Originally brought to the Broadway stage in 1964, the play, Fiddler on the Roof, was the first musical performance to surpass 3000 performances. With music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the play is based upon a story written during a 10-year period spanning from 1894-1914, by famed Jewish author, Sholem Aleichem. Fiddler on the Roof depicts a vignette of life in a small shtetl during pre-World War I in imperial Russia. The village, a fictitious but authentically based one in the Pale of Settlement, a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed, is named Anatevka, and the land is still ruled by Tzar Nicholas II, head of the dictatorial Romanov dynasty. The year is 1905, in the middle of the three-year period from 1904-1906, which was a particularly horrifying time for Jews in Russia, as pogroms –the organized murdering of a minority group, in this case, Jews– spread widely across Western Russia. Other major cities such as Kishinev, capital of modern-day Moldova, Odessa, in the present-day Ukraine, and capital of today’s Belarus, Minsk, were the sites of mass killing. Ultimately, upon order of the Tzar, Jews were commanded to leave, many exiting to America, others to Krakow, Poland. The knowledge of the fate that was to take the lives of so many and their descendants, but a generation later, adds to the heartbreak and poignancy of the story of Fiddler on the Roof.
The tale is one of a family living in this area that is ultimately to be emptied by a decree exacted on all Jews; the father, Tevye, is the protagonist of the tale, a man who is caught in a macrocosm that is under siege, and a microcosm, his own family, that is feeling the influences of the outside world and its changing, confusing values. He is the father of five daughters, a poor dairyman encumbered with a difficult life, recently made harder by a horse that can no longer work to pull his milk cart, and the challenge of feeding and raising his children, in a time when daughters were beloved, but considered somewhat of a burden. Marriage is the goal, and with no dowry and the terrifying threat of losing the only home he has ever known, Tevye is a man who is at odds with his world. His daughters and their desires bring Tevye and his wife both delight and despair, as one (surely this is not a spoiler, as Fiddler is a classic and very well-known story) of his offspring marries a Russian Cossack, a Christian, and is considered dead to Tevye and his family. The song, “Tradition,” the opening number in this musical, sets the stage for what is deemed most important in the lives of the Jews of Russia at that time –their heritage and cherished Jewish way of life. Tevye’s struggle to maintain control of his cherished daughters, despite the challenges with which both they and the changing times present him, along with his strong connection to G-d, to whom many of his musical and spoken soliloquies are addressed, are the central themes of this acclaimed classic. The fiddler, an on-again, off-again, violinist who plays and dances amidst the performers, is the metaphor, or symbol for the underpinning of the Jewish plight –tradition above all else, and the survival of the Jewish identity.
This past summer, the play made it resurgence on the stage at the downtown Manhattan Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in Battery Park. The theater, the Edmond J. Safra Hall, is an intimate setting, holding only 375, and seems the perfect venue in which to view this highly emotional production. Directed by renown dancer, actor, and Hollywood director, Oscar and Tony-award winner, Joel Gray, at the request of producers Zalmen Mlotek and Chris Massimine, under the consultation of 90-year-old famed 21 Tony-Award winner, Hal Prince and choreographed by Staś Kmieć, (original choreographer, famed Jerome Robbins) and designers Ann Hould-Ward, Beowulf Boritt, Peter Kaczorowski, Dan Moses Schrier, and Tom Watson, this production of a Yiddish version originating in Israel over 50 years ago, has had made its home at the Museum since early July. Originally slated to run only through the summer, the play was so widely received that its run was extended to year’s end. It is a production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), the longest consecutively producing theatre in the U.S. and the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theatre company that is entering its 104th season, and is funded by the UJA-Federation of New York among a number of other private and public benefactors.
With both English and Russian supertitles projected on screens hung at top-left and right of the stage, this show is a wonderment of fabulously cast performers, who speak their lines exclusively in Yiddish. Some are more authentic than others, in their intonation, accent, and delivery, but surely all depict the characters originally envisioned by Sholom Aleichem, to perfection. Most outstanding is Tevye, portrayed by Steven Skybell, making his NTYF debut; Skybell literally IS Tevye. His passion and authenticity go beyond the expected, and despite a talented supporting cast, Skybell’s performance singlehandedly commands the stage from beginning to end. Other outstanding performers are veteran Broadway actresss, Jackie Hoffman, as Yente, whose Yiddish is unbelievably authentic, and whose comedic timing is impeccable ( in her own words, “I think I’ll fool people who don’t know the language,” she says. “…I’ve always been good at the cha. Oh man, there are so many fabulous words!”), Bruce Sabath as Lazar Wolf, the spurned hatan (groom), and Rachel Zatcoff as Tzeitel, Other excellent performers include Jennifer Babiak as both Golde, Tevye’s wife and Rosie Jo Neddy as Chava (both slightly miscast, despite excellent, albeit perfunctory performances, but with physical features that belie and detract as classic Ashkenazi Jews), Kirk Geritano as Avram, Samantha Hahn as Bielke, Cameron Johnson, as Fyedke, Daniel Kahn as Perchik, Ben Liebert as Motl, Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodl, Raquel Nobile as Schprintze, Jody Snyder as Frume-Sarah, Lauren Jeanne Thomas as the Fiddler, Bobby Underwood as the Constable, Michael Yashinsky as Mordcha, Joanne Borts as Sheyndl, Josh Dunn as Chaim, Evan Mayer as Sasha, Nick Raynor as Yussel, Adam Shapiro, as the Rabbi, James Monroe Stevko as Mendl.
The fact that nearly every performer is not a native Yiddish speaker, each learning the language from scratch for the role, is incredible, as their performances are outstandingly realistic. Additionally, the gamut of emotions evoked by the actors –joy, compassion, terror, grief, empathy, vulnerability, and a deep, heartfelt connection to the roots of one’s ancestors– go beyond impressive, are truly astounding, and clearly represent the hallmark of a professional and excellent theatrical production. The Yiddish performance adds immeasurably to the realism of the tale, as this was both the native language of Sholom Aleichem, and of the Jews of Russia during this period of their precarious and ill-fated history. Attending this performance as a birthday gift by my children added to the poignant and emotional experience; I am a child of the late Baby Boomer era, and likely one of a very small population of former Yiddish students, having attended (at the time by duress, but in hindsight, with cherished thankfulness to my parents) Yiddish –that’s right, not just Hebrew, but Yiddish school– for five years as an elementary-age child. The experience took me back, albeit with both warmth, but a sadness and bittersweet nostalgia for a time long gone. The feeling was being immersed for the three hours and 15 minute performance in a language that was my father’s native tongue, as a child of Sosnowiec, Poland, at the early part of the 20th century, and a language that I grew up hearing extensively in my own home.
While the run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is coming to an end, tickets can still be found online at
www NYTF.org, or by calling 866-811-4111. For group sales and memberships, call 212-213-2120 Ext 204.
The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School is a prestigious NYC Jewish Day School in the heart of New York City. Located in the Upper East Side, this Jewish Day School promotes academic growth through community and collaboration.