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

June 19, 2019 | John Podhoretz
About the author: John Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary. His movie criticism appears regularly in the Weekly Standard.

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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