Fiddler Turns Fifty

The Fiddler turned fifty last week. After its September 23rd debut on Broadway half a century ago, perhaps it’s time that the Musical based on the writings of the Yiddish author undergo a Cheshon HaNefesh or serious soul searching, particularly since we find ourselves in the time period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
When Fiddler opened, (Jewish) American authors were less than effusive in their review. Philip Roth who made a name for himself after writing novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint was not immune to kvetching that “Fiddler was shtetl kitsch.” Cynthia Ozick was far less charitable when she dismissed the musical as “emptied-out, prettified romantic vulgarism.”
As one who is not unfamiliar with a number of Sholem Aleichem’s works, I can’t help but feel that perhaps both of these authors of acclaim “fiddled” while American Jewish identity for the vast majority of our coreligionists in this country was being held to the fire.
Fiddler on the Roof succeeded in providing a first time glimpse of the shtetl to millions of people in this country – Jew and non-Jew alike. Was the portrayal maudlin? Absolutely! Were real shtetlach such as Chotin or Tulchin or Gombin even remotely similar to Anatevka? Absolutely not! But coming from the school of thought, that a romanticized rendition is better than no rendition at all, Fiddler should hopefully serve as a “forshpeiz” or appetizer for those who saw it, to read a little bit more about the shtetl and gain a clearer, much more realistic picture. Let’s face it, the movie Exodus has more than its share of inaccuracies and is no less guilty of its romanticized, overly simplistic depiction of “the way we were” in the latter half of the 1940’s prior to the establishment of pre state Israel. Yet, I’ll be the first to promote Exodus as a “primer” for anyone with little or no knowledge of what transpired in the days of the fictional Ari ben Canaan.
Secondly, ever since the debut of Fiddler, historians, teachers and rabbis should have realized that they have an obligation to share some Jewish “facts of life” with our people, namely that Yiddish literature neither began nor ended with Sholem Rabinovitch a.k.a. Sholem Aleichem.
There were dozens and dozens of Yiddish authors. It may be of interest to know that in past years, Tiferet Hebrew School students were exposed to a fabulous Yiddish Rosh Hashanah short story entitled Two Horns written by the author Avrom Reisen (translated into English by yours truly – ask me for a copy).
Perhaps most important of all, Fiddler should have made us acutely aware that to be a Jew means to be a Fiddler on the Roof. If there was ever a propitious time to think about Fiddler, it is this very week, when hopefully we deal with the question “what’s it all about” for us Jews living in America. No different that Sholem Aleichem’s fiddler, we must search for some sort of equilibrium as we attempt to balance the wants of G-d with needs of man, a four thousand year old tradition with modernity, and Judaism with the outside world.