In Yiddish, “Fiddler on the Roof” Sheds Its Mushy Universalism

June 19 2019

In a glowing review of the Yiddish-language production of the classic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, John Podhoretz finds in it the ultimate refutation of what he calls the “sweetie-pie Jew,” a figure who has long been a staple of American popular culture, and was created as an antidote to the Jew of anti-Semitic stereotype. Podhoretz traces this “cuddly and lovable creature who asks for so little” back to the radio comedy The Goldbergs, which premiered in 1929. While the original Fiddler on the Roof of 1964 effectively turned its protagonist Tevye—a character created by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem—into just such a Jew, the Yiddish version manages to reverse the transformation:

[H]earing the show performed in Yiddish has the immediate effect of de-vulgarizing it. In the English version, the characters wish each other “Good Sabbath,” for example—when saying “Gut Shabbos” would have been perfectly clear. One of Tevye’s catchphrases is “As the Good Book says.” The “good book” is a Christian, not a Jewish, formulation. Individually, these are tiny infelicities, but they add up; at times they . . . feel like a kind of deracination of the midcentury kind, a near-neurotic expression of the creative team’s excessive worry about seeming too strange and foreign.

Shraga Fridman’s Yiddish translation is not literal, and that is the glory of it. Since he was intimately familiar with Sholem Aleichem’s Jewish and Yiddish references and wordplay in a way that [the writers] Joseph Stein and Sheldon Harnick were not, he was able to go back to the original in wonderfully clarifying ways. The most obvious is the retitling of “If I Were a Rich Man” as “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothschild”—which happens to be the name of a Sholem Aleichem story that is not about Tevye. The specificity of it—a poor Jew in a Russian backwater dreaming that he might be a scion of the world’s best-known rich Jewish family—somehow drains the song of its yeidle-deedle-deidleness and gives it the indelible combination of sharp wit and dreamy naïveté that characterizes Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye.

In scene after scene, conflict after conflict, the use of the Yiddish somehow raises the dramatic stakes and makes the characters seem more real—and their troubles and pains more piercing. . . .

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish represents—though it does not mean to do so—a quiet and potent rebuke to the kind of mushy universalism that animated the Jewish popular culture of the midcentury. . . . The message of the heroes of popular culture who helped make Judaism and Jews palatable figures on the American landscape was that we are deep down all the same. . . . Our differences are superficial, and to the extent they are evident, they are just emanations, bits and pieces of charming folk behavior that provide delightful local color.

The Jews for whom this was true in 1964 when Fiddler premiered, the ones for whom Jewish tradition would end up being expressed by the playing of “Sunrise, Sunset” at a wedding, the ones who took all that universalism to heart—many if not most of them have by 2019 allowed much of what made them specifically and noticeably Jewish to wither away. That universalism came at a cost.

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Read more at Commentary

More about: American Jewry, Fiddler on the Roof, Yiddish

How European Fecklessness Encourages the Islamic Republic’s Assassination Campaign

In September, Cypriot police narrowly foiled a plot by an Iranian agent to murder five Jewish businessman. This was but one of roughly a dozen similar operations that Tehran has conducted in Europe since 2015—on both Israeli or Jewish and American targets—which have left three dead. Matthew Karnitschnig traces the use of assassination as a strategic tool to the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, and explains its appeal:

In the West, assassination remains a last resort (think Osama bin Laden); in authoritarian states, it’s the first (who can forget the 2017 assassination by nerve agent of Kim Jong-nam, the playboy half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur?). For rogue states, even if the murder plots are thwarted, the regimes still win by instilling fear in their enemies’ hearts and minds. That helps explain the recent frequency. Over the course of a few months last year, Iran undertook a flurry of attacks from Latin America to Africa.

Whether such operations succeed or not, the countries behind them can be sure of one thing: they won’t be made to pay for trying. Over the years, the Russian and Iranian regimes have eliminated countless dissidents, traitors, and assorted other enemies (real and perceived) on the streets of Paris, Berlin, and even Washington, often in broad daylight. Others have been quietly abducted and sent home, where they faced sham trials and were then hanged for treason.

While there’s no shortage of criticism in the West in the wake of these crimes, there are rarely real consequences. That’s especially true in Europe, where leaders have looked the other way in the face of a variety of abuses in the hopes of reviving a deal to rein in Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program and renewing business ties.

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Read more at Politico

More about: Europe, Iran, Israeli Security, Terrorism