How “Fiddler on the Roof” Came to Israel in Yiddish

June 29, 2018 | Alisa Solomon
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This summer, a Yiddish-language production of Fiddler on the Roof—itself an adaptation of the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem’s series of stories about Tevye the Milkman—will debut in New York. Alisa Solomon tells the improbable story of the first time the musical was rendered into Yiddish:

The production was the brainchild of Giora Godik, the flamboyant, Polish-born impresario famous for bringing lavish American-style musicals to the Israeli stage. He had presided over the first foreign production of Fiddler, presented in Hebrew at the grand Alhambra Theater in Jaffa, which he refurbished after it had stood derelict for two decades, damaged in a 1947 mortar bombardment.

The Hebrew-language production met with tremendously popular success, running for fifteen months and seen, producers estimated, by a full quarter of Israel’s population. Kanar al ha-Gag opened in 1965 with the comic actor Bomba Tzur in the role of Tevye, though Tzur was replaced after about six months by Shmuel Rodensky, a sensitive and nuanced multilingual actor who’d been born in Vilna.

Godik, whose father had been an actor in the Polish theater, saw that Rodensky’s Yiddish abilities presented an opportunity to build on the Jewish Israeli public’s surprising enthusiasm for Fiddler—and also to sell more tickets. Shraga Friedman prepared quickly a brilliant translation of Fiddler into Yiddish (working in part from Dan Almagor’s Hebrew version). Among many glorious touches, Friedman evokes other Sholem Aleichem works.

For one delicious example, he begins [the song] “If I Were a Rich Man” with “If I were a Rothschild,” the title and theme of [Sholem Aleichem’s] short story about a shtetl Jew who can’t scrape together enough money for the Sabbath imagining how charitable he would be if he had the fortunes of the financier. And for another, Friedman turns the argument in the middle of the song “Tradition” over whether one Anatevka resident sold a horse or a mule to his neighbor into whether it was a billy goat or a she-goat—the issue at the heart of Sholem Aleichem’s short story “The Enchanted Tailor.”

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