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‘Think of Me With Joy’ | The Nation

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‘Think of Me With Joy’

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Billboard advertises Fiddler on the Roof in Warsaw, 1984

Poland’s first billboard advertises Jerzy Gruza’s production of Fiddler on the Roof in Warsaw, 1984

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem
The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye.
By Jeremy Dauber.
Buy this book

Wonder of Wonders
A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
By Alisa Solomon.
Buy this book

This is the role that Tevye has continued to play for a prodigious public, as Alisa Solomon’s admiring account of Fiddler on the Roof suggests. “The show,” she writes in Wonder of Wonders, “is a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity, and interracial bridge building, among them.” She adds, persuasively, that the musical “solidified the origin story of American Jews as flight from persecution in East European shtetls—never mind the actual origins of those from urban centers or from Sephardic or Middle Eastern backgrounds.”

From the start, Fiddler has had its critics, who have taken it to task for its overly sentimental view of the old country, for its alleged misrepresentation of Sholem Aleichem’s sensibility, or even for its apparent endorsement of intermarriage. Solomon quotes the Yiddish literary critic Ruth Wisse, who wrote: “If a Jewish work can only enter American culture by forfeiting its moral authority and its commitment to group survival, one has to wonder about the bargain that destroys the Jews with its applause.” The theater critic Robert Brustein issued a broader indictment, chiding Fiddler for ”falsifying the world of Sholem Aleichem, not to mention the character of the East European Jew.” But however influential Wisse and Brustein were in the cultural discourse, their views remained minority ones. And Solomon argues that, for the most part, the musical’s creators got it right.

It is intriguing to ponder just how close Fiddler came to being a Rodgers and Hammerstein project. In 1949, Solomon tells us, the team secured an option to a libretto by Irving Elman based on the Tevye stories. Would Rodgers and Hammerstein have given the show a more triumphalist cast? Would they have added an anthem about the follies of prejudice? We’ll never know. They were at the time thoroughly immersed in creating The King and I and ultimately relinquished their rights. Michael Todd was next in line, but his plans, too, went nowhere.

Meanwhile, the blacklisted writer Arnold Perl and the blacklisted actor Howard Da Silva staged two successful plays, The World of Sholom Aleichem and Tevya and His Daughters. The productions, which served as clarion calls against injustice, “demonstrated that old Yiddish stories could find a sizable contemporary audience and make it happy,” Solomon writes. Together with an earlier dance production by the choreographer Sophie Maslow, they provoked a secondhand longing among American Jews, what Solomon calls “nostalgia for a place one had never actually been.” The creative team for Fiddler on the Roof would include the director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, already famous for West Side Story and Gypsy; lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, who had collaborated on Fiorello!; and librettist Joseph Stein. Harold Prince would become the principal producer. All were Jewish, though from varied backgrounds, and the creative process for Fiddler would send them back to their roots, prospecting for nuggets of authenticity.

Stein’s main challenge, as Solomon describes it, was to knit the separate stories, narrated by Tevye, into a coherent narrative. Robbins “labored mightily to burn away the schmaltz that for two decades had encased the world of the shtetl like amber,” Solomon writes. Seeking to wed the particular with the universal, he tried to persuade Marc Chagall to join the design team; scenic designer Boris Aronson signed on instead. To everyone he enlisted, Robbins assigned homework that included Sholem Aleichem’s stories, archival photos and obscure historical films.

One great coup was the casting of Zero Mostel, another blacklisted actor of outsized talent. “Mostel and Robbins had worked together briefly before and did not like each other,” Solomon writes. It hardly helped that Robbins had been on the opposite side of the Cold War divide, having named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In rehearsal, the two would clash frequently, in part because of their opposing temperaments: “Mostel was confident and free as an actor could be, Robbins a sack of insecurity as a director,” Solomon notes.

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After out-of-town tryouts in Detroit and Washington, Fiddler opened triumphantly in New York on September 22, 1964. And despite mixed reviews, the audiences kept coming, making it the longest-running musical of its era. Fiddler’s story of generational conflict intersected with the looming challenges of 1960s America, Solomon asserts, “capturing the sensibility—the anxiety”—of a country on the threshold of enormous social change. The final portion of Solomon’s densely reported book describes the making of the 1971 Norman Jewison film and some of the uses to which Fiddler has been put around the world. In Israel, she writes, the show “brought audiences close to the Old World without collapsing the distance that national self-definition still required.” In Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, a middle school production with an African-American cast became a “vehicle…for the assertion and agency that community control aspired to give the whole city.” And in one Polish community, an open-air production that enlisted props from local households stirred up memories, possibly bittersweet, of “the Jews who once shared their town.”

Sholem Aleichem’s own 1916 funeral, a huge cultural event, prefigured the mythic qualities that would adhere to his creations. More than 100 Yiddish writers watched over his body in fine ceremonial fashion. As many as 250,000 people thronged the streets of New York City to witness his funeral procession.

His will, released after the funeral, enhanced his mystique. It asked that he be placed “among plain Jewish laborers, among the people itself.” And it entreated his family and others “not to weep after me, on the contrary, to think of me with joy.” Both Wonder of Wonders and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem heed that parting admonition.

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