, as Tzeitel. (AP)
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It’s fairly common nowadays to hear renditions of “Sunrise, Sunset,” for instance, or “The Sabbath Prayer,” memorable melodies from the Fiddler on the Roof, at bar mitzvahs or weddings. Songs from that musical—whose story is inspired by the work of Sholem Aleichem—have become an indelible part of our popular cultural lexicon not just in the United States, but worldwide. Directed by Jerome Robbins and starring Zero Mostel, Fiddler debuted on Broadway in 1964 and quickly became a smash, resonating with Jewish audiences comfortable enough in their assimilated lives in America to be able to look fondly back at the shtetl their parents left behind. How the play got made and what its significance has been for peoples of all ethnicities and backgrounds is the subject of a new book by Columbia University professor Alisa Solomon.

Solomon joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. She talks about the postwar exuberance that Jews were reveling in when the curtain went up in the ’60s, the contrasting backgrounds of Robbins and Mostel (the former was deeply ambivalent about his Jewishness and named names at the HUAC hearings in the 1950s; the latter grew up Orthodox, left that world to become an artist and performer, and was a fellow traveler with the type of person Robbins exposed) and their creative tensions; and she sings a few bars from her favorite song—one that didn’t make it into the final production. [Running time: 30:21.] 

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The Show That Made the World Fall in Love With the Jews and Grow Nostalgic for Tevye

Alisa Solomon’s kaleidoscopic look at ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ explores the political and cultural backdrop of the 49-year-old smash

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