'Fiddler,' Playing at Museum of Jewish Heritage, Resonates Today

Steven Skybell, playing Tevye, and Ensemble perform "Tradition."  Photo: Victor Nechay / ProperPix

Jul. 09, 2018


Tevye and his band of beleaguered but resilient refugees from Tsarist Russia arrived in Battery Park City last week in for the American premiere of the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” With actor Joel Grey as director, this Fiddler (with English and Russian supertitles) is presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), the longest consecutively producing theater in the U.S. and the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theater company.

The setting for the musical, staged at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and overlooking the Statue of Liberty, is particularly poignant.

Since it opened on Broadway in 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” has broken box office records with the original show running for nearly eight years (3,242 performances), with national touring companies crisscrossing the country, and with productions playing around the globe—including more than 15 in Finland.  

Based on a short story by Sholem Aleichem, the musical is narrated by Tevye the dairyman whose daily existence reflects the stress of life in Russia—where it remains his fatherly duty to marry off his daughters to suitable Jewish husbands. It was a time of vicious attacks on Jews, angry workers’ strikes, and painful peasant rebellions, dark forces that ultimately expelled Tevye and his fellow Jews from their small Jewish village of Anatevka.

When the stories evolved into the musical "Fiddler," there was a major plot change with Tevye’s family immigrating to America. It was an important shift, wrote historian Matthew Frye Jacobsen in "Roots Too: White Ethnic Revivial in Post-Civil Rights Amerca," catching a cultural wave of liberal tolerance at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and shifting the locus of America’s origins story from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island.   

Within the next decade, inspired by Zero Mostel’s Broadway performance of Tevye, the dairyman became an Everyman, speaking to the experiences of people in countries that bore no resemblance to the world of tiny Anatevka. A film adaptation of "Fiddler" in 1971, with the Israeli actor Topol as Tevye, expanded the audience and won three Academy Awards.  

To Grey, performing "Fiddler" in Yiddish lends an authenticity to the story by attaching “the ancient sounds of Yiddish. The change in idiom,” Grey said in a recent interview, “gives the show greater authority.”

“With people wandering all over the world, Tevye’s family leaving Anatevka gets to me,” he said. And hearing the story in Yiddish, he added, makes the suffering of the characters from anti-Semitism seem all the more real.

Although Grey, 86, does not speak Yiddish fluently, he spent his childhood immersed in the world of Yiddish culture—he was the son of Los Angeles-based Klezmer clarinetist and comedian Mickey Katz, known for his outrageous riffs on Yiddish words and expressions.

Grey is not the only non-fluent Yiddish speaker in this Yiddish "Fiddler." Steven Skybell, who plays Tevye, has his own family history with Yiddish. A native of Lubbock, Texas, his grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Poland, spoke Yiddish when they didn't want their kids to understand them. Only later in life did he begin studying the language. “I am not fluent,” he said. “It is definitely a daunting challenge to play Tevye in Yiddish.

“Tevye is up there with Hamlet,” Skybell said. “He is a constant presence on the stage and his emotional range is unlike so many roles: as high as it can be and as low as it can be. The ‘death' of Chava [Tevye declares her dead to him when she marries outside the faith], pushing out of the homeland. Still, such joy and celebration of life.”

This is Skybell’s third Tevye. The first was at age 17 and the second, 22 years ago. Today, he sees the part as a wonderful opportunity since he is playing a middle-aged protagonist. “I am eager to see how my understanding of the role has shifted in 40 years,” he said.

Choreographer Stas Kmiec’s relationship with "Fiddler," goes back many decades, having staged five productions of the show in the manner of Jerome Robbins (the choreographer for the original "Fiddler") and having performed in 1,682 shows on national tours with Theodore Bikel playing Tevye.

In this production, a single word, “toyre,” (Torah) is written in Yiddish on paper panels that hang on the stage.  The Russians tear the panels in half and in the second part of the show; they remain on stage, damaged. Beyond the banners, the set is sparse: a couple of tables and chairs, a cloth over a table, transforms it into a bed. The idea, according to the design team, was to let the audience imagine the rest. Tevye has a little cart; the train station has a sign.

The costumes also are modest. In the beginning, actors are clothed in blacks and greys and whites. Only through the daughter’s love stories do we see pieces of color added to their garb. At the end, the company of actors march off again in dark coats.

Marching off, dislocation, is one of the dominant themes of "Fiddler," one that resonates today. “I just saw Ai Wei Wei’s movie, “The Human Flow,” Grey said, comparing the show's characters to Ai Wei Wei’s powerful documentary on today's refugee crisis.

In an interview, Alisa Solomon, author "Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof," agreed with Grey. “In age of deportations and Trumpian politics, one feels the plight of a despised minority in "Fiddler" ever more strongly. As a place of empathy, the theater invites audiences to feel for people who must flee their beloved homes.”

Fiddler on the Roof, a production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage,36 Battery Pl., to Oct. 25. The show is in Yiddish with supertitles in English and Russian.