Tradition –by Peter Eisenstadt

Peter Eisenstadt

The Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary in New York City, by holding a tribute to “Fiddler on the Roof” on its 50th anniversary. The Folksbiene is a venerable organization, as its age would indicate, dedicated to keeping alive the tradition of Yiddish theater for an audience that, with a few exceptions, is not Yiddish speaking, accomplishing this remarkable feat through the use of titles, musical programs, the occasional foray into English, and other stratagems.

The Fiddler on the Roof tribute, I was assured by people who attended it–I don’t want to brag, but I have family connections—was a great success. Topol, who played Tevye in the film, was there, along with a large assemblage of Goldes, Tzeitels, Hodels, and Yentes and others who have peopled Anatevka in countless productions worldwide. A grand time was had by all.

The Folksbiene paying tribute to Fiddler might seem obvious, but in many ways it is an unusual coupling. “Fiddler on the Roof” is not a work of Yiddish theater. There is almost no Yiddish in Fiddler. Its music is standard Broadway musical fare, albeit slightly Jewished up, not Klezmer or representing some other Eastern European Jewish tradition. And when Fiddler opened, as Alisa Solomon writes in Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof her superb recent overview of the Fiddler phenomena, everyone loved it except the Yiddishists, the grumpy defenders

of Yiddish purity. Irving Howe, for instance, the editor of several excellent volumes of Yiddish literature complained that it represented “the cutest shtetl we never had.” And I have never met a Yiddishist who likes Fiddler. Much like Howe, they accuse the show of rampant inauthenticity, of sentimentalizing and prettifying, of bowdlerizing the grit out of Sholem-Aleilchem’s original Teyve stories (a complaint, that as Solomon shows, dates back to their earliest stage adaptation of the stories, including those prepared by Sholem-Aleichem himself.)

But Fiddler on the Roof is, without doubt, the single most successful and popular representation of Eastern European Jewish life ever made in any genre. Eventually, I suppose ever the Yiddishists stopped complaining, and started to sing along.

Why, you ask, is Fiddler so beloved? Part of its success, as Solomon shows, that the show’s creators deliberately avoided the sort of Yiddish in-jokes and references that had become the stock in trade of Borsht Belt tummlers. Fiddler appeared at a time when Broadway musicals were seeking out exotic locales (the South Pacific, Thailand, Alpine Austria, the court of King Arthur) to get New York theater goers out of Manhattan. And the point was, in good 1950s and early 1960s liberal style, that everyone in every place and every time was really the same, once you got behind and beyond superficial differences.

And this sort of universalizing of the message of Judaism and being Jewish very much appealed to the Jewish audience of the day; Jews are different, and in their distinctiveness, they are just like everyone else. And Fiddler was both backward and forward looking, invoking tradition, and showing how tradition didn’t stand much of a chance against the acids of modernity. The concerns of Fiddler were very much those of American Jews in 1964; worries about radicalism, intermarriage, and hidden questions about whether it was really okay to be both Jewish and American.

Fiddler was a huge hit in Israel as well. As Solomon explained, it played an important role in helping Israel to overcome the often bitter anti-Yiddishism that had been a key tenet of Zionist ideology. Fiddler was a big hit everywhere. My favorite chapter in Solomon’s book is an extended account of a production of Fiddler in a black intermediate school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1969, a neighborhood that had been at the epicenter of the tsunami known as the 1968 New York City teacher’s strike, an event, perhaps more than any other in the history of New York City in the 20th century, pitted angry Jews against angry blacks, rubbing the city’s racial sensibilities to their rawest. The production was a great success. Fiddler on the Roof is not really about Jews, and not really about being Jewish.

Except, of course, that is about Jews. And its message at least as relevant today as it was half a century ago. Tradition, Jewish tradition, whatever that coat of many colors actually is, must be affirmed. And it must be rejected at the same time. Tradition, as Tevye says, is something to comfort us, something to infuriate us, something to wrestle with, from sunrise to sunset.