Off the shelf | From the Fiddler phenomenon to fascinating journeys

First, a confession: “Fiddler on the Roof” doesn’t do much for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m just a sourpuss, or maybe I’m still traumatized by the first time I saw the movie as a kid, and the dream sequence scared the heck out of me. In any case, I’m not a big fan.

Yet in spite of this, I happily devoured theater critic and scholar Alisa Solomon’s new book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.” Dense and impeccably researched, it traces the journey of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye from village milkman to global celebrity.

The book’s centerpiece is its highly detailed chronicle of this iconic show’s development. Not feeling particularly curious about what goes into a Broadway stage production, I expected to lose interest in Solomon’s book. But I found it fascinating, in part because of what the process revealed about attitudes toward Jewishness in mid-20th century America. 

Although we tend to identify musicals with their composers and lyricists, the figure who dominates this story is Jerome Robbins, the show’s notoriously difficult director and choreographer. Born to immigrant parents, Robbins had long ago changed his name from Rabinowitz and distanced himself from his ethnic background.

As he wrote, “I didn’t want to be like my father, the Jew… I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated, hidden among the boys, the majority.” The intensity of his involvement in “Fiddler” — he immersed himself in attending Orthodox weddings, studying the world of European Jewry, interviewing relatives and watching Yiddish films — was very personal, reflecting a desire for some form of connection to his discarded identity. 

Solomon shows how much of the play as we know it was shaped during the rehearsal process, as Robbins cut songs and scenes, sparred with lead actor Zero Mostel (who, in contrast to Robbins, had grown up as an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Jew), and demanded new songs to reflect his evolving understanding of the play’s meaning. For example, the opening number, “Tradition,” emerged as Robbins sought to draw out the play’s central tension: the weight of tradition challenged by the lure of modernity. Robbins believed there needed to be a foundational scene establishing the pillar that will be hacked at throughout the play.

Solomon emphasizes the play’s unexpected impact and afterlife beyond the Jewish world. She bestows considerable attention to the initially unauthorized staging of “Fiddler” in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican junior high school in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill–Brownsville section in 1969, against the backdrop of black-Jewish tension stemming from a battle over community control of schools. It’s a powerful episode demonstrating the power of theater and the unlikely case of a story set in turn-of-the-century Russia speaking to the turbulent ethnic politics of the 1960s.

Sholem Aleichem left Tevye’s fate a matter of ambiguity. The initial printing of the Tevye stories concluded with the tale “Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel,” in which Tevye, dismissive of America, prepares to leave for the Holy Land. However, a subsequently composed story concludes with Tevye, having been expelled from his village, addressing his literary creator and wondering whether they might meet again in a train “or in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America.”

How later adaptations settle the matter has depended greatly on the interpreters’ agenda. 

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the expelled family is explicitly bound for America. In Maurice Schwartz’s staunchly anti-assimilationist 1939 Yiddish film version and Menachem Golan’s 1968 Israeli film adaptation, Tevye is bound for the Land of Israel. (Two recent novels — Tsvi Fishman’s 2012 “Tevye in the Promised Land” and Mitchell Bard’s 2013 “After Anatevka” — also extend the conceit, imagining Tevye’s continuing adventures after making aliyah.) 

This “What if?” thinking resonated with me as I contemplated David Laskin’s new nonfiction epic, “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.” In focusing on the paths taken by three branches of his family — one remained in Europe, one settled in Palestine and one left for America — Laskin illustrates the blessings and curses embedded in Tevye’s three options. 

The book begins in the mid-19th century with Laskin’s ancestor Shimon Dov HaKohen, a scribe in the Jewish religious center of Volozhin (now part of Belarus) and follows his descendents.

As if confirming Tevye’s fears, the family’s piety does not remain intact. For example, Shimon Dov’s granddaughter Itel, having moved to America and taken the name Ida, gives birth to a son in 1907 and, to her parents’ enormous distress, refuses to circumcise him. “The coming generation, the American generation,” Laskin writes, “would grow up with rituals and beliefs that had been chosen, not mindlessly inherited from their forebears.”

Itel encapsulates how the separated branches’ fates could not have been more different. A gifted seamstress, she would ultimately popularize the brassiere and make a fortune as the co-founder (with her husband, William Rosenthal) of the Maidenform company. Meanwhile, every one of her relatives who remained in Europe would perish during World War II.

There is no shortage of family memoirs these days, and I came close to passing on this one. But it is a strong book, in part because Laskin has managed to turn family members who lived a century ago into fully realized characters.

The book’s impact lies in its ability to show how history affects us personally — the characters’ decisions and aspirations have dramatic consequences. The powerful lesson I am left with is that we don’t simply descend from our ancestors; we descend from the choices they made.

“Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” by Alisa Solomon

(448 pages, Metropolitan, $32)

“The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” by David Laskin

(400 pages, Viking, $32)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.