What’s Wrong with Fiddler on the Roof
Fifty years on, no work by or about Jews has won American hearts so thoroughly. So what's my problem?
No creative work by or about Jews has ever won the hearts and imaginations of Americans so thoroughly as the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary and next year will have its fifth Broadway revival.
Everyone enjoys this show, whose musical numbers—“Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker,” and others—not only enliven Jewish weddings but are commonly understood to represent something essential about Jews and Jewishness. Jeremy Dauber opens his new biography of Sholem Aleichem with Fiddler because Fiddler is how the beloved Yiddish author is known—if he is known at all—to English readers. “Forget Sholem Aleichem,” writes Dauber, “there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.” And Dauber ends the book by tracing the stages through which Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters were transformed by successive translators and directors into what, by the time the movie version of Fiddler was released in 1971, the New Yorker’s normally severe critic Pauline Kael would call “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”
Soon after the stage production opened in 1964 (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, with Zero Mostel in the title role), I was urged to see it by my teacher, the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who had just completed his History of the Yiddish Language. Unlike some purist defenders of Yiddish culture who were expressing mixed feelings about a classic work being hijacked for the American stage—and in contrast to several highbrow Jewish intellectuals, offended by what Irving Howe blisteringly called the play’s “softened and sweetened” nostalgia—Weinreich was delighted that Sholem Aleichem’s masterwork would be accessible to audiences who could never have come to know it in the original. He even defended as legitimate some of the changes that had been introduced in order to appeal to an American audience. I, too, loved the show, not least because Yiddish literature had become my subject of study, and I appreciated the boost.
Even livelier than the stage production was the 1971 movie, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Chaim Topol, which exploited the freedoms of the film medium to veer still further from the original Yiddish conception. By this time, though, my own reservations about the enterprise had begun to mount. In the original series of stories and in all of their many adaptations for the Yiddish stage, whenever Tevye is defied by his daughters and challenged by his potential sons-in-law, he emerges morally intact. This is how we learn to appreciate his resistance to the historical forces that are trying to undo him. Economic hardship, Communism, internationalism, materialism, persecution, expulsion, and, by no means least, romantic love: powerless as he may be to stop their advance, Tevye is not mowed down by any of them.
So thoroughly does Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye command the plot line and its outcome that even Hava, the daughter who converts to Christianity in order to marry her Ukrainian lover Fyedka, does not get the better of him. However persuasive her arguments for a universalist ideal may be—why should God have separated people into Jews and Christians, and isn’t it time we repaired the breach?—Tevye does not sanction love over the integrity of the Jewish people. Nor do his paternal feelings for Hava excuse her defection; instead, he pronounces her dead to the family and observes the traditional seven days of mourning. Only when she repents does he accept her back; only because he has stayed firm is she able to return to a still-Jewish home.
Of course, it was the generous side of Tevye’s nature that made him so readily adaptable for an American audience. An observant Jew who prides himself on being able to quote traditional sources, he is also an accommodating parent who jokes at his own expense and uses prayer as an opportunity to argue with God. He may be conservative in his beliefs, but he is liberal in his instincts. Indeed, much of the humor in Sholem Aleichem’s stories about him pivots on the tension between his faith and his doubts, his tenacity and his lenient heart. But this only makes all the more striking the single point on which he will not yield. His “No!” to Hava is the dramatic and emotional centerpiece of the work.
And here the critics were right: the authors of Fiddler took the stuffing out of the derma. In both the Broadway and film versions, Tevye not only makes his peace with his daughter’s conversion and marriage but accepts the justice of her Christian husband’s rebuke of him as the couple departs for Cracow, Poland. (Ultimately, they would go to America.) “Some,” says Fyedka, “are driven away by edicts—others [that is, he himself and Hava] by silence.”
Let’s understand what lies behind this sentence. Fyedka is daring to equate Tevye’s refusal to accept Hava’s conversion to Christianity with the czarist persecution of the Jews of Russia. The accusation is outrageous and brutal—but to it, Fiddler’s Tevye replies meekly: “God bless you.” Charged with bigotry for upholding the integrity of the Jewish people, he ends by endorsing the young couple’s intermarriage as the benign culmination of a leveling ideal. We might be tempted to turn Fyedka’s accusation against the accuser: some drive the Jews out of Russia, others drive Jewishness out of the Jews. But the “others” in this case include the authors of Fiddler, who demolish the dignity of their hero without any apparent awareness of what they have done.
A similar insouciance characterizes a recent “cultural history” of Fiddler on the Roof. Entitled Wonder of Wonders, after one of the show’s catchiest musical numbers, it is written by Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and teacher of journalism at Columbia. In this abundantly researched study, we can follow the path by which Sholem Aleichem’s drama of Jewish resistance evolved into a classic of assimilation. Although Solomon doesn’t make the connection, the process she describes closely resembles an earlier transmutation of a different Jewish work for the American stage: namely, the replacement in the 1950s of the original dramatization of the Diary of Anne Frank, by the novelist Meyer Levin, with a thoroughly de-Judaized version by the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
As is well known, Levin fought back. He could not abide the suppression of the Diary’s gritty Jewishness in favor of the upbeat, treacly, universalized message voiced by Anne in the Broadway production’s most quoted line: “[In] spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Over the decades, Levin’s pursuit of intellectual and moral restitution became an obsession, which is the one-word title he would give to his story about the American Jewish theater and the Jews. By contrast, Alisa Solomon hails the triumph of all that Levin mourned, writing with cheerful mien about Fiddler’s shift from kosher to “kosher-style.” Her celebratory work has won the plaudits of reviewers and academics alike.
I voiced some of my concerns about Tevye’s theatrical fate in my 2001 book The Modern Jewish Canon, and I return to them now with broader questions. Certainly, the authors of Fiddler were not the first to sacrifice Jewish identity to the universalizing ethos. One day, I’d finally sat down to read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 classic German drama Nathan the Wise, a plea for interreligious tolerance I had often seen praised for its positive representation of the Jew who is its title character. Nathan’s wisdom and nobility were known to have been modeled on the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But just as, in real life, Mendelssohn’s offspring left the Jewish fold, so, too, Lessing’s fictional Nathan leaves no Jewish heirs. It struck me that I would much have preferred a lesser Jew at the head of a large and living family to this generous paragon who leads his people to a dead end. It was as though the Jew could be celebrated only at the expense of his tribe’s survival, which is just the sort of happy ending that the team of Bock, Harnick, and Stein provide for their wise Jew, Tevye the Dairyman.
In fairness, I should note that Jews are not the only people whose integrity the authors casually cancel. Fyedka, an aspiring Ukrainian intellectual with his own sense of universal responsibility, leaves with Hava for Poland in generous-hearted protest against the expulsion of the Jews from Anatevka. Poland: really? Here our American authors betray little familiarity with, or patience for, the kind of ethnic-religious-linguistic-national rivalry that claimed—and has continued to claim—the lives and loyalties of Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles.
Liberal fantasy delights in improbable unions, and Fiddler on the Roof approaches the issue of Fyedka, Hava, and the Jews much like Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy Cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, got married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/. . . danced by the light of the moon.” In the same cockeyed spirit, Sholem Aleichem’s adapters, liberating the couple from the complicating features that sustain Tevye and the Jewish people, blithely ignore the likelihood that staying in Cracow would only have embroiled them in new enmities and eventually landed their descendants in Auschwitz.
It was the Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill who, having married a Gentile woman and abandoned his earlier Zionist commitment, supplied Americans with their own enduring image of harmonious amalgamation in his 1908 play The Melting Pot. The happy ending that Zangwill conjures up for David Quixano, a quixotic Jew who seeks refuge in America, takes the form of marriage with the daughter of the pogromist from whom he had managed to escape in Russia. Thus does the American melting pot liquefy the antagonisms and violence of Europe in a bland but warming stew.
Zangwill’s concept of misfortune is associated with threat from without. Sholem Aleichem’s concerns were all about the collapse of Jewish confidence from within: flight from Jewish responsibility, erosion of Jewish language, the snapping of the chain of Jewish transmission. Evidently, by the time we come to mid-century America and Fiddler, Sholem Aleichem’s talented adapters were all too ready to assume that the past was truly past, and that the problems of the Jews, like the “Jewish problem,” had finally been solved.
What is it about America—or about the American theater—that leads to such assumptions? I have often wondered why the team of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein gave up their original idea for West Side Story as a story about Catholics and Jews on New York’s Lower East Side. Could it be that only the substitution of Jets and Sharks as the warring parties allowed them to imagine a truly tragic outcome? To fight and die—albeit unintentionally—as the lovers do in Romeo and Juliet, and as Tony, the white Jet, does in this American adaptation of Shakespeare, is to possess something one is willing to fight for, like family honor or group pride. Puerto Ricans or Poles might go to the mat for such values—but Jews?
I suspect Bernstein and Robbins couldn’t imagine Jews in such a scenario—and certainly not when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was already becoming commonplace. In fact, in every Al Jolson or Benny Goodman story, it is the Jewish parents who must demonstrate their largesse by accepting their son’s marriage to a Christian. Refuse, and they would be labeled bigots, which is precisely the fate visited on Tevye by his American handlers.
Guaranteed rights, freedoms, and civic obligations were the great gifts that America offered its Jews, and these, combined with upward mobility, were surely enough to be grateful for even when marred by discrimination. Toleration came somewhat more gradually, but faster to Jews than to “people of color,” and the lure of assimilation was correspondingly stronger among Jews than among many other ethnic and religious groups. Indeed, many liberal Jews became so wedded to the universalist ideal as to become intolerant of fellow Jews who wished to stay identifiably Jewish.
This illiberal form of liberalism, practiced by Jews as well as non-Jews, has always objected to the nexus of religion and peoplehood that has historically defined the Jews and their civilization. Judaism invites in anyone who truly wants to become a Jew, but differs from universalist creeds in not expecting or requiring that everyone do so. Paradoxically, this makes Jewish Jews more tolerant of others than those who cannot abide the idea of a people apart—like Fyedka, who equates Tevye’s stubborn Jewish loyalty with czarist xenophobia. With that in mind, one might venture that if Fiddler on the Roof marks a high point in American Jewish culture, the triumph of American-style Fyedkaism represents its low.
Great art requires a moral seriousness that allows for the possibility of tragedy as well as the relief of comedy. Sholem Aleichem endows Tevye with this potential. His concluding words in Sholem Aleichem’s concluding chapter are: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” The conclusion of Fiddler on the Roof, in Alisa Solomon’s approving summary, shows that Tevye belongs nowhere, which she takes to mean that he belongs everywhere. Meaning, everywhere the “old God of Israel” is not.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).