The role of Tevye the milkman has seeped so deep into the public consciousness, it borders on caricature. Indeed, the name Tevye has become a vernacular term used to describe anyone looking overtly Jewish, the word Anatevka a stand-in for any shtetl, anywhere.
The reason for this is arguably the success of the play-turned-musical, a tale every man, woman and child can sing along to, regardless of their religion. The ubiquity of “Fiddler on the Roof” has given its ownership to the collective—we all retain this story.
It can be easy, then, to forget how authentically Jewish “Fiddler” is. This doesn’t mean eastern European Jews actually played fiddles on rooftops or staged elaborate dance scenes upon completion of a marriage contract. Rather, the history of this now-iconic play is steeped in (what else?) tradition.
“It goes beyond local color and lays bare in quick, moving strokes the sorrow of a people subject to sudden tempests of vandalism,” Howard Taubman of the New York Times wrote in 1964. “And, in the end, to eviction and exile from a place that had been home.
“Fiddler” was based on the stories “Tevye the Milkman,” written by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem at the turn of the century. Aleichem, real name Solomon Rabinovich, penned the books as a way to recapture his childhood in what is now the Ukraine. Fleeing after a rise in pogroms, Aleichem would use his writings to hold onto customs and imagery threatened by assimilation in a modern world.
The story could have ended there, if not for a Jewish painter who was about to make it big in the art world. Marc Chagall shared Aleichem’s nostalgia for the quickly deteriorating European Jewish community. In 1912, a 25-year-old Chagall was in Paris to develop his craft, and it wasn’t a particularly happy time. As biographer Jacob Baal-Teshuva wrote, Chagall “felt like fleeing back to Russia, as he daydreamed while he painted, about the riches of Russian folklore, his Hasidic experiences, his family.”
What resulted from that feeling of isolation was a series of portraits encapsulating Hasidic life. Chagall biographer Franz Meyer wrote, “As cosmopolitan an artist as he would later become, his storehouse of visual imagery would never expand beyond the landscape of his childhood, with its snowy streets, wooden houses, and ubiquitous fiddlers.”
While those fiddlers can be seen in a number of Chagall pieces, the motif is perhaps best displayed in his now famous work, “The Fiddler.” Tellingly, that fiddler is on a roof.
There has been much debate about how far, if at all, Aleichem’s stories may have influenced Chagall. At the time, Aleichem was an acclaimed writer, earning himself a certain level of fame, and it is almost guaranteed that Chagall came across the Tevye books. Bella Meyer, Chagall’s granddaughter, backed this up, saying in an interview, “My heart says that not only did [Chagall’s wife] Bella read the initial text by Sholom Aleichem, but Chagall did too.”
An undeniable connector, however, is Boris Aronson. The Kiev-born immigrant worked alongside Chagall at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in the 1910’s. In 1964, when three nice Jewish boys—Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein—were looking to stage a big-budget Broadway show, they brought Aronson in on the creative side. He created a backdrop for “Fiddler” that finally brought to life the still pictures and printed words Chagall and Aleichem worked for decades to produce.
Aronson was once quoted as saying, “It was the emotion of Chagall’s paintings I tried to incorporate into Fiddler. Chagall takes Anatevka with him wherever he goes. I only got to do it once.”
Of course, that 1964 theater production was a rousing success, winning nine Tony awards in its first year. The New York Times, typically a staunch critic for new works, gave the show a rave, with Taubman saying, “It has been prophesied that Broadway musical theater would take up the mantle of meaningfulness worn so carelessly by the American drama in recent years. Fiddler on the Roof does its bit to make good on this prophecy.”
The play inspired a film, which was a box office hit itself and winner of three Academy Awards, and has become a regional theater standard in the US, Israel and beyond. The film has been translated in languages ranging from Turkish to Bosnian, is a particular favorite in Japan, and the franchise shows little sign of losing steam.
This Saturday, Marc Chagall would have been 125 years old, a testament to just how long that fiddler has been teetering on a rooftop.
J-Connection: Sholom Aleichem, Marc Chagall, Boris Aronson, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein and Tevye are all Jewish.
.ORG-Connection: The mission of The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan is to foster an inclusive, engaged and informed community that embraces diversity and is rooted in Jewish values.
Join Jspace Thursday evening for a screening of “Fiddler on the Roof,” starting at 8:30 pm at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY. Click here for more information and to reserve tickets.