“Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” is a documentary about the non-Jewish film director, Norman Jewison, who turned the classic Jewish story and play, “Fiddler on the Roof,” into an Oscar-winning movie.
In our childish and simplistic culture of today, Jewison’s leading role might have risen to the level of controversy. There might have been a social media cycle about how the director was “appropriating” Jewish culture. Or, if there wasn’t, someone like Sarah Silverman probably would have argued that there should have been, and that the absence of such a conversation was clear evidence of widespread antisemitism.
“Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” though, is a 2022 documentary out on Amazon Prime that dares to celebrate Jewison for his celebration of the Jewish people.
And make no mistake: The man deserves to be celebrated. What the director did, as the doc’s director Daniel Raim shows by focusing on Jewison as his primary subject, was bring the Sholem Aleichem story and Joseph Stein play to a mass audience.
Chaim Topol, the actor who plays the main character Tevye in the 1971 film, explains to Raim at one point that more than 1 billion people saw “Fiddler on the Roof” in theaters, including moviegoers as far away as Japan. The doc points out after its opening credits that New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael described Fiddler as “the most powerful movie musical ever made.” The adaptation made more than $80 million at the box office and received eight Oscar nominations, the most of that year.
Its power, as several people explain in “Fiddler’s Journey,” is in its ability to both explain Jewish culture and capture timeless themes.
Tevye is a classic Jewish shtetl character; he’s committed to tradition, he maintains a dialogue with God and he’s deeply concerned about the wellbeing of his daughters. At the same time, he’s a character that any father or parent can relate to. As the song “Sunrise, Sunset” portrays in such moving fashion, it’s hard when your kids get old, when you have to let them go and when you grow to understand that everything is ephemeral.
As a non-Jewish artist who liked and appreciated Jewish culture, Jewison saw and understood that duality. He was also able to convey it through an art form, movies, built for an audience of all religions.
Would a Jewish director have been able to do that? We will never know. But what “Fiddler’s Journey” makes clear is that Jewison was just the guy for this job.
Raim, a documentary filmmaker who was born in Israel, aimed with this documentary to do the work of a magazine-style oral history and go behind the scenes of the making of a classic film. To do so, he interviewed Topol and the women who played his daughters — Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small; he also talked to the men who helped Jewison with musical direction, lyrics and set design in John Williams, Sheldon Harnick and Robert F. Boyle; he even included the insights of Kenneth Turan, the longtime film critic for the Los Angeles Times.
But while all of those people add a lot, this is not a documentary about them. It’s about Jewison, whose story starts, finishes and forms the spine of this 88-minute movie.
The director was a Christian boy whose classmates in Toronto mistook him for being Jewish due to his last name. After guiding a string of successful comedies and the Oscar-winning “In the Heat of the Night” in the 1960s, Jewison got the chance to helm “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But he was worried that the studio executives were making the same mistake his classmates once made. So, he told them he was a goy. They said that was exactly why they wanted him. They felt he could transcend the Jewish audience of the story and play, both of which were written by Jews.
Raim then implies that the success of “Fiddler” made Jewison feel a sense of pride in the identity he was forced to take on. Over the rest of the film, Jewison recounts a story of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir wiping away a tear during a screening and of a later visit to the father of modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who tells him that anyone “crazy enough to want to be Jewish” is.
Finally, late in the documentary, Raim shows footage of Jewison winning a lifetime achievement at the 1999 Oscars. He gets up on stage and says, “Not bad for a goy.”
Truer words have nary been spoken in the history of Jewish film. They also could have formed the tagline of this documentary. JE