Photo caption: Stephen Epps as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Ten Thousand Things.

Lost in Translation? Decontextualizing Fiddler on the Roof at Ten Thousand Things

American Studies Professor Stephen J. Whitfield once remarked that Fiddler on the Roof is “the key text of American Jewish culture.” Whether or not one shares that assessment, few would disagree that Fiddler is the most salient representation of European Jewish culture that has ever been produced on the stage or screen.

With that in mind, the production of Fiddler by Ten Thousand Things (playing through March 19) can come as a bit of a surprise. Yes, the familiar Yiddish names are still there – Tevye, Golde, Yente the Matchmaker, etc. – but the characters have lost their Jewishness. De-particularizing the Jewish context of Fiddler seems to be the intention of Ten Thousand Things, if one is to judge from the promotional material and program notes. This Fiddler is not about the Jewish minority in Tsarist Russia, we are told; it is about “a cultural minority in Tsarist Russia.” The Director addresses this in the play’s program, explaining that “Anatevka is an imaginary town, and we have used our imaginations just a little more to help this story connect to all our very diverse audiences today.” The question is: What’s the difference? Or, as my grandmother might have said, “Why we should care?” Let’s discuss.

It has been a little difficult to write this piece because I have been a devoted fan of Ten Thousand Things ever since I discovered the company’s work. It is not only the consistently high quality of its productions but, even more so, its mission. The company uses the profits from ticket sales and subscriptions to take their plays to prisons, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, and community centers. The company works hard to make high-quality live theater available to populations that rarely get a chance to experience it. I have also admired the company’s steadfast and longstanding commitment to interracial casting. (Just to be clear, I certainly have no objection to interracial casting for this play. My objection — or rather my sense of unease — lies elsewhere.)

So again to the question: Why we should care? Let me tell you a story. It was a great struggle to find producers to bring Fiddler to Broadway. Why? Because even as late as 1964, there remained considerable resistance to producing a Broadway musical that was focused on Jewish history and showed Jewish culture and religion in a warm and positive way. When the Jewish creators of the play tried to generate interest in it, potential investors would complain that audiences would find the musical “too ethnic” (by which, of course, they meant too Jewish). Skepticism that a wide audience would be willing to attend a musical about Jews – or rather, that they would be reluctant to believe that they could sympathize with Jewish characters – was nothing new. Take West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, which opened on Broadway seven years before Fiddler did. That musical was originally supposed to be about a pair of lovers from rival Jewish and Polish communities, but the creators were persuaded that a Jewish focus would be too risky commercially. (They substituted Puerto Rican and Italian communities instead).

Or consider the response to one of the forerunners of Fiddler: the Off-Broadway play, The World of Sholom Aleichem. Written by two blacklisted Jewish writers, and featuring a not-yet-famous Ruby Dee, that play about Anatevka drew the attention of many liberals and leftists, including Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s plug for the show in her syndicated newspaper column speaks volumes: “Don’t think because it’s about Jews you won’t like it.” That was in 1953, but the idea that prospective audiences would need to be reassured that they could enjoy a musical about Jews seems to have persisted. As late as 1994, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, plugging the play in her Jefferson Lecture of that year, advised her audience to “see Fiddler on the Roof, ye who believed that liking Jews is impossible.”

It took the clout of Hal Prince and Jerome Robbins to get Fiddler its backing. And the rest, as they say, is history. Fiddler opened on Broadway in 1965 and ran for 3,242 consecutive performances before it closed in 1972. By 1971, an estimated 35 million people around the world had seen it on the stage. By 1982, it had been produced in more than two dozen countries. It is still the longest running musical of all time in Japan. As Theodore Bikel, one of the greatest stage Tevye’s, once said referring to Fiddler’s global appeal, “Audiences are smart…You don’t have to be Danish to like Hamlet.” Yes, Japanese and South African audiences were drawn to different narrative threads and different themes, but audiences in all the countries where it played were able to find parallels between their own experiences and the story of a poor Jewish milkman and his family as they struggled to maintain their own beliefs and traditions amid the dual pressures of persecution and modernity

Fiddler proved the skeptics wrong. As Alisa Solomon writes in her study of Fiddler’s history, Wonder of Wonders, the world “has met – and embraced” Tevye. That might seem unremarkable now, but at the time Fiddler’s global success – and especially the fact that so many people from so many different cultures were able to identify with the Anatevkan Jews, in all their rich particularity – was deeply meaningful to American Jews. As Alisa Solomon notes, “Letters poured into the office of the original producer of ‘Fiddler,’ Hal Prince, in which fans thanked the show’s creators for making them proud of their heritage before the whole world.” Just as meaningful to find some of the sweetness of the world that was lost but still remembered by many in the audience made vivid before them on the stage. “It’s hard to imagine just how thrilled [Jewish] audiences could have been to see men whirring tizzies and women lighting Sabbath candles on a Broadway stage, and not as a joke” (Solomon Wonder of Wonders 221). Lin-Manuel Miranda seemed to grasp this when he told Joseph Stein how closely he modeled “In The Heights” after Fiddler. He pointed out to Stein how much that show, about Dominicans in Washington Heights struggling to maintain their traditions under the pressure of gentrification, resembles Fiddler not only in structure but insofar as “We show what gets lost and what is worth saving.”

Just as meaningful to find some of the sweetness of the world that was lost but still remembered by many in the audience made vivid before them on the stage. “It’s hard to imagine just how thrilled [Jewish] audiences could have been to see men whirring tizzies and women lighting Sabbath candles on a Broadway stage, and not as a joke” (Solomon Wonder of Wonders 221). Lin-Manuel Miranda seemed to grasp this when he told Joseph Stein how closely he modeled “In The Heights” after Fiddler. He pointed out to Stein how much that show, about Dominicans in Washington Heights struggling to maintain their traditions under the pressure of gentrification, resembles Fiddler not only in structure but insofar as “We show what gets lost and what is worth saving.”

Back in December, a representative of Ten Thousand Things explained that the company’s intention was “to represent this story of family and exile in a universal way … setting the play in more of a fairy tale world, rather than in the specific realities of early 19th-century Tsarist Russia.” Of course, shows evolve as a company rehearses them. When I saw the play, there was nothing “fairy tale” about the world it evoked. Rather, it seemed abstracted from any and all particular worlds. Nowhere rather than anywhere in particular.

This Fiddler does have many of the highlights that one expects from this company: a crew of very talented actors, a barebones production style, lovely ragtag costumes, inventive use of percussive music (as well as an actor who actually plays the fiddle), and, of course, interracial casting. That formula has generated some of the best theater I’ve seen in the Twin Cities. What was lacking in Fiddler was any sense of an innovative or coherent vision.To the contrary, I was hard pressed to see how they had “used their imaginations [to connect to diverse groups]” aside from dulling the Jewishness of the performance style. (Stephen Epps as Tevye is somewhat of an exception; he works with (rather than ignoring) the Yinglish inflection built into the dialogue. Both Epps and the superb Thomasina Petrus (as Golde and Lazar Wolfe) know how to deliver the play’s very Yiddishkeit style of humor and so get most of the laughs. (Fiddler can be really funny if you get that Yiddish humor is post-ironic, nothing surprises; it tends to fall flat if you deliver it in the kind of irony-inflected style of sketch comedy.) Still, I found it strange that only one actor uses a Jewish accent. Except for Epps and Petrus, who seem always to be one the same page, and in agreement about what story they were telling, it seemed as if each actor was doing their own thing. In general, there was a disparity between the intentions stated in the promotional materials and the actual performance, so it is possible that the company may have relaxed its plan to decontextualize the play.

To the contrary, I was hard pressed to see how they had “used their imaginations [to connect to diverse groups]” aside from dulling the Jewishness of the performance style. (Stephen Epps as Tevye is somewhat of an exception; he works with (rather than ignoring) the Yinglish inflection built into the dialogue. Both Epps and the superb Thomasina Petrus (as Golde and Lazar Wolfe) know how to deliver the play’s very Yiddishkeit style of humor and so get most of the laughs. (Fiddler can be really funny if you get that Yiddish humor is post-ironic, nothing surprises; it tends to fall flat if you deliver it in the kind of irony-inflected style of sketch comedy.) Still, I found it strange that only one actor uses a Jewish accent. Except for Epps and Petrus, who seem always to be one the same page, and in agreement about what story they were telling, it seemed as if each actor was doing their own thing. In general, there was a disparity between the intentions stated in the promotional materials and the actual performance, so it is possible that the company may have relaxed its plan to decontextualize the play.

Still, I found it strange that only one actor uses a Jewish accent. Except for Epps and Petrus, who seem always to be one the same page, and in agreement about what story they were telling, it seemed as if each actor was doing their own thing. In general, there was a disparity between the intentions stated in the promotional materials and the actual performance, so it is possible that the company may have relaxed its plan to decontextualize the play.

But then why was it necessary in the first place? Ten Thousand Things shows put “the story” front and center. I am a great believer in the power of stories to transcend artificial barriers of place and time but the fact is that some stories are more embedded in a particular historical or cultural context than others. You can transport Romeo and Juliet to the Moon and not much changes. But Fiddler is embedded in Jewish history and religion; when it’s detached from its context it loses not only some its specificity but some of its thematic depth and complexity. If you strip all that away it becomes an allegory. Some allegories stand on their own; some don’t.

Perhaps this is only a disagreement about the means to artistic ends, about whether the universal meanings of stories are more accessible when the stories are told in their full particularity, as opposed to when they are abstracted from the details that might make the characters, in some way, different from the audience. For myself, I continue to believe that, for example, The Color Purple is more powerful when the characters are identified as African-American in 1930s Georgia; Les Miserables when the characters are identified as 19th-century French peasants (and aristocrats) and Fiddler when the characters are identified as Orthodox Jewish peasants in Tsarist Russia.

The director of this production wrote: “Though on one level about Jewish people in the early 20th century Russia, [Fiddler] tells a story about many, many peoples in our world — people who are isolated because of their religious beliefs or cultural traditions and finally forced into exile from their homeland.” No one disputes that the story Fiddler tells is relevant to other people(s). Aren’t the parallels already obvious? I can understand overlaying the Jewish context with cultural forms and traditions of another, relevant, group. (There have apparently been Latinized Fiddlers, and similar examples of cultural blending.) But how does simply muting the Jewishness help to connect the play to diverse audiences? If one takes away the level of the play that is about a poor Jewish family trying to practice their religious traditions amid the persecution by their Russian hosts, it becomes a different story.

Fiddler has been and remains relevant to many people who are suffering the pain of discrimination and exile but it is not just about “a cultural” tradition. It is about a religious and traditional Jewish community, subject to persecution and pogroms because they are Jewish. Tevye is an observant Jew, who speaks constantly to God, dreams of having a seat in the East part of the synagogue and of reading Talmud all day, and blesses his children on the Jewish Sabbath. When Motel the Tailor finally gets Tevye to accept him as a son-in-law, Motel doesn’t sing of romance; he likens himself to Jacob and sings a song about God’s Biblical miracles. Some the lyrics of the beautiful Sabbath Prayer song are taken from Jewish Liturgy. Tevye and Golde live in the belief that their lives – and their marriage – have a sacred purpose, which has to do with Jewish continuity. They did not marry for love. They just got lucky – “it’s nice to know” – but would it have been a tragedy to them if the answer had been otherwise? No, because romantic love and self-fulfillment were never what their lives were about. A tragedy for a man like Tevye occurs if his daughter leaves the faith (all right, in the play she only marries someone outside of the faith, but in the original text she is taken under the wing of the priest and is moving to conversion). Why is he so torn apart? Because he sees it as a choice whether to remain faithful to his God or to the daughter who has renounced that God, and everything his life has been about. (From this production, you might assume Tevye is angry because Chava wants to marry someone who does not know how to dance with a bottle on his head. A pogrom (a lite version) closes the first act and at the end of the play, Tevye and his family are forced out of Annetekva – and not because they like to bottle dance either. There’s a reason why Golde cries out that Chava was married in a Catholic church “by a priest’ when she breaks the news to Tevye; there was a reason why historically the pogroms so often took place on the day after Easter.

A tragedy for a man like Tevye occurs if his daughter leaves the faith (all right, in the play she only marries someone outside of the faith, but in the original text she is taken under the wing of the priest and is moving to conversion). Why is he so torn apart? Because he sees it as a choice whether to remain faithful to his God or to the daughter who has renounced that God, and everything his life has been about. (From this production, you might assume Tevye is angry because Chava wants to marry someone who does not know how to dance with a bottle on his head. A pogrom (a lite version) closes the first act and at the end of the play, Tevye and his family are forced out of Annetekva – and not because they like to bottle dance either. There’s a reason why Golde cries out that Chava was married in a Catholic church “by a priest’ when she breaks the news to Tevye; there was a reason why historically the pogroms so often took place on the day after Easter.

Again it’s hardly the case that the story Fiddler tells is only relevant to Jewish people – how else could it have been so popular not only throughout America but around the globe? But surely the most widely known and successful play that focuses on anti-Semitism and that has helped so many to understand and respond to the threat of anti-Semitism has a strong relevance for what Jewish people are going through right now.

I’m a great believer in the power of stories to bring people together, to transcend boundaries of place and time, as well as to spread around the suffering so as to make it more bearable. But it always seemed to me that stories have the power to make us see not only our sameness through our differences but our sameness in difference.

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Kit Bix is a TC JewFolk Guest Author

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