The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 26, 2019 by

Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish!) and Feminism

fiddler galsPerforming “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish isn’t just a gimmick. The intimate production now playing at Manhattan’s Stage 42 adds warmth, depth and freshness to the all-too-familiar 1964 musical. It invites a new focus on the meanings of a show that starts out celebrating “Traditsye,” as the rousing opening number is called, and then delineates the demise of some of those notably sexist traditions, like arranged marriages and fathers deciding the fates of their daughters. And yet it’s bittersweet, as these new viewpoints arrive in the midst of a painful ripping apart of a vibrant, cohesive community. This National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production played for six months at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Battery Place, where it extended and sold out four times, before moving uptown to 42nd Street, a more convenient location for many theatergoers. 

Within the comfortable fold of “Fiddler,” the production’s English translations hardly seem necessary. Many theatergoers know the dialogue and lyrics by heart. Or think they do. Reading the English words as they are projected on the set forces a new kind of attention.

It isn’t just the language change, of course, that makes this a magical production. It is directed by Joel Grey (yes, the Tony and Oscar winning star of “Cabaret”) with a special feeling for the dynamics of Jewish family life, and with actors—led by Steven Skybell as Tevye the milkman—who fully inhabit their roles and whose expressive faces glow with passion. When Tevye’s five daughters imagine their married futures in “Shadkhnte, Shadkhnte” (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker”), they giggle and playfully race around (as they fold laundry) with the easy intimacy of life-long close relationships. 

Despite many personal recommendations, I had resisted seeing yet another “Fiddler.” I didn’t feel a connection to Yiddish,  because I grew up speaking German with my parents and grandmother, who were among the few survivors of their extended families. Oddly, the first “Fiddler” I ever saw was in German—in Germany, during my college years. I went by myself and found the experience slightly surreal and somewhat discomforting, though probably more because of the location than the language.

To my surprise, I felt myself immediately drawn in by the Yiddish, and with the Hebrew lettering for the word Torah written on the backdrop. I felt the connection. And I found myself examining the lyrics (by Sheldon Harnick, with the Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman making its American debut) more closely than I ever have.

That famous first song carefully spells out the family structure: The father is head of the household and has the final word. The mother tends to the homemaking and nurses the children so the father can pray in the synagogue. The sons go to Hebrew school, learn a trade and hope the bride picked for them is pretty. The daughters learn to tend the home so they can be a good wife to the husband their father picks for them. As in the English versions, the singing is melodic and joyous: This is the way things are, and everyone seems to be gloriously happy with it.  

But not so fast—and this is a major charm of the musical—the three oldest daughters have different ideas for their futures, and their father, despite his blustering behavior and intense talks with God, bends the rigid rules two times out of three. He acquiesces to the love matches that his two oldest daughters choose, though he can’t bring himself to bless the marriage of a third daughter to a Christian Russian. He probably would have reacted the same way if a son had insisted on a Russian wife. 

By the standards of 1905, and especially in a remote Russian village, these developments were revolutionary, and the two older girls are grateful for the results. It is clear, however, that they will continue to do the baking and the cleaning and child-rearing, though maybe not with their husbands always in charge. Even Hodel who marries a left-leaning activist and is portrayed as being sharply intelligent, accepts the ideas of her husband, Pertshik who was her teacher. The traditional power structure of their marriage was there from the start.  

It wouldn’t be true to the historical context, or to the sensibilities of Sholem Aleichem, whose stories form the basis of the musical, to have the daughters strike out fully on their own or yearn for more egalitarian unions (though there is hope for the two younger girls and for all their children and grandchildren). But would it have hurt lyricist Harnick, book author Joseph Stein, original director Jerome Robbins or even composer Jerry Bock, in some musical way, to have injected a few more modern glimmers? They were creating their show at about the same time that Betty Friedan was writing “The Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963.

There is one scene in which Tevye meets with Leyzer-Volf, a widowed butcher older than Tevye. Tevye thinks the butcher wants to buy one of his cows, which he doesn’t want to sell, though Leyzer actually wants to marry Tevye’s oldest daughter (who is 19). Their clueless dialogue is filled with misunderstandings. Tevye suggests that Leyzer may want two later on, to which an astonished Leyzer replies, “What would I want with two?” Then Leyzer says his reason for the transaction is that he’s lonely, which leaves Tevye flummoxed.

The comedic exchange is played for laughs—and it is funny, if you don’t mind the confusion between a young woman and a cow. Or the serious consideration of a marriage of a teenager with a man who is probably in his 50s or 60s 

Then there is the scene in which Tevye plays on his wife Golde’s superstitions to convince her that it is okay to break the engagement with Leyzer. Tevye invents a wild dream featuring the scary spirit of Frume-Sore, Leyzer’s supposedly jealous and vindictive first wife. It makes for quite a spectacle onstage in every production I’ve ever seen, including this one.

The show’s creators probably weren’t aware of, or paying any attention to, the budding women’s movement in the 1960s. And I can’t see how Grey could have omitted or substantially altered either of these scenes.

On the other hand—as Tevye is prone to saying—Jennifer Babiak plays Golde as a woman of dignity and strength, a portrayal supported by the musical, and the wry commentary of Yente the matchmaker, splendidly acted by Jackie Hoffman as a practical-minded businesswoman, go a long way toward adding some balance.

The musical’s ending, in which all the Jews of Anatevke (as it is spelled here) are forced to leave their beloved home, casts a tragic shadow over the baby steps that the characters have taken toward a more liberated life. The final scene evokes a nostalgia for a loving community in which everyone knew their place and found comfort in that, even as their lives will be transformed radically.    


  • Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray

    Run don’t walk to this production! I’ve seen it twice and could see it again- it is so heart warming- the Yiddish brings us closer to the story and the characters- I wept through much of it, so moved by the staging, lighting, language and the actors. This is a gem and a treasure.