One of the eternal laugh lines of any staging of Fiddler on the Roof, including the production in Yiddish currently playing at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene inside the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, comes in the opening song, “Tradition.”
As Tevya the milkman introduces the audience to the varied characters that populate his shtetl hometown of Anatevke, a pious resident asks the rabbi if there is a proper blessing for the Tsar.
Of course, responds the rabbi. He chants, “May God keep the Tsar … far away from us!”
Like Jesse Green of The New York Times who reviewed the play (https://nyti.ms/2JtZnJW), Gilda and I shed more than a tear or two as we sat through a preview last Thursday. We know but a handful of Yiddish words, but as veterans of prior Fiddler productions (including, for me, the original Broadway cast starring Zero Mostel), the story line and songs required little translation, though the theater provided both English and Russian supertitles on both sides of the stage.
Through the decades since its debut in 1964 Fiddler has conjured up a fantasy world of the hardscrabble peasant life—make no mistake about it, most Jews were peasants in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, the restricted zone to which Jews were confined by the tsars. Nevertheless, they no doubt loved Mother Russia and were truly saddened when uprooted from their homes. Even those who came to America shared fond memories with their descendants.
Jesse Green wrote the Yiddish version of Fiddler evoked the “sound of my own grandparents and all they lost in leaving their Anatevkes.
“Fiddler on the Roof always makes you cry for that loss.”
Yes, tears do flow, but a reality check is in order. Had they stayed in the Pale, Gilda likes to point out, they likely would have perished, if not during World War I, surely during the second world war.
So, I’m going to give the tsar a pass. Not a blessing, and surely not the kiss of friendship, or is it fealty, proffered by Donald Trump to Russia’s current nominal tsar, Vladimir Putin.
Jesse Green and millions of other Jews in America, Israel and numerous countries around the globe are alive today because the rabbi’s blessing to keep the tsar far away fell on deaf ears. Or, perhaps, God took the request literally and arranged the mass emigration of his chosen people to safer lands not ruled by a tsar.
Far-fetched? Could be. But as The Times headline observed, “Fiddler in Yiddish? Sounds Crazy, Nu?”