Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

Posted on September 8, 2019 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements/disturbing images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Images of pogroms and references to the Holocaust
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019

“Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway in 1964 and every single day in the over half a century since then it has been performed somewhere. Even more impressive, it has been performed pretty much everywhere, and is currently back in New York with an off-Broadway all-Yiddish version directed by Joel Gray. In this engaging new documentary about the history and continuing cultural vitality of the musical based on the stories of Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem about the families in a Russian Jewish shtetl, we see productions in Japan, Thailand, and in a student production with an all-black and Latinx cast. We see Puerto Rican “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “To Life” to his Dominican/Austrian-American bride at their reception, in a YouTube video with over 6.5 million views.

We hear the show’s creators and performers talk about what it means to them. Since the earliest part of the 20th century, Jewish composers and lyricists including Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Fritz Loewe, and more wrote huge hit Broadway shows about cowboys, Thai kings, an Italian mayor of New York, Pacific Islanders, and a sharpshooting hillbilly. Finally, it was time to write their own story, the story of the Jews who lived in tiny towns in Eastern Europe until anti-Semitic gangs and local governments pushed them out. And so they were ready to tell the story of their parents and grandparents, just as those stories seemed vitally important again.

So we see again what has made this story so vibrant over the decades. “What is this about?” director/choreographer Jerome Robbins repeatedly asked the show’s creators, Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Jerry Bock (music), and Joseph Stein (book). They tried different answers — about the poor father of daughters who have their own ideas about who they should marry or about Jews struggling in a country that is increasingly hostile to them. He asked them again until they finally came up with the right answer and it was just one word: tradition. That, of course became the iconic opening song in the play.

My parents saw the original production of “Fiddler” on Broadway and bought the cast album, which our family played constantly. I played the part of the oldest daughter in a religious school production and then our daughter played the same role in her middle school version. We have all seen it many times, and my parents saw a production in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast my parents saw, where Tevye sounded like TV. They asked a member of the audience why it was so popular in Japan and they got the same answer someone in this movie did, “Because it is so Japanese.”

The fringes on the prayer shawl and the words of the prayers may be different, but every family has had to resolve conflicts between the generations and every individual has had to face the existential question of which traditions provide a foundation of our identity and connect us to our culture and which have to be adapted or abandoned, which aspects of our culture hold us up and which hold us back.

In “Fiddler,” we see three conflicts as Tevye’s three oldest daughters fall in love. The oldest refuses an arranged marriage with an older, wealthy man and asks her father to approve her marriage to the poor tailer she loves. Then the second says she will marry the hotheaded revolutionary she loves, and she does not want her father’s permission, only his blessing. He gives it to them. But when the third daughter wants to marry a man who is not Jewish, that is something he cannot accept. Meanwhile, Russian anti-Semitism is growing, and it is no longer possible for the Jews to stay in the only home they have ever known. When the play was first produced in 1964, the world was still learning about the breadth and damage of the Holocaust (the term itself was still not widely used), and the State of Israel was just 16 years old and still perilous. The story was at the same time charmingly nostalgic, painfully topical, poignantly personal (everyone understands “Sunrise Sunset”), and meaningfully universal. The documentary shows the contributions of the extraordinarily gifted people who created the show (touchingly, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, a Jew born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, was inspired in part by visiting the town his family came from, wiped out in the Holocaust), and the impact the show has had around the world, always resonating with contemporary concerns. But most of all, it reminds us of why it is so enduring simply through the characters, story, and music that will still be touching audiences in another 50 years.

Parents should know that this film has references to theatrical and historic tragedies and atrocities.

Family discussion: When did you first see “Fiddler” or hear its songs? What are your favorite traditions?

If you like this, try: the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a theatrical production — there should be one near you.

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Interview: Michael Bernardi of “Marshall” and “Fiddler on the Roof”

Interview: Michael Bernardi of “Marshall” and “Fiddler on the Roof”

Posted on October 20, 2017 at 1:08 pm

I loved seeing Herschel Bernardi play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in the 1960’s and it was a great pleasure to speak to his son, Michael, who played the role in the Broadway revival. He also appears in a brief but very compelling role in “Marshall,” the film about one of Thurgood Marshall’s early criminal cases.

Copyright 2017 HuffPost

What was your audition like for “Marshall?”

I was in the middle of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and I was in rehearsals for my first shot at playing Tevye as an understudy when I got word about this audition for a project with Thurgood Marshall. I got extremely excited and so I knew I had to do everything in my power to make that happen.

The scene in Marshall has a lot going on and there’s a lot of subtext. You don’t want to come in all over the place. It’s very specific what’s at stake in the scene. So I remember being in rehearsal, being in 1905 Eastern Europe wearing my shtetl wardrobe and then getting on a subway and walking into the world of Marshall and finding the Zen place within myself to just serve the story as much as possible. That probably helped because there was no time to overthink it. Also being in Fiddler was such an incredible resource of information, to be already immersed in that world, to really understand what that immigrant experience was and what was at stake, what people were fighting for as they arrived in America and what the cost would be if things didn’t work out. So I was very pleased with how the scene showed so many of those colors and just trying to plumb those circumstances as much as possible as in a very short time span tell that story of what was at stake for the Jewish people in that time period and at the same time fighting for the future and fighting for equality and fighting for acceptance.

What difference has your father’s legacy as an actor made in your life?

He died when I was one and a half. But there were family members that told me his story and he left behind such incredible legacy, so my entire life I’ve been blessed to have random people coming up to me just stopping dead in their tracks and going, “Your father meant so much to me and my family.” Just this look in their eyes of such reverence and love when they speak about him. I feel like the love that I may have missed out on from my father has been given to me through the love that he gave to so many people. So in that regard my entire life I’ve definitely have felt that the presence of the story of Fiddler and what that story means and has meant to millions of people.

It’s a very specific story, and yet it seems to have such universal impact.

Because we are human and because really Fiddler on the Roof was created structurally as an empathy machine. Especially that first act of Fiddler on the Roof was constructed to find that common humanity of human beings through humor and to really show that this is a family that you’re meeting that has the same worries and daily foibles and conflicts of any family that has ever lived.

I think Fiddler is about family and I think that’s why it’s so universal; it speaks to everyone’s kitchen table and then once you achieve that kind of familiarity with an audience and that audience recognizes themselves and their family in these people onstage that come from a completely different culture, you find that union. And then in the second act you can really start introducing the plight and the specific trials of that cultural group and once you make that connection then that audience can go on that ride and truly have an empathetic experience. I know that everything I write, everything that I’m involved in, that’s my greatest goal, is to endear an audience and find that commonality amongst people, not the lowest common denominator amongst people but the truth that we all share.

A great way of doing that is through comedy and making people laugh and literally having that experience of sitting in a theater and finding something funny on stage and experiencing that the person next to you and the person in the row in front of you is also laughing and that person is a total stranger, that person may be wearing a hijab, the other person may be transgender, but you are all sharing a communal experience.

It sounds to me as though live performance is especially meaningful to you.

It is a tradition, that’s the word, right? It is a tradition in my family because it wasn’t just my father who was a prolific performer on stage but also my grandparents; they originated a lot of the roles that Sholem Aleichem had brought into the mainstream in the Yiddish theater for American audiences. There are pictures of my grandfather on a stage in the Yiddish theater pulling around a milk cart and my grandmother was famous for playing the role of Yenta and this is all before all these stories were put together into the musical called Fiddler on the Roof. So that stage experience, that communion with an audience that you can feel in the moment is profound and extremely addictive and there’s really nothing like it and it can never really be captured on film. That being said when a film is truly great I think that it’s really filmmakers that understand those principles of reaching out to the audience and structuring things in a way to induce that community experience so it all comes back to theater ultimately. But filmmaking, you don’t have that present moment give and take with an audience and so it’s an act of faith.

Originally published on HuffPost.

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Tribute: Theodore Bikel

Posted on July 21, 2015 at 4:26 pm

We mourn the loss of actor/singer/activist Theodore Bikel, who has died at age 91. The multi-lingual performer was the original Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and played the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” more than 2000 times. He was born in Vienna and his family moved to then-Palestine when he was 13 and became an American citizen in 1961.

Bikel studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and developed a passion for guitar and folk music. He became one of the world’s best-known folk singers and a founder in 1961 of the Newport Folk Festival, and he performed 50-60 concerts a year, often with full orchestras. He was active in the civil rights movement, served as an elected delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and was Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress, President of the Actors’ Equity Association (1973-82), Vice President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA), (1981-1991), a Board Member of Amnesty International (USA), and, by Presidential appointment, as a member of the National Council on the Arts (1977-82).

May his memory be a blessing.



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Fifty Years of Fiddler on the Roof

Posted on September 20, 2014 at 8:00 am

fiddler japaneseThe Yiddish-language stories of Sholem Alechim, collected as Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories (Library of Yiddish Classics), inspired one of the most successful, influential, and widely performed Broadway musicals of all time, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened fifty years ago this week. It set the then-record of 3000 performances and still is listed as the 16th longest-running Broadway musical in history. There has been hardly a day since this story about a Jewish community in czarist Russia opened that it has not been performed somewhere around the world. Its songs, including “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” have become standards, performed and recorded by singers around the world.

The play establishes its setting with the opening number, “Tradition,” where the fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters sing about the roles established for them by their culture and religion. But the theme of the play will be the pressure of modernity as all of the assumptions and beliefs of the community will be challenged.Cannonball_Adderley's_Fiddler_on_the_Roof

The central character is Tevye (played by Zero Mostel on Broadway and the Israeli actor Topol in the movie). He is a poor milkman with five daughtersshmuel_rodensky_in-anatevka_-_fiddler_on_the_roof.  Tradition would give Tevye the role of selecting husbands for his daughters based on what would be socially and economically advantageous. He approves of the widower butcher for his oldest daughter. But she challenges tradition by asking for his approval for her to marry the shy tailor she loves. Tevye must bend because he loves her and wants her to be happy. Seeing her in love makes him question for the first time whether his wife of 25 years, chosen for him, loves him. But his second daughter asks him to bend farther. She loves a hot-headed revolutionary, and she says they will marry whether Tevye approves or not. He is worried, but he gives them his blessing.

And then the third daughter asks him to bend further. She is in love with a non-Jew. Tevye says that is something he cannot accept. It shakes the foundations of his beliefs to even consider it. But not as much as they will be shaken by an anti-Semitic pogrom, with the Czar’s men all but destroying their village. The title of the play comes from the image of a musician precariously trying to maintain his balance and stay safely on a roof. The play ends with Tevye following millions of Europeans over the late 19th and early 20th century — immigrating to America, under the lamp held high for them by the Statue of Liberty.fiddlerplaybill

Many years ago, my parents were visiting Tokyo and saw that a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was on stage there. They bought tickets. Even though it was in Japanese, with Japanese actors, they recognized the story and music. And they enjoyed the enthusiastic response of the audience. When it was over, my father asked one of the Japanese audience members who spoke English why the play was so popular there. He smiled, “It’s very Japanese!” The details, including the style of the music, are very particular to one group. But the themes of balancing tradition with growing understanding about ourselves and the world, about struggles between parents and children, about what is best for the community and what is best for the individual, are universal.

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Interview: Joseph Dorman of ‘Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness’

Interview: Joseph Dorman of ‘Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness’

Posted on August 10, 2011 at 8:00 am

The writer Sholem Aleichem was born Sholom Rabinowitz.  He grew up in a Russian shtetl. Today, he is most widely remembered as the author of the stories which became the basis for Fiddler on the Roof.  But a new documentary from Joseph Dorman (“Arguing the World”) called “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” makes a case for the man who changed his name to Yiddish for “Hello Friends” as not just a teller of folktales but a major literary figure.  Mr. Dorman spoke to me about making the film, which is opening around the country.

Tell me how you became involved with this project.

I really stumbled onto it.  I am not a native Yiddish speaker, nor were my parents.  Yiddish was lost in my family between my grandparents’ generation and my parents’.   I finished my last film a decade ago, “Arguing the World,” and was desperately looking for a project.  A friend of mine, a professor of Yiddish literature at Rutgers, suggested doing something about Sholem Aleichem.  He had originally thought about doing a film himself, about Sholem Aleichem as a failed immigrant in America and he had curated an exhibit on that a few years earlier.  I thought, “I don’t know much about him, I know the name from Fiddler on the Roof.  This will keep me busy until I find what I want to do.”

But in a very short time it turned out to be what I wanted to do.  It moved from a way station to a destination. I spent the next ten years of my life working on it and falling deeper and deeper in love with Sholem Aleichem’s work and fascinated by his world.

Why is “Fiddler” all most people know about him?

Fiddler on the Roof should have its due.  It is a brilliant popular entertainment, kind of a miraculous adaptation in many ways.  He did his own theatrical adaptation and really focused on the Chava story .  “Fiddler” is entertainment, re-interpreted for its time.  It’s a classic comedy in a sense because everything is wrapped up neatly at the end.  Tevye is coming to America.  But at the end of the Tevye stories, it is a tragedy in the classical sense.  Tevye is homeless.  He doesn’t know where he’s going.  He’s like Lear.  His world drops out from under him.

What’s so fascinating about the Tevye stories is that he started them when he was younger and wrote them over 20 years.  His own experience informed them and they get deeper and darker as they go along.  They become a tragedy, something larger about the nature of man’s alone-ness in the universe.

You were able to uncover some real treasures in your research.  What were some of your “Eureka” moments?

Because of the budget I did most of the research myself.  There are 300 photographs in the film and the bulk of them come from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.  It is a marvelous repository for Eastern European Jewish life, originally set up in Vilna between the wars, when the intellectuals of the time realized that the world of the shtetl was beginning to disappear.  I would go there and keep looking through there — half the reason for doing a film like this is to get a chance to look at the treasure trove of these photos.

There are a number of photographers.  One of the most remarkable was Alter Kacyzne.  He was a writer, a protégé of one of the other classic Yiddish writers, Isaac Leib Peretz of Warsaw.  He took photographs for the Jewish Daily Forward in the 20’s and 30’s.  Even then he was photographing in a nostalgic way for an audience that had been separated form it.  People didn’t want to see it as it looked at this moment.  They wanted to see the eternal shtetl.   Religious Jews are shot as they had been for centuries rather than trying to capture that moment in time.

Another man I don’t know much about is Menakhem Kipnes, who also has wonderful portraits.  The last great discovery — and it wasn’t my discovery — was that I found out through one of my interview subjects was about a series of photos from the expedition of an ethnographer called An-Sky.  He’s a remarkable figure, born in a shtetl, who became radicalized and a socialist.  He decided what he wanted to do most of all was to leave the shtetl and study Russian coal minders.   He moved to St. Petersburg, continued to be a writer and an intellectual, and it was probably the post-1905 pograms that radicalized him as a Jew.  He realized he needed to turn his talents toward his own people.  He realized that the shtetls were rapidly changing and so he organized ethnographic expeditions, recorded songs, and took along his nephew to take these remarkable, remarkable photos.  Until the last few years, they’ve been unknown in the West.  Now they’ve been published in a beautiful book.  They are some of the most beautiful photos in the film.  An-Sky was also the author of the famous Yiddish play, The Dybbuk.

I was so happy to see the involvement of Aaron Lansky of the Yiddish Book Center in your film.  I am a big fan of his book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.  

The sad irony of Yiddish and its fate in the modern world is at the very moment that writers like Sholem Aleichem were bringing it to its literary flowering, taking this thousand year old language which had been looked down on as a street language or a language for women, not working of intellectual vehicle or a vehicle for literature — that was supposed to be Hebrew — at the very moment that writers were using it in all its richness, that was also the very moment it was ceasing to be the vernacular of the Jews.  90 percent of Jews in the world at that moment were speaking it but that was beginning to change as the Jews were leaving the shtetls to go to America or the big Russian cities or to Palestine.  An amazing flowering was taking place over 100 years with Isaac Bashevis Singer at the end.  This remarkable literature was produced, but it has been by the bulk of Jews forgotten, not just lost in translation but in the movement of Jews but their assimilation into other cultures.  It’s a living language for Chassidic Jews, but not for anyone else.  What’s nice about what’s happening is that generations younger than mine are realizing what’s been lost and there’s kind of an upsurge now and younger generations are studying it and learning it and that is wonderful.  But it is not going to be a living language for secular Jews again.  What is important about what Aaron is doing is the importance of being able to read this literature in whatever language you speak.  Aaron is very committed to preserving those Yiddish books for Yiddish speakers but even more important is preserving Yiddish language and Yiddish culture whether you speak it or not.

We do speak it in a certain way because it is the ghost in our machine.  It informs even the English we speak.  One of the most beautiful things I heard was from a young Russian student who said, “It didn’t feel like I was learning Yiddish; it felt like I was somehow remembering Yiddish.”

In this film you make a strong case for Sholem Aleichem as not just a folklorist but a literary figure. 

He is the equal of a Chekhov or any other great writer.  This is top shelf world literature.  It does not have to be couched in cultural terms to make him an important writer.  Another irony that exists is that he was trying to reach not an illiterate but an uneducated audience.  He created a folksy persona so undeducated people could relate to him.  But very sophisticated literature.  The very success of that persona masked how sophisticated and intentional an artist he was.  He is thought of as a stenographer who wrote down what people spoke.  But he took what seems to be everyday language and transmutes it to poetry.  He is a great of world literature.  Comedy is deceptive.  If you laugh, how can it be serious?  But of course it can be.

The stories are very particular to their place but the themes have universal appeal.

There are stories about fathers and daughters all over the world.  There’s an annual yahrzeit, a memorial for Sholem Aleichem every year.  At the last one, there were five men from China who are starting a Sholem Aleichem research center in Shanghai.  As the Chinese leave the small towns for the big cities now, they are experiencing what he wrote about.



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