Still Fiddling

On Friday, August 23rd, a new documentary about the making and impact of Fiddler on the Roof hits cinemas. On the same day, a new Fiddler recording hits stores, featuring the score performed in Yiddish plus eleven rarely heard songs dropped from the score along the way performed in English. Meanwhile, a (non-union, ptoo ptoo ptoo) tour of the show just announced a second year of dates across the country. One might say that Fiddler on the Roof is having a moment, but (as the film Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles asserts), it might be more accurate to say that Fiddler on the Roof has never not been of the moment since the day it first hit Broadway in 1964.

Although it’s true that not a day has passed in half a century that Fiddler hasn’t been performed on a stage somewhere in the world, it’s also true that audiences are finding new resonance in this old-world story with a decidedly mid-century American gloss.

The new cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish documents the off-Broadway production that began life over a year ago as a production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in the basement of a Holocaust museum. An improbable hit, even in New York, some have attributed its appeal to a deeper sense of “authenticity” that comes from hearing these characters speak their native language, in a translation that hews slightly closer to Sholem Aleichem’s original words than the English original. (Of course, “authenticity” is a dicey proposition when it comes to Fiddler in any language.) Personally, I find the success of the production is more closely tied to its intimacy, but what is more interesting to me is the way it both supports and works against our conceptions of Yiddish.

While to some, Yiddish is either a dead language of the past or a tool for telling dirty jokes and not much else, Fiddler is a potent reminder that is its neither. Hearing a multifaceted piece of theater – a musical comedy, yes, but also a musical drama – play out in this language forces us to reckon with a language that is not (only) the source of a hundred words for penis but a language in which we bless our children, mourn our losses, and express our hopes for the future. Perhaps more importantly, at any given performance of the show in New York, you are likely to encounter actual living Yiddish speakers in the audience. (After all, there are an estimated 250,000 Yiddish speakers in the USA, and some scholars posit that the number may at last be on the rise.) At a moment of rising anti-Semitism (including and especially in Brooklyn), it is more important than ever to affirm that all Jews are part of one, interconnected and complicated family.

The cast recording, by virtue of being something you listen to in your own settings, can’t quite replicate this experience, but it comes close. If you, like me, grew up listening to the original Yiddish recording from Israel, the first striking difference is how alive and vibrant the sound of the new recording feels in contrast, which of course has everything to do with advances in recording technology however much I want it to be a comment on the state of Yiddish culture.

What the new recording definitely does offer is more – literally. Clocking in at just under two hours, this is maximum Fiddler, including not only the songs, but the dance music, scene change music, exit music and more, documenting every note played in this production (and with an augmented orchestra, so it sounds even better on disc than on stage). And that’s all on the first disc. The second includes eleven songs dropped from the show during its development in the 60s, performed (in English) by a variety of Broadway names, many of whom were associated with Fiddler productions of the past. While only one or two approach the level of forgotten gems, all are interesting as a document of how a very American creative team figured out how to tell this very Eastern European story in a way that would make sense to a midcentury audience of Jews and Gentiles together. (The bonus of bonuses comes at the very end: two of Yente’s monologues, recorded in Yiddish by the most recognizable name from this production, Jackie Hoffman.)

Physical copies of the album come with a 36-page booklet featuring production photos and a bevvy of essays that attempt to unpack the importance of Fiddler and explain both how this Yiddish-language production came to be and what it means to its audience. If you’re looking for the lyrics, they’ve made them available on the Folksbiene website in Yiddish, transliterated Yiddish, direct translation English and their original English.

Similar questions about the work more generally are at the heart of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, the new documentary that hits theaters the same day the album hits stores. The film is built on interviews with most of Fiddler’s creators (including a number who have died since the making of the documentary started), cast members of productions from the original through today, and a variety of scholars of Jewish cultures and musical theater, as well as gorgeously shot musical numbers from a variety of recent Fiddler productions from around the globe and Chagall-inspired animated sequences by Tess Martin.

What elevates this film above the typical making-of documentary is the skillful way it braids together three strands of inquiry. Yes, we trace the creation of the show, but we also get chapters taking a closer look at the meaning of several of the score’s most beloved songs as well as segments examining the ongoing cultural impact of the work and the ways its meanings have resonated differently in different times and places. The result is both enlightening and emotional, even for those of us who have already read multiple books on the subject.

The film is unabashedly progressive, from its engagement with feminist scholars who illuminate “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and address Tevye and Golde’s sex life (no, really!) to its explicit tying together the themes of Fiddler to our current refugee crisis. Yes, you will see images of white nationalists with tiki torches and MAGA-hatted criminals abusing immigrants interspersed with the Fiddler wedding pogrom. (The couple behind me at a recent screening at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on the upper west side of Manhattan left in a huff when the director reiterated this point, calling specific attention to the plight of those fleeing Honduras and Guatemala. What exactly did they think Fiddler on the Roof is about?) It also deals candidly with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins’ complicated history with the House Unamerican Affairs Committee, to which he named names under threat of exposure for his homosexuality, as well as touching on the controversial “Black Fiddler” middle school production from 1969, the subject of its own documentary at the time from WABC.

The film falls short in a couple of areas, from the perplexing choice of a Comic Sans-style font for titles to a segment about the “New Anatevka” refugee camp in Ukraine. (The film never clarifies that this new Anatevka is not where Fiddler takes place – that was never a real place, but rather a creation of the musical’s writers.) But these shortcomings are minor. The film will surely be embraced by audiences who aren’t afraid to consider how we have become complicit in creating in America the same kinds of persecution that drove a fictional dairyman, his wife and daughters from their homes a century ago.

These days, it can feel indulgent to engage with culture when the world is burning. What Fiddler on the Roof, in any of its forms, reminds us is that sometimes in the face of pogroms, even as you are fleeing the home you love, the best course of action may be to sing. And what these particular iterations of Fiddler specifically remind us today is that singing the songs of our past may give us the strength to fight for the future.

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