The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture

Why Fiddler on the Roof Isn't West Side Story

by David Chack

Leonard Bernstein received a call from Jerome Robbins, on January 6, 1949, about an idea for a new musical. Using the thematic structure of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the setting would be in the slums of a city during the Passover-Easter season. Bernstein describes the conversation. "Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics....Juliet is Jewish. Friar Lawrence is a neighborhood druggist. Street brawls, double death--it all fits." From this snippet of Bernstein's diary we see the germ of an idea that could have been a musical about the grittiness and difficulties of being Jewish in America. It was an existence that bred anti-Semitism and urban violence between ethnic groups. This was the America Bernstein and Robbins grew up with--an urban slum-like existence transplanted from the European Jewish shtetl.

Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your point of view) the musical West Side Story became a story about struggles between Puerto Ricans and other generic ethnic groups. The only part remaining from the original idea was the druggist named Doc, who has Yiddish/East European language rhythms and is the "rabbi" for the gang members.

In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof opened, becoming one of the most popular musicals ever written. This marked a breakthrough for Jewish-related performance and Jewish performers. What had changed fifteen years later? What made it possible to write a play about Jews that didn't fall back on Jewish stereotypes? And what made it possible for Jewish writers and performers to "come out" as Jews in their work? On the other hand what more needed to be done?

Through the 1950's most plays and films about Jews had anti-Semitic caricatures centered around money or the problems of Jews and non-Jews marrying. Popular plays like Abie's Irish Rose, (1922) and films like the Jazz Singer (1929) had stereotypical images of Jews and were the usual fare on Broadway and in Hollywood. Rare exceptions included the plays by Clifford Odets, done by the Group Theater. But talents like his were quickly swallowed up by Hollywood (depicted in the Coen brothers recent film Barton Fink). Assimilation by Jews into American culture happened at an astounding rate. Although many Jews were in the entertainment business, it was half-jokingly said that "they cut their noses to spite their race." There was good reason for this.

When Jews came to this country in the mass migrations of the early 1900's, the shtetl (small villages in Russia and Eastern Europe), which is depicted in Fiddler on the Roof, was the reality. Jewish people lived in poor environments that were miserable and filled with suffering due to the hatred of their neighbors. In Tsarist Russia in the late 1800's, where the Tevye stories of Sholom Aleichem (the great Yiddish author who inspired Fiddler) are located, Jewish life was oppressed to the breaking point. Laws were enacted limiting Jewish rights--forbidding the ownership of land, limiting where Jews could live, and censoring or destroying Jewish books. This tension, often orchestrated by the Russian government, many times erupted into the brutality of pogroms--night raids resulting in physical humiliations or mass killings.

These actions were carried out by Russian police and civilians to shift blame from the economic hardships that the people suffered under the Tsars. From 1903-1911 a series of vicious pogroms were carried out, supported by the government. At Kishinev in 1905 fifty Jews were murdered and 500 injured. In Odessa, a four day pogrom in 1905 killed more than 400 Jews. In Bialystok, the police and the army joined in the pogroms of 1906. From 1908-1911 there were large scale expulsions, similar to what we witness in Anetevka at Fiddler's end. The official Russian statutes on Jews of 1914-15 ran to 1,000 pages.

Was it any wonder when Jews came to this country that they and their children wanted to assimilate quickly into America? Only after the Holocaust and with the emergence of the country of Israel in 1948, did Jews feel outraged enough and secure enough in America to insist on positive portrayals in popular entertainment. Through films like Crossfire and Gentleman's Agreement, in 1947, that dealt openly with anti-Semitism; the 1960 film Exodus about the founding of Israel; and treatments of the Holocaust in The Diary of Anne Frank (play 1954, film 1959) and the film, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), the image of Jews changed to a more positive one.

The production of Fiddler on the Roof, in 1964, went one step further. It was unique in its positive depiction of Jews and in its positive depiction of Jewish life. Through Fiddler on the Roof we see: the beauty of the Sabbath and its emphasis on family; the spiritual depth of Jewish religious practice; the cultural joy of Jewish music, dance, and humor; the flexibility of the Jewish imagination to adapt to modernity; and the wonderful Yiddish spirit and literary genius of Sholom Aleichem--whose writing permeates this work the way Bernard Shaw's permeates My Fair Lady.

In the character of Tevye, a Jewish "Mother Courage", we experience the cumulative turmoil of the universe around him. In light of the oppression in Tsarist Russia, Sholom Aleichem wrote him much more ironically and less in control of his fate than he appears in the Joseph Stein/Sheldon Harnick Broadway version. Aleichem has Tevye muse in Tevye Wins a Fortune,

"The main thing is--hope! A Jew must always hope, must never lose hope. And in the meantime, what if we waste away to a shadow? For that we are Jews--the Chosen People, the envy and admiration of the entire world!"

Even Golde, the indomitable spirit of foolishness and superstition, dies embittered in Tevye Goes to Palestine. Aleichem writes,

She couldn't bear it any longer, seeing them [her children] scatter and disappear the way they did, some one way, some another. "Heavens above!" she used to say, "what have I left to live for, all alone without kith and kin? Why even a cow is lonesome when you wean a calf away from her." That's the way she spoke and she wept bitterly.

Without her children, Golde has nothing to live for. She is now unable to sing a song like "Do You Love Me?" She gives into despair and dies. The hardship of Jews in Tsarist Russia, brought a grimness that could not be romanticized away.

It took a long time for Fiddler on the Roof to be written. Stein and Harnick are to be commended for breaking new ground. Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins couldn't do it, perhaps because they were still under the shadow of Jewish assimilationism. After all, didn't Bernstein write in Candide, "I Am So Easily Assimilated"?

Viewing Fiddler today, we appreciate the work of Stein and Harnick. Yet viewing it through the prism of the harsh conditions of Tsarist Russia and the spectre of the Holocaust--which extinguished the world Sholom Aleichem knew, destroyed the scholarship and vitality of Yiddish culture, took with it a third of the world's Jewish population at that time--it continues to haunt us for the immense cruelty of human injustice.

Copyright 2004 by David Chack. All rights reserved.

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