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'Fiddler on the Roof' Distorted Sholem Aleichem

But Sholem Aleichem distorted shtetl life to begin with

By the time Norman Jewison decided to try his hand at making a film, and a highly realistic one, at that, of the wildly successful Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof, he and his crew had to venture all the way to rural Yugoslavia to find the functional equivalent of an honest-to-goodness shtetl, or at least one whose timbered houses, muddy streets, log fences, and central market square would put moviegoers in mind of Anatevka. The only thing missing on site was a wooden synagogue, a hallmark of Eastern European Jewry’s vernacular architecture. Even if Jewison had the resources to import one from Poland, where once they had been thick on the ground, it was no longer possible. What the passage of time, the advent of modernity, the ravages of World War I, and the wholesale migration from shtetl to city and from the Old World to the New did not do, the Nazis accomplished in one fell swoop, destroying what had remained of those extraordinary structures. By the early 1970s, wooden synagogues, with their menageries of painted animals and Jewish zodiac motifs, existed only in memory and in a handful of nineteenth-century oil paintings.

Undeterred, Jewison fabricated his own. As Alisa Solomon recounts in her droll and fascinating book, the film-maker had his production designer, Robert Boyle, painstakingly recreate a wooden synagogue, replete with painted murals, panels of Hebrew lettering, an old-fashioned reader’s desk, and plush fabric coverings. Far more than just an effective design element, the house of worship and study established the film’s bona fides, its salute to tradition: shots of the interior framed both its opening and closing scenes.

Jewison had a hard time taking leave of his creation. “As ‘the only wooden period replica now existing in Europe,’ he reasoned, ‘it seems somehow wrong that it should be destroyed.’ ” In search of a home for the synagogue, the film-maker appealed to a number of Israeli authorities, among them Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, who rejected the idea out of hand. What would his fabled city, which contained hundreds of real synagogues, want with fakes, “recently made copies”? Kollek had a point. On the other hand....

Illustration by Andrés Lozano

The saga of the faux wooden synagogue, which ultimately was destroyed, is just one of the many revelations in which Wonder of Wonders abounds. A cultural biography of Fiddler, it tells the tale of how this amalgam of the Old World and the New, of Yiddish source material and American razzmatazz, became one of the most beloved and “insistent” of all American theatrical productions. “The show about tradition has become tradition,” is how Solomon succinctly puts it, noting how its impact on audiences at home and abroad ran deep and wide. Drawing on a wealth of sources, from production notes to the powers of observation, she takes us backstage at the Imperial Theatre, where Fiddler made its stunning Broadway debut in 1964, and into the auditorium of a Brownsville junior high school, where, for one brief moment, it soothed the racial tensions of the late 1960s. Her book then moves to Israel, where the play got “under the cactuslike skin of anti-galuti [anti-Diaspora] sabras,” before concluding in a winning chapter that takes the measure of a recent production in Poland composed of equal parts theater and commemoration, a dramatic exercise in “raising up ghosts.”

Along the way, Wonder of Wonders compels the reader to grapple with hard-hitting questions about the vexed relationship between authenticity and truth. Where does one begin and the other leave off? More pointedly still, does it matter? In our post-everything era where all is up for grabs and talk of simulacra rules the academic roost, does anyone really care if the truth is massaged or even fabricated as long as it tugs at our heartstrings? Besides, where does authenticity reside, anyway? In history? In provenance? In verisimilitude? Or in performance, interpretation, and the human embrace? 

The tension between authenticity and truth runs along the spine of Wonders of Wonders like a geological seam, mirroring the tension that accompanied the production from the moment of its debut fifty years ago. From the get-go, questions of authenticity dogged Fiddler on the Roof,most famously posed by Irving Howe, who raised them in a scathing critique in Commentary shortly after the play’s premiere. Wielding his pen like a cudgel, Howe, a literary critic of renown whose knowledge of Yiddish literature was deep, was unsparing in his judgments. Fiddler played foul with Sholem Aleichem, he claimed, toying with his “voice, his pace [and] his humane cleverness” to suit its own cheap and tawdry ends. It was bad enough that the version of Anatevka that audiences happily encountered night after night at the Imperial Theatre was the “cutest shtetl we’ve never had,” its mean streets “prettified” within an inch of their lives. Worse still, Howe charged, was the way the play’s creative team succumbed to the “pressure to twist everything into the gross, the sentimental, the mammoth, and the blatant,” all the while proclaiming its fidelity to Sholem Aleichem. “If you call a play Moby Dick, you can’t very well present a tug-boat captain on the Hudson River fishing for stripers; and if you ‘base’ your script on Sholem Aleichem ...” Howe trailed off, leaving his readers to fill in the dots. But then, he couldn’t resist having the last word:

If a future historian of the Yiddish epoch in American Jewish life will want to know how it came to an end, we can now tell him. Yiddish culture did not decline from neglect, nor from hostility, nor from ignorance. If it should die, it will have been from love—from love and tampering.

Howe’s pummeling of the play set the tone for its reception within elite circles. Solomon offers a more complicated account. She carefully documents the extent to which Fiddler’s creative team, especially its director Jerome Robbins, struggled mightily to avoid any tinge of the sappy that had defined earlier attempts to bring Tevye to the stage and to tamp down the sentimentality that had Howe in high dudgeon. Like avid graduate students, Robbins and his colleagues looked to scholarly research to give life, and legitimacy, to their creation, assembling as much information as they could about the clothes Eastern European Jews wore and the way they moved, the contours of their daily lives and the beliefs they cherished. Immersing themselves in the photographs of Roman Vishniac as well as in prewar Yiddish film, these experienced Broadway hands also visited Williamsburg, Brooklyn—when it was anything but hip—to observe Hasidic communities firsthand, and attended traditional Jewish weddings at whose kinetic energy they marveled. “Hats flew off, chairs overturned ... a strength I never knew—a dedication to a rite, claiming survival & joy, procreation & celebration. An explosive foot thrust to the floor that shook the room that said Yes I am here, & I celebrate the continuity of my existence,” Robbins appreciatively, effusively, noted.

When it came to Fiddler’s structure, content, and dialogue, much, of course, was derived from Sholem Aleichem’s tales of the hapless but ever resolute milkman Tevye. But the play also took its cue from Life is with People, by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, a richly detailed anthropological account of the daily rhythms of shtetl or “Jewish little-town” life. The only such text then available in English, it served as a Baedeker for those whose familiarity with Eastern European Jewish life was secondhand at best. Funded by the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Scientific Research, the book grew out of a study of the Eastern European Jewish experience conducted by Columbia University’s Research Project on Contemporary Cultures. Headed by Conrad Arensberg, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, this ambitious undertaking sought to apply anthropological ways of thinking to postwar society. Despite its unlikely origins—rarely has a book enjoyed such an unusual provenance—Life is with People became a classic and has remained in print since its release in 1952.

Its popularity, however, rests on a very shaky foundation. Thanks to the incisive analysis of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, we have recently come to know a lot about the fraught circumstances of its creation and the flaws of its conclusions: how everyone involved in the project resisted the historical force, the intrusive presence, of change; generalized like mad; and ended up creating an ideal type of shtetl in thrall to the consolations of memory rather than a living, breathing, complex historical phenomenon. “While it reads like a novel or script for a film, Life is with People is nonetheless a form of applied anthropology addressed to the exigencies of war and its aftermath,” explained Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, signaling its methodological limitations. Back in the early 1960s, though, the portrait this seemingly authoritative account drew of Eastern European Jewish life—timeless, seamless, and profoundly spiritual—was taken by virtually everyone within the academy, and by Fiddler’s creative team, as the gospel truth. 

Irony of ironies: this Broadway play had yikhes,a pedigree. Even so, the fact that the production grew out of deep reading or was inspired by genuine Hasidic dance steps was entirely lost on its audiences. To a person, they approached it not as a historical reconstruction but as a bravura display of creativity as well as a triumph of the human spirit. Heartwarming and affirming, Fiddler grabbed hold of the postwar imagination, and has yet to let go. It remains, in Solomon’s words, a “global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity, and interracial bridge building, among them.” Nothing if not fungible, Fiddler on the Roof owes its success to having assuaged a sense of loss, generated a sense of connection to the Old World, and, perhaps most critically of all, given its audiences the emotionally satisfying gift of heritage. Something one has, rather than something one does, heritage is yours for the asking. All it takes is a two-hour visit to the theater.

Questions of authenticity also nipped at the heels of Sholem Aleichem, the creator of the Tevye stories on which Fiddler was based. Written over a period of twenty years, between 1894 and 1914, Tevye der milkhiker left its first generation of readers scratching their heads as to whether the eponymous protagonist was a real person or an imagined one. The writer’s many fans were also given to wondering whether a character—the interlocutor known as Sholem Aleichem, with whom Tevye talks and talks and talks, freely exchanging his views on women (“Tevye is not a woman. Tevye likes to hear everything out to the end”), money, and the fate of the Jewish people—was himself a fictional character. Or was he, quite literally, the voice of Sholem Aleichem, who insinuated himself into the literary proceedings in the manner of a postmodern writer avant la lettre? They tied themselves in knots trying to figure it out. 

While some gave up the ghost and succumbed, happily and completely, to the rueful, disarming charm of his stories, most of Sholem Aleichem’s readers never quite succeeded in disentangling the author from his creations or, for that matter, historical reality from literary truth. At the time of his funeral in New York in 1916, throngs of mourners, whose numbers were estimated at anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000, came to salute Sholem Aleichem, not the worldly figure given to wearing Gorky shirts whose real name was Sholem Rabinovich. 

Hailed as a man of the people, a folk hero if ever there was one, Sholem Aleichem emerges from the pages of Jeremy Dauber’s biography as a far more complex character than posterity would have us believe. Sholem Aleichem, Dauber insists, “was no Tevye, though, no simple man with a few pithy quotes and some piquant conversations with his Creator; he was really Sholem Rabinovich, a first-class intellect and brilliant writer.” At the heart of this book, reportedly the very “first comprehensive biography” of the Yiddish writer (can that be?), is a thoroughgoing and ultimately successful attempt to give equal time to Sholem Rabinovich: to apprehend the man and his work as part and parcel of a modernist project rather than a throwback, a medium of nostalgia; to situate him against the roiling background of change rather than safely ensconced in a cocoon. Sholem Aleichem, his biographer writes, “did nothing less than create modern Jewish literature, modern Jewish humor, a modern Jewish homeland in literature.”

He began writing in earnest in the 1880s and kept at it until his untimely demise at the age of 57. Best known for his Tevye stories, Sholem Aleichem was at home in three languages—Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian—and in every genre. Novellas, short stories, feuilletons, children’s books, literary criticism, reportage, plays—so vast and varied was his output that the writer’s collected works amount to twenty-eight volumes. It’s not for nothing that Sholem Aleichem has been fondly described as a graphologist, quite literally a man of letters. 

Dauber’s story rivals those told by his subject: it is a rollicking narrative of fortunes won and lost, of bouts of wanderlust and bursts of good luck, followed by trails of emotional upheaval. The ups and downs of life were Sholem Rabinovich’s lot no less than Tevye’s, or that of the suite of fumbling yet endearing characters who ride the rails in his marvelous Railroad Stories, where mobility was the mother of invention. In a lovely twist of fate, trains in the form of New York’s celebrated “El” loomed large in Rabinovich’s encounter with America, where, as Dauber tells us, its platforms featured advertisements that encouraged New Yorkers to “Read Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish Mark Twain, in the World Newspaper! Original! New! Comical! Read Sholem Aleichem!” 

Such appeals were hard to resist. Whether encountering his work in English or in Yiddish, in the New World or in the Old, Sholem Aleichem’s many readers claimed him as their own. They meant well, to be sure, but so quick were they to champion his creations that they often did not interpret them correctly, much less the man who called them into being. Time and again, Sholem Aleichem came to be seen more as a cultural stenographer than as a literary genius. “We could write a Middletown of the Russian-Jewish Pale basing ourselves solely on the novels and stories and sketches of Sholom [sic] Aleichem, and it would be as reliable a scientific document as any ‘factual’ study,” claimed Maurice Samuel in 1943 in his influential book The World of Sholom Aleichem,vesting the oeuvre of the Yiddish Mark Twain with the mantle of authenticity.

It is right that Dauber calls his account The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem. At once an homage to his predecessor as well as a pointed rejoinder, it situates the writer in multiple contexts, seeking to set him free. At times, especially when insisting that Sholem Aleichem’s penchant for monologues makes him the father of stand-up comedy, he goes too far. At other moments the text shuttles uneasily between two different tonalities, one folksy and familiar, the other professorial and authoritative. And yet this book splendidly succeeds in recovering the man, his time and his talent, helping latter-day readers to understand, at long last, why he cut so enduring and powerful a figure and why his name continues to shine brightly—even more than the marquee value of Fiddler on the Roof.

Solomon’s and Dauber’s books together underscore the extent to which both Fiddler on the Roof and Sholem Aleichem were creatures of their audiences. In both instances, we take our leave of these two extraordinary cultural phenomena with the understanding that culture is shaped by its reception. What counts at least as much as the life and the creative intention is the afterlife, the public’s embrace. Little wonder, then, that you put down each volume feeling just a tad smarter and more deeply informed about the nature of the cultural process, but also saddened, even chastened, by its vicissitudes. 

For those vicissitudes are often cruel, even ironic. But from time to time they can also be a force for good. Consider the news that the painted ceiling and bimah as well as the timbered roof of a wooden synagogue will soon stand at the heart of the brand new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, where they are hailed as signature statements. Those elements are not authentic by museological standards, of course: they bear neither the patina of history nor the imprimatur of geography. A latter-day version of the roof and inner cupola of the Gwoździec Synagogue, widely regarded as one of the finest examples of wooden synagogue architecture, these gems were recently manufactured, beam by beam, by a constellation of contemporary artisans associated with the Handshouse Studio and the Timber Framers Guild. 

The objective here is not to confuse museumgoers into thinking that this wooden synagogue is a genuine artifact which somehow was salvaged from the ashes and reconstituted. Instead, explains Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who, on the strength of her scholarship on Eastern European Jewry, has gone on to become the project director of the museum’s Core Exhibition, this is a “new kind of object, an actuality, and not a copy, facsimile, recreation, reproduction or reconstruction—it is a recovered object. Its value lies in the knowledge recovered by building it.” We will have to wait and see how audiences respond to the presence of this “new kind of object,” and to the finely wrought intellectual distinctions between authenticity and historicity on which it rests. As a pedagogical device, it packs a wallop. All the same, the knowledge we gain must not blind us to the realities of Jewish history: some things are lost forever and even the verbal genius of Sholem Aleichem and the warmhearted sentiments of Fiddler on the Roof are not enough to recover them. 

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and professor of history at the George Washington University.