Yiddish Fiddler’s Unseen Triumphs

Fidler afn Dakh opens new possibilities for reading the iconic play, but it’s not clear who’s noticing.

Jonah S. Boyarin
August 29, 2019
National Yiddish Theater Folksbeine’s Fidler afn Dakh.
Photo: Matthew Murphy

AS A TRANSLATOR from a ravaged, diasporic language (Yiddish) to a colonial one (English), I will sometimes find a word, a phrase, or a concept that, despite my best efforts, appears to be untranslatable, and I grow excited. Frustratingly, thrillingly—for it is the translator’s job to capture and tame such an expression without killing it—it eludes all attempts to trap it within English’s borders.

Fidler afn Dakh, the wildly successful Yiddish-language production currently running off-Broadway—produced by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbeine, directed by Joel Grey, and running, after multiple extensions, until early next year—is full of such untranslatable moments. Israeli writer Shraga Friedman’s 1966 Yiddish adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof realizes a deep, multidimensional enactment of Ashkenazi culture, recalling Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories on which the original musical is based. The Yiddish idiom locates itself within a rich web of Biblical and rabbinic story and thought, reopening possibilities for reading Tevye’s character, and the traditional culture he is meant to represent, in ways that were obscured by Fiddler’s English-language script. 

But it’s not clear who’s actually noticing. Facing the limitation of the small number of theatergoers who speak Yiddish, the Folksbeine has savvily achieved mass commercial and critical appeal for the show by casting non-Yiddish-speaking actors in almost all the roles—including the grave, magnetic Steven Skybell as Tevye—and insisting to audiences that you don’t need to speak Yiddish to understand Fidler. Critics (and, in my anecdotal experience, audiences as well) have largely accepted this proposition, ironically making it harder for them to recognize the particularly Yiddish triumphs of this adaptation—or to at least wonder what they might have lost in translation.

Many of us are at least passably familiar with the English-language Fiddler, one of the most successful musicals of all time. Its plot elements are tightly replicated in the Yiddish Fidler. The show, which first opened in 1964, reflects Ashkenazi American Jewish ambivalence about the loss of its home culture, which had been devastated by genocide in Europe and attenuated by American pressures to assimilate. The show attempted to reconcile the deeply felt loss of this vibrant Ashkenazi world with the desire to be freed of its embarassingly primitive-seeming expressiveness, superstition, and attachment to ritual; its oppressive sexism; and its restrictions on intermarriage, all of which might hinder safe absorption into the melting pot of liberal, middle-class American whiteness. Tevye, the face of tradition, is in conflict with his brood of daughters, who, in their rebellious desire to marry as they please, reflect a generational move away from stubborn clannishness toward individual self-actualization. He bends but does not break, acquiescing to one daughter’s will after another, until he heartbreakingly repudiates his daughter Chava for daring to marry the non-Jewish Fyedke. The show more or less concludes by rhetorically equating Tevye’s rejection of Fyedke to the Tsar’s expulsion of the Jews from Anatevke—“Some are driven away by edicts; others by silence,” Fyedka reproachfully tells Tevye—suggesting that the real problem for Christian-Jewish relations in Europe was that we couldn’t all just get along. 

In the English version, Tevye frequently irritates his daughters and wife with high-handed lectures that begin, “As the good book says,” sounding more like Reverend Lovejoy than a pious but unlearned dairyman. It’s partly the inescapably Protestant connotations of all religious language in English; it’s also the particularly Christian tendency to authoritatively quote Bible in translation. Traditional Ashkenazi Jews like Tevye had more direct fidelity to the original Hebrew text, and so would first recite a Biblical quote in Hebrew and then interpret it Yiddish. And although Tevye’s interpretations are often very loose and creative, Fiddler’s monolingualism obscures a potential difference in register between interpretation and actual verses, so that it’s more difficult to discern the contrast between them. 

In Fidler afn Dakh, on the other hand, Jewish tradition comes across as more familiar, complex, and alive. When Tevye invites the handsome communist Pertshik to come live with him and tutor his daughters, he acknowledges the simplicity of the fare that Pertshik will enjoy at his table, concluding “b’mokom sh’eyn ish, iz a hering fish.” The line is a complex Hebrew-Yiddish-Russian pun that takes a pompous 2,000-year-old Mishnaic injunction to “man up”—“b’mokom sh’eyn ish, hishtadel l’hiyoys ish” (“in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”)—and replaces the second phrase to make it “b’mokom sh’eyn ish, iz a hering fish” (“in a place where there are no men, even a herring is a fish”). In other words: make do with what you have, but don’t pretend it’s anything fancier than what it is. So Tevye might be ironically acknowledging his own poverty, or indicating his skepticism about Pertshik’s suitability as a tutor, or teasing the Mishnah itself. All of these possibilities live in a phrase which goes totally untranslated in the show’s English supertitles, leading me to wonder what the effect would be of transliterating this and other such lines into the supertitles, if only to help audiences notice and wonder at their unreachable presence.

Tevye’s relationship to God likewise takes on new dimensions through his use of theologically provocative Biblical allusions. (These moments are accessible to audience members closely familiar with Jewish Bible and liturgy, regardless of whether they speak Yiddish.) Each time Tevye relents and bows to the will of his daughters, he grants himself the magnanimous last word by saying “solakhti kidvorekho,” “I have forgiven like you asked”: a Biblical Hebrew phrase that is a fixture in the High Holidays liturgy, evoking God’s mercy toward a penitent Jewish people. Tevye might be shoring up his authority, or gently, ironically mocking it—his daughters, after all, are hardly penitent, and they mostly get their way. We might even hear a theologically subversive echo: that God is sometimes led by the Jewish people as much as the Jewish people are led by God.

When Tevye’s daughter Tsaytl and her beloved, the poor tailor Motl, effusively thank Tevye for relenting and granting them permission to marry, he responds with a Biblical phrase common in Israeli vernacular Hebrew: “hashem nosn, v’hashem lokakh.” It is what Job says after God suddenly, arbitrarily kills his children and destroys his home: “God gave, God took away.” It’s quite possible to read this as comically absurd—after all, what’s so tragic about marrying a poor tailor? Later, though, he uses the same words to communicate his heartrending decision to sit shiva for Chava, hinting that he is a man who is at the whim of forces far greater than himself—the pressures of traditional endogamy and the violence of the antisemitic tsar—and he has finally come to understand his own story (and Chava and Fyedke’s, and Anatevka’s, and Ashkenazi Jewry’s) as a tragedy. Yet his ability to link his tragedy to the story of Job offers, at least, the consolation that he is not alone in history and in his suffering, and that even in the midst of mourning, one might find resources to read the text and our own lives with gentleness and irony.  

Despite the subtleties lost in the supertitles, Fidler has effectively created a bridge to a lost, nostalgically remembered past for its non-Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazi Jewish reviewers. The presence of Yiddish, New York Times critic Jesse Green wrote, “offers a kind of authenticity no other American ‘Fiddler’ ever has.” For Green, the show struck “a deep emotional chord” and made his experience “a truly profound one.” “For me,” he continued, “it’s not just the fusillade of familiar words and phrases: meshuga, geklempt, zay gezunt. It is the sound of my own grandparents and all they lost in leaving their Anatevkes.” 

This perception of authenticity, and sense of lost connection made whole, also carries risks. Outside of contemporary Hasidic and academic circles, the associations that Yiddish carries—what Green called the “sound of my own grandparents”—are often more meaningful than the meaning of the words being spoken. The dynamic was apparent from the first line of the show. “A fidler afn dakh,” Tevye comments wryly, then shrugs, gesturing with an open palm: “Meshuge, neyn?” On the word “meshuge,” the audience around me erupted into laughter. The line’s no howler in Yiddish, and the English supertitle—“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?”—merits, say, a light chuckle on its own terms. But the line does not come to us Ashkenazi Jews on its own terms; it carries with it both our nostalgia for and our alienation from the Yiddish-speaking past, as well as our specific attachments to Fiddler on the Roof, the most famous entry in the Americanization of this past. 

The audience’s roar of laughter was, among other things, a collective release of tension. As the curtain rises on Fidler’s Anatevka, so do our anxieties about a lost connection to Yiddish language and culture—only to melt into the relief of recognition at the word “meshuge,” and of the show itself, which has become a kind of shortcut to claiming our past. Yes, the show says, it’s all still here for you to visit, for the next three hours.

Jonah S. Boyarin is a writer, anti-racist educator, Yiddish translator, and born-and-raised New Yorker. The Jewish Week named him one of 2020’s “36 Under 36.”