Daniel Wolpe
Daniel Wolpe

My Love/Hate Relationship With Fiddler On The Roof

One of the most successful musicals of all time is Fiddler On The Roof (Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick). Loosely based on the writings of Yiddish humorist Shalom Aleichem, the play won nine Tonys in its initial run in 1965 and was the first theater musical to surpass 3,000 performances. In fact, for ten years it was the longest running musical in Broadway history. By every metric, the musical was an unqualified success.

Additionally, the show would go on to teach many people who knew little to nothing about Judaism a smidgeon of what it means to be a Jew. It opened up a world largely unknown to the non-Jewish world in a way that was inclusive and understandable. Who could argue with that?

And yet, for all the good the play has done, I think it has done a lot of damage, as well. As a playwright who has worked extensively in Jewish theater, I have noticed that it is the only Jewish themed play most people know about. There are thousands of excellent Jewish works out there on many different aspects of the Jewish experience, and yet, especially when a non-professional theater is looking for a play with Jewish themes, it’s always, “Let’s do Fiddler On The Roof!”

Even more insidious is the way that it has evolved from a doorway into understanding Judaism, to becoming all that some Jews know of Judaism. A few years back, an acquaintance of mine who runs a theater program in a Christian school was directing a production of the show. Realizing that there were no Jews involved in the production, I offered to speak to the cast, to allow it to be a real learning experience for her students so that they had some understanding of what it meant to be a Jew. I was told she’d get back to me. I am still waiting.

This is not an isolated incident. I know of many productions where no Jews were involved and it never occurred to anyone to learn about what it meant to be a Jew in that time period or today.

This, of course, is not a criticism of the show itself. But imagine how much more the theater world and the educational world could benefit if they were aware of the many different Jewish plays that existed. From Clifford Odets Awake and Sing! to Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, Jewish theater is as diverse and multifaceted as Judaism itself.

(In my previous blog, I referred to Shara Ashley Zeiger as Shara Zeiger. I apologize for the error.) 

About the Author
Rabbi Dan Wolpe is the rabbi of the Flushing Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, a noted educator, and a produced and published playwright. In addition to having served as a rabbi for 25 years, Wolpe has had plays of his produced in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia, Jerusalem, Latham and Westhampton Beach,. Wolpe is a proud member of both the Rabbinical Assembly and the Dramatist's Guild.
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