Jerome Robbins first discovered the shtetl when he was six years old. He was born on the Lower East Side, home of immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father took him to Poland to see where his Rabinowitz family came from.
When he won Tony Awards for directing and choreographing “Fiddler on the Roof,” he believed he did such a great job that the show would last for 25 years.
Here it is, 50 years later, and the musical is still being produced somewhere in the world. Of course, that calls for celebration. To commemorate the anniversary of that global phenomenon, Anatevka shtetl dwellers were summoned to a reunion.
That is how 80 veterans from “Fiddler on the Roof” productions on stage and screen came to recreate several of those enduring scenes and songs in Manhattan's Town Hall on June 9 to benefit the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene.
Many in the sold-out audience of 1,500 sang along as Chaim Topol, Mike Burstyn, Joanna Borts, Neva Small, Austin Pendleton and Adrienne Barbeau gave voice to such iconic tunes as “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Matchmaker,” under the musical direction of Zalmen Mlotek. That amazing fiddler, Joshua Bell, stepped up to strum some of the Jerry Bock score.
Even Chita Rivera celebrated. Although not a “Fiddler” alumna, she was picked to present a Folksbiene Lifetime Achievement Award to Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the songs. It was also a birthday gift, as he was 90 on April 30.
Actress/singer Pia Zadora couldn’t believe it’s been 50 years since she made her Broadway debut as Tevye’s youngest daughter “especially as my official bio states I’m 43.” (She turned 60 last month.)
Broadway producer Hal Prince would send champagne to all the cast for Christmas. Given that Pia was only 10 years old, he sent her champagne bubble bath. “It was the worst champagne I’ve ever drank,” she remembered.
She said that Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, used to call her “my little shiksa.” He taught her three words in Yiddish “that would get you through life: mazel tov, oy vey, and shmuck.”
Chaim Topol, star of the film version, announced good news: The Israel post office is going to issue three stamps for the show’s 50th anniversary.
Consul General Ido Aharoni recalled that when “Fiddler” premiered in Israel, it was done in Yiddish. That was natural, he said, as Yiddish was the language of the early immigrants. “You needed that type of humor to survive as a newcomer.”
Folksbeine president Mark Mlotek apologized for the absence of Bel Kaufman. She’s a big draw for many in the audience of a certain age. She’s the author of “Up the Down Staircase” and, more relevant, the granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem, who wrote the 1894 story of “Tevye and His Daughters,” the source material for “Fiddler.” We can forgive her. After all, she is 103 years old — three years older than the Folksbiene.
Folksbiene chairman Jeffrey Wiesenfeld talked about all the love that pervaded the shtetl. Like the time Sara went to the rebbe and lamented that both Yossele and Yankele want to marry her. “Who shall be the lucky one?” she asked. The rebbe looked at her for a moment, and said, “My child, Yossel will marry you. Yankel will be the lucky one.”
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. He has been writing a column for The Jewish Week for 35 years and is a writer/photographer at 15MinutesMagazine.com. He is the author of “Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.