There is no place more ham and cheese on white with mayo, more button-down and penny loafers, more Eisenhower America, than Elm Grove, Wisconsin, in the fall.
Little displays of gourds and corn husks are clumped around the front doors of early-Sixties ranch houses. An SUV stands in the driveway. There are Irish Setters. At the big Catholic school — of which I am an ancient graduate — little girls in stiff plaid skirts and unzipped parkas play kickball on the parking lot.
This would be the place to assemble a bunch of German- and Irish-descended ladies — inveterate supermarket shoppers — stand them on some hay, and have them sing, “Who must know the way to make a proper home? A quiet home? A kosher home?”
Right? Of course right.
This is a place where the payess-wigs fit poorly. But, along with probably dozens of high school and college and community troupes across America this year, the Sunset Playhouse players — semi-professional semi-amateurs in a leafy corner of the Midwest — decided to give it a go with Fiddler on the Roof.
Last month, I went with my teenage niece, who lives down the street from the theater and its accompanying orthodontist’s office and drive-thru bank.
She had never heard of the show.
Fiddler, as every grown-up American should be aware, is a 1964 musical by Bock and Harnick set in the Pale of Settlement of the Czars’ empire — today’s Ukraine or Poland — in 1905. It’s based on an 1894 Yiddish gem by Sholem Aleichem. There was an early-70s movie with Chaim Topol, a son of Tel Aviv, in the starring role. It was shot in Titoist Croatia. The most significant difference: Bea Arthur played Yente in the stage version, Molly Picon in the film.
But Elm Grove a neighborhood for Golde and Yente and Tevye? Who knew…
The Elm Grove actors strove valiantly to produce a throaty fricative:
“To life, to life, Lek-kaim!” one sang. His partner replied: “La-high-um, La-high-um, to life!”
Poor Tzeitel, eldest daughter of the milkman, was called “Dzaytel” by her dad and “Sightel” by Mama.
And then there were the jokes:
Yente: “My husband… you know as much as I, he wasn’t much of a person.”
The audience: Dead quiet.
Golde: “Grandmother Tzeitel? How did she look?”
Tevye: “For a woman who’s been dead 30 years she looked good.”
Tevye: “How is your brother-in-law in America?”
Lazar: “He’s doing very well.”
Tevye: “He wrote you?”
Lazar: “No, not lately.”
Tevye: “How do you know?”
Lazar: “If he was doing badly, he would write.”
Reverential, liturgical silence.
The book by Joseph Stein clamps the yuks of Imperial Russia to the shtick of lower Second Avenue: “As the Good Book says, ‘When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.'” A Catskills-style rimshot might have let the Wisconsinites know to laugh. We’re less Sid Caesar and more Lawrence Welk. We don’t know from chicken soup; try our Five Can Casserole.
The only joke that landed was one about being “as poor as a synagogue mouse.” Don’t remember that in the original.
Why did they do it? And why do countless other groups of hapless actors, about as Jewish as Mel Brooks is French, try their uvulae at this kvetching, krechts-ing chestnut every year?
Because they’re American, and their culture is run through with silver veins of yiddishkayt of which most are only vaguely aware, but which the knowing observer can feel, pulsing, just under the skin. Whether they grew up with Burns and Allen on a Philco Baby Grand or Jon Stewart on Hulu, the lore of the Tribe is in the tribal memory of these folk.
And, in this case, because they’re Wisconsin people. Their landscape is strewn with neo-Romanesque churches, pseudo-Baroque domes and artificial Bavarian Bierstuben bristling with the antlers of roe deer. These people know about sour pickles, sweet and sour herring, bittersweet weddings, and nostalgia for the alter heym.
Schnapps is a relevant reference.
“Sunrise, sunset” sang the papas, their costume-shop tzitzis dangling over the zippered vinyl shin-sheaths that turned their street shoes into boots. “Sunrise, sunset” sang the mamas, who in Act One said the blessing and slowly drew their hands to their eyes over electric sabbath candles.
“Swiftly fly the years.”
Out came the chuppa and the bride in the veil and the rabbi in a beard stuck fast with spirit gum.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.