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Sholem Aleichem’s Show Biz Triumph

Bennett Muraskin
July 6, 2014

by Bennet Muraskin

From the Spring, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents

Reviewed in this Essay: Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, by Alisa Solomon. Metropolitan Books, 2013, 448 pages.

TEvyaIt has been half a century since the Broadway opening of Fiddler on the Roof in 1964 — and a century since Sholem Aleichem wrote his last Tevye story in 1914, two years before his death. Such a time span gives rise to an historical reckoning, and Wonder of Wonders admirably fits the bill.

Sholem Aleichem, meaning “How do you do?”, was the humorous pen name of Sholem Rabinowitz, who fashioned himself as a folkshrayber, a Yiddish storyteller for the common people — although he left the shtetl as a young man, lived in big cities, invested and lost a bundle in the Kiev stock market in 1890, traveled throughout Europe and the U.S., and spoke more Russian than Yiddish with his family.

In 1894, Sholem Aleichem began writing stories about the long-suffering but resilient dairyman Tevye, his wife, and their many daughters. More followed between 1899 and 1914. In 1911, he published the stories as Tevye der milkhiger (“Tevye the Dairyman”). Sensing new opportunities in the emerging film industry, he also wrote two screenplays about Tevye and adapted the stories for the stage. There were, however, no takers on either side of the Atlantic. In 1914, he added the final chapter.

In 1905, living in Kiev with a wife and five children to support, Sholem Aleichem had struggled financially and looked to New York’s Yiddish theater as his ticket to prosperity — not with the Tevye stories, but with a play based on his novel Stempenyu, as well as with some original scripts. None were accepted. After touring England to earn some cash, he sailed for New York, where he was greeted at the dock by a crowd of admirers, mostly from various Zionist groups. (Contrary to later mythology that depicted him as a passionate socialist, Sholem Aleichem was, as Alisa Solomon observes, most closely identified with the Zionist movement.)

Tears happyFeted by Jacob Adler and Boris Tomashevsky, giants of the Yiddish theater, he was nevertheless compelled to eke out a meager living writing for two Yiddish newspapers. Over a year later, two of his plays were produced, but both closed within a few weeks, with his harshest critics coming from the socialist and anarchist Yiddish press. Abraham Cahan, the formidable editor of the Forverts, by far the largest Yiddish newspaper, wrote that Sholem Aleichem was passé. Although the characterization was grossly unfair, the fact is that Sholem Aleichem was, indeed, a mediocre playwright.

Four months after his plays flopped, Sholem Aleichem packed his bags and returned to Europe. He toured the Jewish Pale of Settlement but lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany for health reasons. He finally achieved economic security through royalties for his Yiddish publications and the success of a Russian-language edition of his works.

Like-what-youre-readingThe outbreak of World War I found him and his family living in Germany and facing detention as enemy aliens. They fled to Denmark, and he and his daughters travelled on to America, but his wife and son stayed behind. Before passage could be arranged, his son died in Denmark.

This time Sholem Aleichem did not receive a hero’s welcome, and again eked out a living writing for the Yiddish press and going on speaking tours. His last effort as a playwright, a comedy, was rejected by Yiddish theater producers. He fell ill in January 1916 and by May was dead at 57 from a combination of tuberculosis and diabetes. His funeral brought out some 200,000 mourners, who lined the streets from the Bronx to the Lower East Side.

Three years after Sholem Aleichem’s death, Maurice Schwartz, a leading Yiddish playwright and producer, staged Tevye der milkhiger, based on the script that Sholem Aleichem himself had completed in 1914 (with revisions by his son-in-law Isaac Berkowitz). The play was a huge hit, which paved the way for the production of other Sholem Aleichem plays in the Yiddish theater and an English-language Broadway production If I Were You (1931), known in the original Yiddish version as Shver tsu zayn a yid (“Hard to be a Jew”). In 1939, Schwartz made Tevye der milkhiger into a movie, with the exteriors filmed on a Long Island farm. The movie ends with the expulsion of Tevye and his family and neighbors by government decree, as in the story, but has Tevye leaving for Palestine. (As written by Sholem Aleichem, this was Tevye’s intent, but his final destination was left ambiguous.)

Alisa Solomon emphasizes that there would have never been a Fiddler on the Roof had it not been for two very different works that were both titled “The World of Sholom Aleichem” — the first a 1943 book by Maurice Samuel, the second a 1953 play by Arnold Perl. Equally indispensable were the first translation of the Tevye stories into English, published in 1949, and a 1952 book by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life is With the People, which romanticized life in the shtetl.

Maurice Samuel was a prominent Jewish intellectual and Zionist who nevertheless saw the shtetl as a source of Jewish spiritual power and Sholem Aleichem as its avatar. In his retelling of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, Tevye appears as the quintessential shtetl Jew — even though the character did not live in a shtetl and, in any event, Jewish life in Eastern Europe had changed dramatically since Sholem Aleichem’s death. This sepia-tinged image of the shtetl received pseudo-scientific confirmation from Life is With the People, which was based on interviews of Jewish immigrants to America who mostly had left their shtetlakh as children.

As for Arnold Perl, he was radicalized as a student in City College during the Depression and became a writer. Seeing the Dachau concentration camp as a soldier during World War II aroused his sense of Jewishness, and after the war, he read voraciously about Jewish culture. With American Jews intent on assimilation after World War II, Broadway was not interested in Old Country Jews — but Perl and other Jewish leftists were.

There was Frances Butwin, translator of the Tevye stories, who saw her progressive values emerging from the common people or “folk.” There was also Nathan Ausubel, still a communist when he published his classic A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (1949). And there was Howard Da Silva (born Silverblatt), a famous Hollywood and Broadway actor blacklisted in the 1950s. Arnold Perl and Da Silva teamed up to form their own theater company, and found in Yiddish stories a vehicle to express their solidarity with the oppressed.

Their production, The World of Sholom Aleichem, was something of a mishmash. It presented a narrator, Mendele the Bookseller — aka Mendele Moykher Sforim, considered the founder of modern Yiddish literature — who introduced three one-act plays, one based on a short story by I.L. Peretz and two by Sholem Aleichem. Neither was a Tevye story, and one included elements of a Chelm-the-foolish-town folktale, as rendered by Ausubel. Almost all the actors were on the blacklist, but the show was an instant success, and New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson gave it a rave review. Despite a modification to one of its three stories, Sholem Aleichem’s “The High School”, which gave it a more radical ending, and despite the best efforts of the red-baiters in the entertainment industry to shut it down, The World of Sholem Aleichem was embraced by a broad spectrum of the Jewish community and toured major cities to great acclaim. In 1959, a version appeared on prime-time television, proving that productions of Yiddish stories in English, and Sholem Aleichem’s name in particular, could sell.

Building on this success, Perl adapted a number of the Tevye stories for the stage. Lo and behold, Tevya and His Daughters premiered in New York in 1957, twenty-eight years after the Yiddish production — but it closed after six weeks. Its Tevye was criticized as a milquetoast figure without any strong convictions.

Enter Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, and Hal Prince. Bock (music) and Harnick (lyrics) were the songwriting team for the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Fiorello! Stein was an accomplished librettist. Prince was the producer or co-producer of Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, West Side Story, and other Broadway hits. They all had a passing acquaintance with Sholem Aleichem, but it was Stein, the only Yiddish speaker among them, who suggested to Bock and Harnick that they stage the Tevye stories, and then completed the first draft of the first act.

Jerome Robbins (born Rabinowitz), with megahits West Side Story and Gypsy to his credit, was brought in as director and choreographer in 1963. He immediately immersed himself in Jewish history, culture, and religious practices by reading, watching films (including the Yiddish Tevye), viewing Roman Vishniac’s photographs of shtetl Jews, and more. Robbins assigned other members of the company to do similar research, with field trips arranged to khasidic yeshivas, synagogues, and weddings in Brooklyn. From the world-famous painter Mark Chagall, he borrowed the image of a “fiddler on a roof.”

The play focuses on about half of the chapters of the original Tevye book and is lighter in tone. In the original, by the time Tevye and the rest of the Jews of Anatevka are expelled, his wife Golde and son-in-law Motl have died, one of his daughters has committed suicide, and the youngest has married a rich boor who lost all his money, with the couple ending up working in a sweatshop in America.

Solomon provides more information than necessary about the casting of Fiddler, Robbins’ direction during rehearsals, and the out-of-town performances that preceded the Broadway opening. She gives the impression that she interviewed everyone involved in the production at least twice — including Robbins’ shrink. What comes through is that Robbins was a perfectionist who tormented the cast by constantly changed scenes, songs, and dances.

Her description of the relationship between Robbins and Zero Mostel, whom he cast as Tevye, is priceless. Mostel hated Robbins for having been a “friendly” witness before the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) while Mostel and his other close friends in the industry were blacklisted. Their personalities and artistic styles also clashed. Mostel referred to Robbins as “that sonofabitch” and made obscene gestures behind his back. Yet Mostel, who spoke Yiddish and understood its culture, was the perfect Tevye, and Robbins knew it. In the end, Robbins proved to be the perfect director for Fiddler, which he made into a story about Jewish pride and resilience in face of adversity.

The musical opened in 1964 and swept the Tony Awards in 1965, with Robbins as Best Director and Mostel as Best Actor. Fiddler on the Roof ran for nearly eight years, setting the record at the time as the longest-running Broadway show, and has been revived on Broadway four times. It has been produced in dozens of countries, including a fifteen-month run in Israel, and is still a favorite in regional and community theaters and in college and high school productions. The songs, “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset” are staples at bar and bat mitsve parties and Jewish weddings.

No performance was more fraught, Solomon observes, than the one at a junior high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, formerly a Jewish immigrant enclave where Zero Mostel was born, which by 1968 was a poor black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. The year was the worst in the history of black-Jewish relations in New York, as the mostly Jewish United Federation of Teachers struck three times against a district-wide school experiment in “community control.” The dispute escalated into a racial/ethnic conflict laced with charges of “educational genocide” and “black anti-Semitism.” Still, Richard Piro, a popular, white, non-Jewish drama teacher, assembled an all-black and Puerto Rican cast for Fiddler.

After angry Jewish teachers convinced a frightened Jewish principal to cancel the production, help arrived from Fiddler’s Broadway team. Despite what Solomon calls “a battle-zone atmosphere,” including violence and vandalism, Bock, Harnick, Stein, and Prince, all Jews, lobbied for the show to go on, and then joined the community in the audience. The triumph was fleeting, unfortunately; the school continued to deteriorate and after two years Piro transferred out.

Another special Fiddler production described by Solomon was staged in Poland in 1983, soon after the lifting of martial law and a few months before Pope John Paul II’s visit. Poland had been home to over three million Jews, 90 percent of whom had perished in the Holocaust. The company performed in Lodz and Warsaw, historically the two largest Jewish cities in Poland, with a combined pre-war population of half a million. The play was well received, which signaled a more positive attitude toward Jews from the communist government and the population at large. With the approval of Joe Stein, the proceeds from the ticket sales were used to reconstruct and renovate Jewish cemeteries — reinforcing the belief that Poland was little more than a graveyard for Jews — but the production did remind older Poles of what had been lost.

The 1971 movie version of Fiddler, directed by Norman Jewison, the Canadian-born non-Jew with a Jewish-sounding name, was also a success. It starred Israeli actor Chaim Topol, and was shot in two villages in Yugoslavia, which was the closest Jewison could get to the Ukraine during the Cold War. To create an aura of authenticity, he even had a replica of a traditional East European synagogue built for the set. While still working on the film, Jewison expressed interest in donating the structure to Israel and offered to contribute to relocation costs. Before negotiations could be completed, the building was torn down.

Solomon makes one surprising error. She writes that “by the mid 1940s the alliance of Communists, socialists, industrial unionist and bourgeois liberals in the fight against fascism had long since collapsed.” Maybe she means “by the mid-1950s,” but in 1945, that alliance was at its peak.

But don’t let that bother you. Wonder of Wonders is wonderful. As Solomon makes clear in her fascinating book, the reputation of Sholem Aleichem was not torn down, but was rebuilt for the ages, thanks to the efforts of artists in the very medium in which he was a flop — theater. While purists might grit their teeth at the thought that Fiddler is by far Sholem Aleichem’s best-known legacy, it is likely what preserved interest in his work among American Jews who no longer read Yiddish.

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.