The Israeli Actor Who Brought the Shtetl to the Silver Screen

March 10, 2023 | David Herman
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Born in Tel Aviv in 1935 to a working-class family, Chaim Topol gained fame in Israel for his role in the film Sallaḥ Shabati, but it was his performance in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof that propelled him to the part for which he is best remembered—as Tevye in the Hollywood version of the musical. Topol died on Wednesday at the age of eighty-seven. David Herman reflects on his career:

Topol was then chosen over the more renowned Zero Mostel (who famously played the part on Broadway) to play Tevye in Norman Jewison’s Hollywood adaptation. According to Alisa Solomon in her book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof: “Jewison felt Mostel lacked reality. He was too big, too American.” The director wanted a much more realistic feel for his film, especially for the part of the dairyman.

Mostel was religiously observant and spoke Yiddish, but Topol was a Hebrew-speaking sabra (Jew born in Israel) and was still in his thirties. Critics agreed. Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, said Topol’s “brute vitality” helped to “clear away the sticky folk stuff.” Fiddler went on to become the top-grossing film of the year and was part of Jewish wave of Hollywood films in the 1960s, which included Goodbye Columbus, The Graduate, and Woody Allen’s early films.

Along with the musical duo Esther & Abi Ofarim and a new generation of Israeli writers, including Amos Oz, whose first novels were published in the mid-1960s, and S.Y. Agnon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, Topol symbolized a new Israeli culture. . . . His death was announced by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog, who described him as a “gifted actor who conquered many stages in Israel and overseas, filled the cinema screens with his presence, and especially entered deep into our hearts.”

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