Wonder of Wonders: The Creation of Fiddler on the Roof

By Robin Jacobson.

For decades, one of the rituals of American Jewish parenting has been introducing the kids to Fiddler on the Roof, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  I remember the magical experience of sitting in a dark theater with my parents, grandmother, and great-aunt, all mesmerized by the shtetl world unfolding on stage. Some find fault with Fiddler’s rosy depiction of shtetl life – Yiddish scholar Irving Howe famously called Anatevka “the cutest shtetl we never had.” But for my parents, such carping missed the show’s essential Jewish spirit, not to mention its power as a teaching tool. They said that our family story, like Fiddler, was about Jews who worked hard to provide for their families in perilous places and then bravely crossed an ocean for a new life.

Fiddler on the Roof and its later film version are adaptations of the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem. The hero of the show is Sholem Aleichem’s indelible creation, Tevye the dairyman, who struggles to hang onto tradition while cautiously entering the modern world. For excellent, thorough accounts of the life of Sholem Aleichem and the creation of Fiddler on the Roof, try two new books: The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, by Jeremy Dauber, and Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, by Alisa Solomon, both available in our library.

Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of Sholem Rabinovich (1859-1916), who was born near Kiev in Tsarist Russia. According to Jeremy Dauber, a Columbia University professor of Yiddish literature, Sholem displayed a talent for humorous writing even as a teenager. In fact, Sholem’s first literary work in Yiddish was an alphabetical dictionary of his stepmother’s colorful curses.

Sholem became a popular and prolific Yiddish author. On a summer holiday in 1894, he had the good fortune to meet a dairyman named Tevye. Tevye sold butter, cheese, and milk off his horse-drawn cart. Charmed by this roving salesman, Sholem took notes on their conversations and transformed them into stories over a 20-year period. Some of the stories seemed to reflect Sholem’s own life:  like the strong-minded daughters in the Tevye stories who chose their own husbands without the aid of a matchmaker, so Sholem and his wife Olga (once Sholem’s student) chose each other over the initial objections of Olga’s father. By the time of his death, Sholem Aleichem had moved to New York City, as had many of his readers.  More than 100,000 mourners turned out for his funeral – the largest public funeral in New York City then on record.

Fiddler on the Roof

In her cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof, Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and teacher of journalism at Columbia, reports that the Broadway show’s triumphant success was a great relief to its creators. They had worried that the show might be “too Jewish.” Yet even with that fear, the creators – Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Jerry Bock (music), Joseph Stein (book), and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) – wanted an authentic Jewish texture for Fiddler. Secular Jews themselves, they sought opportunities to attend Hasidic or Orthodox celebrations. Enthralled by the athletic twisting, kicking, and stomping of the traditional dances, Jerome Robbins incorporated them into Fiddler’s choreography. Nevertheless, Robbins did not immediately embrace every Jewish ritual for the show. At rehearsals, he demanded that Zero Mostel, who played Tevye, stop kissing the mezuzah on the doorpost of Tevye’s house. Determined to make his point, Mostel walked through Tevye’s doorway theatrically crossing himself.  Robbins caved – the mezuzah kissing stayed in the show.