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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Shabbat Shuvah - 2014/5775

Tradition?
Shabbat Shuvah – 2014/5775

Fifty years ago this week, at Schubert’s Imperial Theatre on 45th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, one of the most unusual shows in American theatrical history opened.  Coming in from previews in Detroit—where the local stringer for Variety panned the musical noting that it “begins without an overture, brings down the first act curtain with a pogrom, and ends with a mass eviction”—everyone wondered how much time would pass before the show would close. And today, we still talk about perhaps this last of the classic story musicals.  The original Broadway production lasted until the end February of 1967—and numerous productions continue all around the world.  My mother played the role of Hodel in a summer stock performance on the beach out in Michiana.  And Alissa Solomon of Columbia University School of Journalism has written an incredible account of not only those fifty years but also of the fifty plus years which preceded the show’s Broadway appearance entitled, “Wonder of Wonders:  A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.  Thus, on this 50th for a few minutes tonight, I want to spend some time with you talking not about Anatevka and its Jews but rather talking about America and its Jews.  Fiddler, you see, had far more to do with us than with the World of our Fathers.

Writes Solomon, “…the show remains a platform on which Jews engage, work out, and argue over the significance and substance of their identity.”  Many folks, including producer Hal Prince, were worried during previews and after the show opened whether, after all the Hadassah groups had come to see it, anyone else would purchase tickets.  Many of the show’s backer felt that Fiddler might just be too Jewish.  You see, even if the American musical theatre had always been a Jewish enterprise, this was a distinctly Jewish show.  And many of you know the story of the producer of the show in Tokyo who could simply not imagine how Fiddler could have succeeded in America–it was so “Japanese!”  Yet, by the time the show was revived on Broadway in 2004—for the longest run of any revival on Broadway—the complaints were just the opposite.  The show that had been too Jewish was now not Jewish enough.  Some called it Goyyim on the Roof while others labeled it Fiddler with No Jew.

So perhaps the first lesson Fiddler can teach is contained in what Solomon describes as the show about tradition becoming tradition.  While Prince and  Joseph Stein  and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and, especially, Jerome Robbins tried hard to ensure a faithful reflection of Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye der Milkhiker, the reality is that Irving Howe’s description back in 1964 was not far off calling Anatevka the “cutest shtetl we never had.”  Sholem Aleichem himself, who was not Sholem Aleichem but really Sholem Rabinowitz, painted a far darker picture in his stories over two decades.  You probably never knew that Shprintze, yes, one of Tevye’s five daughters, committed suicide.  And in his Anatevka, called Kasrilevke, he wrote, “there are experienced authorities on the subject of hunger, one might even say specialists.  On the darkest night, simply by hearing your voice, they can tell if you are simply hungry and would like a bit to eat, or if you are really starving.”  So Fiddler was not actually about tradition.

And then, over the years, the show itself became tradition.  Is it not tradition to play Sunrise, Sunset at every Jewish wedding?  Has it not become tradition to sing “Sabbath Prayer” as the Shabbat candles are lit—and not necessarily chant the traditional blessing?  And Solomon tells a most amazing story about the film version of Fiddler directed by none other than Norman Jewison—who, in spite of his name, is not a Jew.  Jewison wanted to be as realistic as possible to the story and thus decided to film in Eastern Europe, in then Yugoslavia.  He found everything he needed except a wooden synagogue, which was typical of the shtetl.  Even with the resources to move one to the site, none could be found, not even in Poland.  They were all gone with their painted walls and ceilings, with animals and zodiacs.  So he engaged his production designer to recreate an entire wooden synagogue—which ended up playing a central role in the film version.  As one reviewer wrote, “the house of worship and study established the film’s bona fides.”  And when the film was over, Jewison could not imagine just leaving the synagogue or allowing it to be destroyed.  “As the only wooden period replica now existing in Europe,” he wondered, “it seems somehow wrong that it should be destroyed.”   The replica becoming the real thing….   And you should know after that marathon of all 550 some episodes of the Simpsons, that Homer tried to convince the rabbi he was Jewish by insisting that he had rented Fiddler on the Roof.  In ways we Americans are not always sensitive to or perceptive of, we create “new traditions” on a regular basis.

So not only did this show about tradition become tradition itself—this show about tradition is really a show about everything that destroyed tradition.  Which brings me back to my sermon on Rosh Hashanah eve.  We have become empowered—which means nothing more or less than having and making choices.  For these observations which follow, I thank Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino—one of the great rabbis of our time.  He suggests we look at Tevye’s three marriageable daughters, the first one being Tzeitel.  Who is she to marry?  Why, the butcher, Lazer Wolf!  A good marriage, right?!  He’s tall—that is from side to side.  And he’s young—alright he’s 62.  But he is a butcher—which means that you will never go hungry!  And, of course, the marriage is all arranged by Yente the matchmaker and then agreed to by Tevye and Lazer Wolf.  But Tzeitel will have nothing to do with it.  She wants to marry the scrawny tailor Motel Kumzoil, who cannot even afford a sewing machine.  And who made this arrangement?  Tzeitel and Motel.  Why?  Because they love each other.  As Rabbi Feinstein quoted from the great sage Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?”  Suddenly, neither the father nor the community would make such decisions for the individual.  The individual is now autonomous and can choose to marry whomever she wishes. 

Then there’s Hodel.  She meets Perchuk, the student from Kiev who is engaged to tutor her younger sisters.  And who is Perchuk?  The revolutionary!  He represents all of the “-isms” of the world—Bolshevism, Socialism, Capitalism, Communism—which lead us to believe that we have the power—all by ourselves—for redemption.  By putting people at the center, the isms tend to view power as an end in and of itself without any ties to any geographic place.  So, when Perchuk is arrested, Hodel has to travel far from the home she loves.

Finally, Chava.  She falls in love with Fyedka who, of course, is not Jewish.  We are a part of a larger world and, in spite of the way Fiddler ends, they like us, they really do.  So where do Tevye and Goldie go at the end of the show—to America, of course!  As part of that larger world, a world where being Jewish is now even a choice, what does it mean to be Jewish? 

A show that was once too Jewish is now not Jewish enough.  The show has not changed; we have.  And, believe me, I love Fiddler.  The show about tradition has become tradition.  And the show about tradition is really a show about everything that has destroyed tradition.  And we are the recipient of that blessing.  The same year Fiddler came out—yes, 50 years ago in 1964—Look Magazine (for those too young, it was kind of like Life but not as big) published an article entitled “The Vanishing American Jew” spelling out how our success in America would lead to our doom.  It was annihilation by love and not by hate.  Look has disappeared—and we are still here.  The same year that Fiddler came out on film, in 1971, Newsweek  printed a cover story with the title “The American Jew:  New Pride, New Problems.”  Yes, you can guess what it reported—that many leaders believed that “an era of unparalleled security and achievement for American Jews may be coming to an end.”  Newsweek  has basically disappeared—and we are still here.

Wed, October 23 2019 24 Tishrei 5780