By Steven Chervin
In a recent article (“Fans React to News of ‘Fiddler’ Remake,” by Sophie Panzer, June 19, 2020), several commentators expressed opposition to Hollywood’s plan to make a new version of the film, which originally appeared in 1971. As Panzer noted, “some fear Hollywood will mistreat the beloved classic.”
But this attitude ignores the fact that the stories have been continuously transformed and made new, since they were initially penned by Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish beginning in 1894.
Sholem Aleichem wrote eight Tevye stories over a 20-year period, adapting his writing to changing historical conditions (i.e., pogroms in Kishinev and elsewhere in the aftermath of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905; the infamous blood libel trial of Menachem Mendel Beilis in 1913). Indeed, the stories are told in “real time,” as Tevye and the other characters themselves age over the 20-year period.
Sholem Aleichem himself wrote the first stage version of the Tevye stories, with the play “Tevye der milkhiker” (“Tevye the Dairyman”), in Yiddish of course. Maurice Schwartz, head of the Yiddish Art Theater in New York City, directed and starred in the play in 1919, three years after Sholem Aleichem’s death. While the play was a smash hit (after several earlier stage adaptations of other Sholem Aleichem stories were failures), some critics objected to the move from page to stage. “What more can the stage say about Tevye that the book has not already said?” went one line of argument.
But with memories of the Great War and Russian pogroms fresh in audience members’ minds, theater critic and cultural historian Alisa Solomon writes that “[Chava’s] marriage [to the Ukrainian Fyedka] … conflates the threats of anti=Semitism and intermarriage: Would Jews survive?”
Maurice Schwartz also produced and starred in the stories’ first film version, also in Yiddish, in 1939. With the Nazis’ invasion of Poland as its historical backdrop, the movie anticipated the impending doom of European Jewry. But in spite of the film’s popular success, critics assailed the Schwartz production for a lack of faithfulness to the Sholem Aleichem stories. Indeed, virtually every stage and film version of the stories has elicited a similar response, a price every performance team has been willing to pay in order to keep the stories fresh and relevant.
Between 1943 and 1957, a handful of translators, writers and artists rendered the Tevye stories into English, making him accessible to non-Yiddish readers for the first time. In Alisa Solomon’s words, some of their projects carried the “urgent purpose of recovering a civilization that had just been extinguished … ”
Arnold Perl, blacklisted by Hollywood as a Communist, staged “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” and later “Tevya and His Daughters,” “drawn to the material for its depiction of Jews scraping by under the boot of the czar,” Solomon said. Tevye’s Jewishly particularistic story could become a universal emblem of any victims’ experience of oppression and injustice. (Since the show’s Broadway debut, all programs for “Fiddler” credit the show as “adapted from Sholem Aleichem stories by special arrangement with Arnold Perl.”)
“Fiddler on the Roof”’s arrival as a Broadway musical on Sept. 22, 1964, showcased the merged creative genius of lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer Jerry Bock, librettist Joseph Stein, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, producer Harold Prince, Zero Mostel and a magnificent cast, and talented musicians, scenic designers, costumers and make-up artists. Setting a record that lasted 10 years and over 3,000 performances in its original run, followed by multiple revivals, the show has been performed every day since, somewhere in the world.
With productions from Bangkok, Thailand and Tokyo, Japan (“this show is so Japanese; we don’t understand why it’s popular in America!”), to a performance with an all-Black student cast at a junior high school in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher strike — aside from the strike against community control of the schools, Jewish teachers protested the school’s production of “Fiddler,” fearing that the students would parody the Jewish characters — “Fiddler on the Roof” has been a protean artistic creation.
And probably more people have seen Israeli actor Chaim Topol’s performance as Tevye than any other actor’s. Topol himself estimated that more than a billion people have seen his portrayal in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation, in addition to the audiences at his 3,500+ live stage performances. It is his voice and bodily gesticulations that most people picture in their minds as Tevye.
Truth be told, Tevye is my personal hero. His character is an ideal for the Jewish people: a warm-hearted mensch, familiar with Jewish sources, committed to tradition, an engaging sense of humor, able to laugh through tears, stubborn in his vitality. His story is the history of the Jewish people: achieving great success (Sholem Aleichem’s first story in the cycle is called “Tevye Strikes It Rich”), losing it all (the second story is called “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune”), adapting to changing circumstances (the stories of Tzeitl and Hodl), facing expulsion (Lekh-Lekho) and rising again.
Perhaps most of all for modern, liberal Jews, we envy Tevye’s intimate relationship with God. The two are constant companions — a human/divine bromance? — as Tevye struggles to understand God’s inscrutable ways. He pours out his troubles to God, and hears God’s response through the words of the Bible and rabbinic literature. If only we had those open lines of communication ourselves!
Indeed, Tevye is the Eternal Jew, necessary in every generation, a man for all seasons, especially this season. An older generation can continue to savor the 1971 film version and Topol’s representation as its own, the definitive portrayal of Tevye and his daughters (just as some people will always consider Broadway’s Zero Mostel the one and only authentic Tevye!). But every generation has the right — no, I would say, the obligation — to recreate Tevye and his story in its own image.
So why should this generation have its own film version of “Fiddler on the Roof”? “That, I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”
Dr. Steven Chervin teaches “Tevye: From Page to Stage and Screen” in the Continuing Education Department at Gratz College.