Fiddler on the Roof: Our Sabbath Prayer

Every week in synagogue, as we return the Torah to the ark, we sing a prayer that concludes, “Chadesh Yameynu K’Kedem.” The line has been variously translated, but my favorite is this one: “Make our days seem new, as they once were.” It comes from Lamentations, songs of sorrow composed after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and killed or banished many of its inhabitants. But today the invocation speaks less to a geographic sense of loss and longing than to a psychic sense of ritual that’s become rote, feeling that’s gone cold, a desire for a more vital apprehension of liturgy and law, an experience of prayer akin to what our ancestors once felt.

Or so we assume they once felt. As Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole explain in Sacred Trash, their book on the Cairo Geniza, the staleness of religious experience isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for Jews, something we only began to suffer in the suburbs of New Jersey. As long ago as late antiquity, Jewish liturgical poets were tasked—or tasked themselves—with the responsibility of making all their days seem new. Particularly in synagogue. According to Hoffman and Cole:

It was incumbent upon the poet to make use of all the literary devices at his disposal in order to revive the experience of worship and wonder for his synagogue listeners….All these devices were used to intensify the liturgical moment, to suck marrow from the seemingly dry bones of routinized prayer and to make it matter afresh, as the Mishna demanded: “Whoever makes his prayer a fixed task,” it cautions, “his prayer is not a true supplication.” Other sources echo that call: “One’s prayer should be made new each day,” the Palestinian Talmud tells us, and “As new water flows from the well each hour, so Israel renews its song.”

Our challenge today, in other words, may not be so different from their challenge yesterday.

Nor, as it happens, is it so different from the theater’s challenge everyday. Each night on stage, actors must make lines or songs they’ve rehearsed and performed a thousand times sound fresh, as if they were being spoken or sung for the first time. Theater companies putting on Hamlet or Macbeth face a larger version of the same challenge: how to take a play that everyone knows and make it seem new.

Which brings us to Fiddler on the Roof, which opens tonight on Broadway, the fifth revival in the show’s history.

In her cultural history of the musical, Wonder of Wonders, Alisa Solomon tells us that every year some two hundred schools put on the show. There are “probably more local productions than the licensing agency can count—and more than it even knows about.” Everyone knows, or thinks he knows, the musical. Even Pinochet: a “Marxist inspired” work, he said, upon banning it in 1974, with “disruptive elements harmful to the nation.”

Which makes for an interesting irony. The most Jewish element of the Fiddler may not be its latent content: that is, the struggle between tradition and modernity, announced with such fanfare in the show’s opening number “Tradition.” As Solomon explains, “Tradition” was a late addition to the musical, wrought from the presiding genius and ambivalent identity (Jewish, gay) of director Jerome Robbins.

In meeting after meeting at his home, Robbins kept asking the authors a question that struck them as unnecessary for having such an obvious answer: “What is this show about?” He’d lean back in his chair and await their answer, but the authors were dumbfounded. Robbins knew full well that the show traced the trials of Tevye, a simple Jew trying to scratch out a living in the Russian Pale of Settlement at the turn of the century. They had nothing new to tell him. Still, Robbins kept hammering the questions like a district attorney and, every time, one of the creators gave the same answer: “The show is about a dairyman and his marriageable daughters.”

One late autumn day, Robbins snapped, “No, no, no, that’s no good.” He let out a gust of exasperation. “That’s not it. That’s not enough. That’s ‘The Previous Adventures of the Goldbergs.’”

No one remembers who uttered the words that finally provided the answer to Robbins’s persistent question, but they seemed to rearrange the molecules in the room. “It’s about the dissolution of a way of life.” Robbins leaned forward. “That’s it! That’s it!” he said. He wasn’t the sort to cry out or slap the table—more a “quiet, growling presence,” as Hal Prince describes him—but his enthusiasm was unmistakable. “It’s tradition,” he asserted. “Yes, that’s it. We have to establish the traditions at the beginning and then the audience will see how they’re breaking down. That’s the show.”

Right away, an image took shape in his mind. Robbins saw exactly how to open and close the show. “I’ll begin it with one of the oldest folk forms: the circle,” he told the authors. “I’ll bring the cast out and make a folk circle. And at the end, we’ll bring the cast out and the circle will disintegrate.”

Months later, Robbins was worrying over the same terrain.

“The drama of the play,” he scribbled down on the first day of the new year, “is to watch a man carefully treading his way between his accepting of his sustaining belief (that way of life that is centuries old, practiced as if it were still in the middle ages, which protects & defends him & makes his life tolerable)—& his wry questioning of it within the confinements of the belief. He always asks why. He ducks & weaves with the events around him still managing to straddle both sides—his traditions & the questioning of it.” The tests of Tevye’s ability to stay astride the widening gulf become more difficult and finally, when Chava [Tevye’s third daughter] chooses Fyedka [a gentile], “he is forced either to move forward into being a new Jew or embrace the strict traditions of his life.”…

…As he describes Tevye’s torment, Robbins seems to merge emotionally with the character. He slips into Yinglish syntax in his notes: “Underlying all his actions is the frightening question ‘Why?’—Why? Why Chava? Why on me is this visiting?” And he could well have been describing his own decades-long anguish…

Tevye’s struggle—as Robbins and Fiddler conceived it—presumes that the tradition is still vital and vibrant; the pull of the past, still strong. At least as strong as the lure of the new sexual mores, women’s autonomy, revolution, and interfaith marriage that we see tugging at Tevye’s daughters. The problem in Fiddler is not the deadness or staleness of tradition; it is its residual power. When Robbins finally staged “Tradition,” he stressed to the actors, “You’re proud. You’re very proud of your tradition.” The song’s choreography—the villagers walk out on stage with their arms held up at 90-degree angles, forging a finger-bound circle of ancient lineage and unbroken time—reinforced the message.

A message that Robbins thought of as less Jewish than universal. In Solomon’s words:

The director saw the potential wide appeal of the Tevye musical in its “vital and universal” story about “the changing with the times we all have to make, and the conflicts and tensions made by these changes.” And he understood that the universalism would emerge most potently from Tevye’s anguish. Unless the play traced his “attempts to keep his tradition and still follow his heart,” Robbins enjoined, “we are back with a better ‘Rise of the Goldbergs.’” Plus, he added in an especially telling complaint, the script was “still terribly anti-Gentile and Jewish self-loving.”

When the musical was made into a film in 1971, its overseas publicist was of a similar mind: “It is essential that we establish the universality of the film, and avoid stressing its Jewishness.”

In other words, the conflict between tradition and change, which has come to seem the very essence of being Jewish in modern America, seemed, to Fiddler’s creators and promoters, a way of making the story less Jewish. And that is how audiences throughout the world have seen the musical. From Ocean Brownsville, which staged a controversial black and brown version of the musical during the even more controversial teachers’ strike of 1968, to Japan, where a producer wondered, the librettist Joe Stein told Solomon, “how Americans could relate to a show that was ‘so Japanese.’”

It may be, then, that the Jewish element of the musical lies less in the overt story that its makers so emphasized than in the serendipity of a reception they never could have anticipated. Relentlessly rehearsed and recited throughout the Jewish community for more than a half-century—from summer camps to weddings and bat mitzvahs—Fiddler on the Roof has become a part of our liturgy. When Samantha Massell, who plays Tevye’s daughter Hodel in the current revival, made her pilgrimage to Israel as a 19-year-old, she stuck a piece of paper with lyrics from “Sabbath Prayer” into the cracks of the Western Wall; “as sacred text as any,” observes Solomon.

As I sat in the audience of the Broadway Theater this past Wednesday, I knew what she meant. There I was, surrounded by Jews of all ages—including my seven-year-old daughter—singing the words to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” Sometimes clearly and crisply, sometimes mumbling and uncertain. It felt like I was in shul.

If that’s true—and I think it is—Fiddler faces a challenge that all Jewish prayer has confronted since, well, there was Jewish prayer: How to make a devotional text seem new. And in confronting that challenge, this revival of Fiddler seems like the most Jewish production of all.

I grew up a Reform Jew. I can still remember my feeling of bewilderment, even estrangement, the first time I entered a more observant shul. Unlike the choreographed performances I was used to from my youth—complete with organ, choir, and rabbi serving as master of ceremonies—this service seemed as inscrutable as a family chaos. There was the prayer book, mostly in Hebrew; there was the bima; and there were the leaders of the service, rotating in and out of the congregation to assume their temporary positions of authority. Everyone was praying or davening—a mix of word and movement—ever so quietly. You could barely catch what was being said. I felt as if I were in someone else’s living room, where everyone knows each other so well they needn’t speak in order to be heard.

Parts of this Fiddler revival that I saw on Wednesday felt like that: Lines that you knew the actors knew you knew, were let slip in the offhand way so many Jews pray in shul. The effect in the Broadway Theater, at first so alienating, was, by the end, transporting. The performer and producers of the show had turned its greatest liability—its familiarity—into its strength. Theater suddenly felt like an ancient rite, a community of ritual and prayer.

Likewise, Danny Burstein, who plays Tevye, turned all of the milkman’s signature gestures, made famous by Zero Mostel—arms and shoulders shimmying up to the air, wrists and elbows snaking into the sky—into ironic, knowing references, post-modern commentaries on the set pieces they’ve become. The dancers periodically mimicked Tevye/Mostel’s moves. The actors seemed to be shrugging their shoulders, offloading the weight of the past—not of a thousands-year-old religion but of a fifty-year-old musical—with a genial “What are you going to do?”

In perhaps the most daring move of all, the opening scene has Burstein come on stage, dressed in a red parka and contemporary clothes, reading from what seems to be a guide book, peering up at a sign that spells out, in Cyrillic letters, “Anatevka,” the shtetl where the musical takes place. We think we’re seeing an American tourist exploring his roots in Eastern Europe—shades of so much Jewish-American literature since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As he recites the show’s opening lines, Burstein transforms into Tevye and we’re transported back to 1905. At the end of the musical, Burstein reverts to the tourist in the red parka. Only this time, the rest of the company is on stage, frozen in their tracks, midflight from Anatekva, banished by the violence of anti-Semitism and Cossack reaction.

According to the New York Times, this new staging is meant to be a nod to the contemporary refugee crisis. But I read the scene differently: it suggested something more like a museum exhibit, perhaps a tableau from Ellis Island. The question being raised was not about politics present but about rituals past: How do we take this set piece of the Jewish imagination out of the museum and make it come alive?

This production finds an answer in the most unlikely of places: in dance.

From the very beginning, it was dance that captured Robbins’s imagination, and it was in dance that he saw the deepest, most vital expressions of Jewish longing and desire. Solomon describes in loving and exquisite detail Robbins’s nightly pilgrimages to far-off Brooklyn, where he did research for Fiddler at Hasidic weddings and holiday celebrations, and saw men, Jewish men, dancing in ways he never thought possible.

Dozens of men were crammed into the tiny shtiebl [prayer house], singing, clapping, knocking back schnapps after schnapps. Their dancing came as a revelation: the secular showmen expected gentle folk forms of all hold hands and mosey one way round a circle and then the other; instead, they felt the room shake from floor stomping, body twisting, athletic flinging, and writhing.

Every time, it was the men’s dancing that amazed Robbins. “My great wonder, watching the dangers, was how people weren’t hurt & bruised as bodies were flung centrifugally from out-of-control circles,” Robbins later marveled in handwritten notes for a letter. “Hats flew off, chairs overturned—but the rough dominant force that was released by all this kinetic energy was overpowering—for in spite of each man improvising as he felt—in spite of primitive variations of the basic rhythm—two things held them together. Their constant hand grip—when if broken by the external momentum of the dance, or by another body flinging itself into the dancer, was always regained, reunited. And secondly, the deep & powerful assertion—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.”

It was as if the shame Robbins had long felt about “weak” Jewish (and gay) masculinity was pulverized by the whirling frenzy of these homosocial dances, then kicked up and blown away like old, dry dust. This dancing provided the proof positive, and further inspiration, for his demand that that the show express Jewish robustness and resilience—the strength that not only he “never knew” but that had been obscured in popular representations for decades.

It was these passages from Solomon’s book—itself a wonder of wonders, a sumptuous catalog of theater criticism, cultural history, and gorgeous prose—that led me to the Broadway Theater on Wednesday afternoon. I had seen the film and lesser productions of Fiddler over the years, but I had never seen what Solomon describes here. Till one night in November when I happened upon this trailer from the revival.

In the newly choreographed “Tradition,” men and women hurl themselves across the stage, their bodies unlocked from Robbins’s 90-degree cage. Their arms sweep across the floor and swoop through the air, Martha Graham-style, undulating to the rhythms of an unseen force. Their hands twist and turn like Flamenco dancers’, as they erupt from the earth and lunge for each other. You feel as if you’re watching the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring.

Except this is no pagan celebration. It is controlled and disciplined by a less natural, more transcendent deity, the absent presence that is the Jewish God. In an email, Solomon wrote me that, from the preview she saw in the theater, “it seemed to me their [the dancers’] shoulders were rounded inward and their heads tucked. If there’s technical language for that, I don’t know it.” And it dawned on me what that technical language is: these are men and women davening in shul, praying to God.

The wondrousness of Solomon’s book is that it wrenches the achievement of Robbins and his co-creators from the clutches of kitsch and places it where it belongs: among the highest forms of American art. The wondrousness of the Israeli-born Hofesh Schechter’s choreography is that it takes this piece of American art and recasts it as what it is: a deeply Jewish mode of prayer.


  1. John December 20, 2015 at 3:12 pm | #

    A few thoughts:

    1. Although human transcendence as represented by the Temple is wondrous, let us not forget that the Temple was also an abattoir where Jews ritually slaughtered animals. From an Animal Rights perspective, this symbolic and physical destruction (albeit by another culture who also slaughtered animals) is a great break with . . . tradition which should be carried forward in all the dispotifs of human power which are based upon animal exploitation. The Jewish slaughter of animals has some antecedent in a fetishist horror of other tribes who slaughtered infants, Molochs and Abominations and all that creepy stuff, but such infanticide may be construed as a more honest position in terms of species responsibility because it involves killing one’s own instead of a mythic scapegoat of another species. Surely a reconsideration of the surviving kapporos ritual among some Jews or even the raising farm animals for industrial production by members of all or no faith calls for “a more vital apprehension of liturgy and law” as invoked in the opening paragraph I am obviously not advocating a return to the good old days of the pre Roman era and its attendant human sacrifice but asking, instead, how can animal sacrifice is considered the better practice when it attempts to negate human responsibility? To paraphrase Prof. Tammie Bryant who riffing on Derrida, wrote that we should sacrifice the sacrifice. In the context of ritualized cultural kitsch such as Fiddler, lets start by redefining Judaism as a vital and transcendent cultural thought construct for a different era which hopefully involved a sense of shared identity and collective commitment to disregarding the origin myth of exceptionalism and embracing the kashrut idea of a vegan future.

    2. Dancing can be transcendent and we should all, my concerns aside, dance rapturously, joyously. L’Chaim!

  2. Hangaku Gozen December 20, 2015 at 6:12 pm | #

    Re Joe Stein’s recollection about how a Japanese producer thought “Fiddler on the Roof” was “so Japanese:” back in the 70s, I took my very traditional Japanese mother (so traditional my late-20th-century cousins in Tokyo avoided her company because her old-fashioned, prewar manners embarrassed them) to see a local theatrical production of the musical. She loved it, so much so she asked me to buy her the soundtrack to the Broadway show, which she played over and over again. I was mystified by her enchantment. My mother had never before shown any interest in American musicals, or for that matter, Jewish culture. Her record collection up to that point had been made up of enka and old Japanese folk songs.

    It wasn’t until I saw yet another production in Minneapolis, this time as a very homesick 30-something adult, that I saw exactly what Jerome Robbins was talking about. My mother, who’d been taken out of school at 17 to be wedded to a complete stranger in an arranged marriage back in the 1930s and who was resigned to the life of an upper-class Japanese housewife, saw that world literally reduced to ashes in the firebombing of Tokyo. As a war widow, she went to business school and learned shorthand and typing before joining the typing pool serving the US occupational government. She broke ties with her mother, who wanted to arrange yet another marriage for her, this time to a much older man, and moved to the US where she met my father. For her time, Mom was independent and forward-thinking: yet she yearned for the “old days” and often talked about her prewar life, learning how to arrange flowers, write calligraphy and sew kimonos. I could never see her doing those things. She was too strong-willed and hardly anyone’s image of the stereotypical subservient Japanese woman. And yet “Tradition” was firmly lodged in her heart to her dying day, when she called out for her very domineering, stubborn father.

    A good post, one that spoke to my own traditions as well.

    • Corey Robin December 20, 2015 at 11:18 pm | #

      Thanks so much for your comment, Hangaku Gozen. I really loved it.

  3. deanramser December 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm | #

    Thank you Dr. Robin.

  4. Hanzo December 21, 2015 at 1:05 am | #

    The description of the Jewish dance reminded me of this dance called Pentozali from Crete and reinforced the sense of universality that you mention.

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