I showed Fiddler on the Roof, to my students in an Introduction to Judaism class. I was somewhat reluctant to do it, since using this film for didactic purposes is somewhat of a cliché. At the same time, teaching an introductory course may prove difficult without some clichés. They can be admirably perceptive and useful to have, for someone encountering the material for the first time. Here are (roughly) my brief comments before the screening began, along with the images that accompanied them:
This movie is a project in translation and adaptation. It is a translation from one language to another: from Yiddish to English; it is an adaptation from one format to another: from prose, to stage, to screen. It is both a translation and adaptation from one culture to another.
Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) wrote in Yiddish. For his Yiddish readers the exposition of the film, including its famed title song (Tradition!), would be superfluous.
He gave the shtetl a name and all the rest came along with it. His readers could imagine the roles, the social settings, the interactions, just from that piece of information.
Sholem Aleichem was a humorist. Even his penname is a joke, as it is nothing more than a common greeting (“Peace be upon you”), and by adopting such a name he becomes a walking “who’s-on-first” act.
However, humor is not everything. His last novel, Motl the Cantor’s Son, demonstrated that well. It’s renowned opening line reads: Lucky me, I am an orphan. So despite the title, the author immediately dispenses of the father, and thus the title becomes a joke as well: Motl the Cantor’s Son, only he isn’t, from the first line. The absent father will remain throughout the book, with a typical mixture for Sholem Aleichem of sadness and joy, that is well-preserved in the film we’re about to watch.
When first staged on Broadway, the main role of Tevye was played by Zero Mostel. When switching to screen, he was replaced, a fact he begrudged for his remaining years.
Mostel had an energetic, domineering – and some would even say obnoxious – presence on screen. Those who remember him from Mel Brooks’ first film, The Producers, will understand. But in choosing to substitute him, the director and producer did more than that, as can be seen from their choice of replacement.
Topol was born in British Mandate Tel Aviv. In fact, his supposedly Russian-Jewish accent in the film, is more of an Israeli attempt to speak English than anything else, but somehow proves more authentic for Tevye, than Mostel’s distinctive Brooklyn accent.
This choice of reincarnating the Shtetl Jew through an Israeli is interesting not only because it defies the project of Zionism to generate a “New Jew,” but also because less than a decade earlier, when Hollywood seeks to personify the Sabra, it chooses Paul Newman to do so.
An all-American Icon as Ari Ben-Canaan eerily correlates with the choice to turn an Israeli Sabra, born and raised in Tel Aviv into Tevye the Milkman. This is not only a box office choice, it is an ideological one, too: telling us something about how Hollywood wishes to view Jews and Israelis, and how they view themselves.
When watching the film, I suggest to consider the following: this image has Tzeitl, Hodl and Chavaleh terrified of the matchmaker and of marriage.
But in fact, it is Tevye who should be petrified. Each on of these three daughters is going to present a challenge to her father. These challenges represent the challenges facing traditional Judaism with the rise of modernity. Tevye’s responses, in turn, reflect the responses Judaism offered to these challenges.
Caplan, Marc. “Neither Here nor There: The Critique of Ideological Progress in Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke’s Stories.” Modern Jewish Literatures. Intersections and Boundaries (Jewish Culture and Contexts; eds. SE Jelen, MP Kramer and LS Lerner). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 27-46.
Litvak, Olga. "Khave and Her Sisters: Sholem-Aleichem and the Lost Girls of 1905." Jewish Social Studies 15.3 (2009): 1-38.