Who could ever forget FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the remarkable stage-play and film-play, made famous by Chaim Topol who performed the role of Tevye more than 3500 times?
It has travelled right around the world and millions of people have seen the show, either on the stage or in a movie theatre. It has touched the life of so many people, identifying them with their own tradition.
Fiddler on the Roof was a totally Jewish production. The book for the stage-play and later adapted for the film-play was written by Joseph Stein. The music composed by Jerry Bock and the lyrics based on the book were written by Sheldon Harnick.
Even if you’re not Jewish the characters of Tevye the milkman with five daughters, Yente the busy matchmaker, Motel the honest tailor, Lazer Wolf the butcher who was a wealthy man and Perchik the revolutionary student have universal appeal.
One instance of this fascinating story was in Tokyo, 1967 for the first production of Fiddler. Joseph Stein visited Japan for the opening and during a rehearsal the producer asked him if the Americans understood the show.
“Yes. of course,” answered Stein. “I wrote it for the Americans. But why do you ask?”
“Because it is so Japanese,” replied the producer.
As Tevye led the people from the village into the new world he remembered where his roots lay, but recognized the absolute need to bring his family into a bigger, more productive and challenging new world. The shtetl is the past. The world of progress is the future.
It’s not just the words that sum up Jewish life in the shtetl, but the music is so appropriate. So Jewish in spirit with the violin, perhaps the foremost Jewish instrument, playing a dual role of sweetness blended with sadness.
Every country has its own musical identity, all based on folk songs. They depict the cultural make-up of a country and its people with melodies reflecting experiences like happiness, sadness, day-to-day life and so on. Simply, emotions built around music with appropriate lyrics.
The earliest knowledge of Jewish folk songs comes between 100BCE and 100CE from the Yemenite Jews. During the period of their banishment from ancient Israel they maintained an affinity with Jewish spirit with the development of a body of songs which have definite Oriental qualities.
Hallelot. Songs based on the Psalms.
Zafat, Chidduyoth, Neshid and Shiroth are all songs sung during the marriage ceremony and subsequent celebrations, some where men dance together in pairs in an essentially Arabic style.
Exiled Jews in Russia adopted secular folk songs for singing with mournful expression summing up the hardness of life and demonstrating their plight. Many of these soul-searching tunes from Russian Jews formed the basis of modern Israeli folk songs.
In Spain and Northern Africa Ladino folk songs were often sung in secret locations. It helped to keep Jewish life alive at the time of rampant antisemitism.
But the biggest area of folk songs was in Eastern Europe, particularly from Poland where Yiddish folk songs developed along the lines of the Yemenite songs with something different for every occasion. Songs of love and lullabies, poverty, eating, illness. Just about everything one can imagine.
Just What is the Fiddler All About?
The chorus open the show and tell us exactly what the Fiddler on the Roof is all about.
“Away above my head I saw the strangest sight. A Fiddler on the Roof who’s up there day and night. He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows. I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes. What does it mean, this Fiddler on the Roof who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon? Why should he pick so curious a place to play his little fiddler’s tune?”
It might not mean a thing, but then again it might!
It means quite a lot, especially to Jewish people. No matter how well we’re treated, or how badly we suffer, we keep going on and on. Why the roof? It might mean that we sit above the world, looking down where nobody can touch us. We are forever looking for freedom and peace. On the roof perhaps we are safe.
Israel Looking Back
Sadly, in Israel a mis-guided government is planning to provide increased funding for the yeshivot at the expense of schools that concentrate on both religious and secular studies. This is a step in the wrong direction.
This is nothing more than adopting a policy of regression to the life on the shtetl which Tevye left behind in search of a better living. It is a short-sighted policy accompanied by very shallow thinking.
Tevye never forgot his roots. His childhood. His love for the village where he lived. But life on the shtetl was too restricted. He needed to move on into a world of creativity and enterprise.
Slowly he ends the show with this moving song:
“A little bit of this, a little bit of that. A pot, a pan, a broom, a hat. A bench, a tree, so what’s a stove or a home? Anatevka, Anatevka …. underfed, overworked. Anatevka. Where else could Shabbat be so sweet?”