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‘Fiddler,’ in the Key of My Heart

I once reviled ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ a kitschy musical my parents adored. Now that it’s back on Broadway, I’ve come to reconsider its undeniable value.

Lisa Green
December 18, 2015
Zero Mostel as Tevye in the 1964 Broadway production of 'Fiddler on the Roof.'YouTube
Zero Mostel as Tevye in the 1964 Broadway production of 'Fiddler on the Roof.'YouTube

Fiddler on the Roof returns to Broadway on Sunday for its fifth revival, one that promises a “fresh and authentic” depiction of the triumphs and travails of the Jews of Anatevka, the fictional Russian shtetl that gave much of America its first look at life in the “old country.” Over the years, this resilient musical about Teyve the philosophical milkman, his practical wife, and their five daughters has prompted debate over whether it’s too sentimental to stand for a period of history that, it’s fair to say, rarely prompted Jews to break out in song. For me, that debate boils down to a simple, and very personal, binary: Should I see the play—and feel distaste, then guilt, about its cheer—or stay home, happily disconnected from my roots?

Fiddler and I are contemporaries. The musical was born on Broadway in 1964, the offspring of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein, assimilated Jews who teamed with a lapsed Jew, choreographer Jerome Robbins, to create a world that, though recognizably ethnic, communicated universal messages about love and family ties. Their source material, of course: the tragicomic Teyve the Dairyman tales of Sholem Aleichem.

I arrived almost the same year, in nearby Paterson, New Jersey, the first child born to Jews who emigrated from Poland, by way of German displaced persons camps, after World War II. By and large, my parents Pearl and Jack—or, I should say, Perle and Yankel—sanitized their harrowing Eastern European experiences through the expedient of silence, not song. The clues they offered about their past lives seemed relentlessly dark: frayed photos of solemn family members, shards of Yiddish spoken when we were meant to be excluded from the conversation. Questions about childhood or ancestry were never answered, since it was clear they should never be asked. But when it came to Fiddler, my parents—who you’d think had exceeded their mortal quota of peasants, pogroms, and prolonged physical suffering—lined up for more. They adored the play and, absent any other input, it became the only artistic connection I had to their past.

Naturally, as a good first-generation daughter, I rejected what my parents loved. And over time, as Fiddler appeared and reappeared on stage, I increasingly found myself aligned with Irving Howe, who decried the production in Commentary, dismissing Anatevka as “the cutest shtetl we’ve never had.” I hated it all. The kitschy anthems. The folksy wisdom. The mild pogrom that brings the curtain down on Act One.

Worse, Fiddler kept inserting itself into my rites of passage, like a party-crashing guest. Or, to be more precise, a wedding crasher: When I was set to marry, my fiancé and I threatened to elope if the band played “Sunrise, Sunset,” Fiddler’s cheesy ode to the passage of time. My parents paid for the wedding. Who do you think won that argument?

The producers of the film version of Fiddler even attempted to play to my teeny bopper preferences by casting heartthrob Michael Glaser (later Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch) as Perchik, the student radical who wins the heart of one of Teyve’s five daughters and spirits her off to Siberia. My mother actually spent real, not fictional or cinematic time in Siberia, starving and/or freezing. But no matter. The musical made even that journey north seem enviably romantic, and that rose-colored tint was at the heart of my Fiddler problem.

The shtetl Jews I knew—namely my parents and their friends—were angry and bitter, still battling a phantom enemy of oppression in their new, free homeland. They “celebrated” holidays that involved fasting or standing at rapt attention while rabbis recited prayers they no longer believed. They ate leaden meals, heavy on the kasha. They belched, and then resumed arguing. Did these landsmen and women cheer each other on through life, deriving joy from each other’s successes after circumstance had handed them such a cruel start? Assuredly not. These were people whose guiding principles were an emotionally crippling combination of distrust and fear. But they all loved Fiddler. That affinity seemed completely at odds with their daily experience, and I could not fathom how the musical could serve as a balm.

And then, like Teyve’s older daughters, I grew up, and while various iterations of the play continued to thrive, I began to experience loss. “Sunrise, Sunset” outlived my marriage. My beloved father died a hard death. My mother’s sharp mind began, slowly, to dissolve. My kids grew up and moved away from home. Living connections to my heritage started to shrink.

Meanwhile, somehow, that heritage no longer seemed so bleak. In the way shifting trends have of smoothing the rough edges of their source material, the touchstones of my childhood somehow have become sought after. Siphon bottled seltzer is an object of desire, as are old-fashioned egg creams. Customers pack Russ & Daughters, the celebrated appetizing store in New York City that is the subject of a recent acclaimed documentary. Even Paterson, my economically-challenged birthplace and the city where my dad plied his trade as a mechanic, is attempting a comeback, thanks in part to its newly-popular founder, Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton’s great champion, Lin-Manuel Miranda, celebrated his wedding with a raucous version of Fiddler’s Act One showstopper, “To Life.” And now, when I watch that happy occasion on YouTube, or dial in to the original Fiddler cast album on Spotify, something unexpected happens. I sing along with joy, and then I start to cry.

The joy comes from Fiddler’s familiarity, as the musical, having withstood my early loathing of it, now finds its place, comfortably, in my life story. The tears are those of mourning for the stories I can no longer reclaim, the ones my beloved parents and their cranky, clannish friends took with them forever. I’m left with Fiddler, the imperfect through-line that binds me to the people and narratives I hold dear, and links me to all its fans, Jewish or not, who have embraced the show’s enduring themes of loyalty, love, and tribal pride. There’s a lesson here—in how kitsch contains seeds of truth, and in how the things most passionately reviled in childhood can surprise you with their importance decades later.

Fiddler, all is forgiven. Turns out I need something both stronger and, yes, more sentimental than a glass of seltzer or the blast of a shofar at the High Holidays to feel connected to the Old Country, where I might be sweeping a dirt floor today had not a convulsion of history delivered my family to a far-away land, to modernity. The musical’s longevity closely mimics what Jews think of as their particular gift of endurance through the millennia. And, even though my contribution to that history will be brief, I suppose I can spare an evening, buy a ticket, and check in and see how we’re doing.

​Lisa Green is a lawyer and MSNBC legal analyst, and the author of On Your Case: A Comprehensive, Compassionate (and Only Slightly Bossy) Legal Guide for Every Stage of a Women’s Life (William Morrow, 2015) ​.

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