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‘Fiddler,’ Tevye’s Daughters, and Me

Gjon Mili/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Zero Mostel as Tevye, and other members of the cast, in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, New York, 1964

There are Fiddler on the Roof resisters, Fiddler on the Roof enthusiasts, and Fiddler on the Roof fanatics. I am in that last category, and this year I hit the trifecta, seeing three outstanding productions.

On Broadway, Bartlett Sher’s version, now beginning a national tour, opens with an American tourist in a red windbreaker, seeking the Ukrainian shtetl of his family’s past, and looking at the faded sign of a vanished Anatevka. At the first notes of the violin, the tourist strips off the parka and becomes Tevye the milkman, speaking to the audience and explaining the traditions that have allowed his community to survive in a world where Jewish survival is precarious as a fiddler on the roof. Off-Broadway, transferred from the Folksbiene Theatre and directed by Joel Grey, the Yiddish Fiddler, with supertitles in English and Russian, feels authentic and Old Country, although the musical was always meant to be American. My favorite Fiddler of 2019, a transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory to London’s West End, directed by Trevor Nunn, explodes with energy and relevance on a tiny stage, at a moment of renewed anti-Semitism in Europe and accusations of it in the Labour Party.

It’s definitely the year of Fiddler. On August 23, Miracle of Miracles, an ebullient documentary about the origin and history of the show, which I saw at the Jewish Film Festival in Washington, D.C., will be on general release. Produced by Max Lewkowicz, it talks to the creators of the original 1964 production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and of the 1971 movie directed by Norman Jewison; and interviews outstanding Tevyes around the world including stars from Japan, Thailand, and the Netherlands. The film shows that the miracle of Fiddler is its universal appeal, as scholars and fans have agreed.

“Fiddler belonged to everyone,” writes Alisa Solomon, in her definitive cultural history Wonder of Wonders (2013). It is “a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict,” and now shtetl tourism, the plight of refugees, the global story of migration and emigration, and everywhere the rebellion of daughters against the tradition of patriarchal control.

Solomon attributes the longevity of the show to its genius in “prompting audiences to identify with Tevye’s struggle with change—on personal and communal levels,” and thus appealing “to anyone who had experienced the conflict of leaving behind something profoundly prized, or at least deeply familiar.” Every production of Fiddler starts with a search to find a Tevye, and the great Tevyes of New York, London, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv form their own club and history of the show.

Matthew Murphy
Raquel Nobile as Shprintze, Rosie Jo Neddy as Khave (Chava), Rachel Zatcoff as Tsaytl (Tseitel), Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodl, and Samantha Hahn as Beylke, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, directed by Joel Grey, New York, 2018

But when I see Fiddler, I don’t identify with Tevye. I identify with his three daughters, who one by one insist on marrying the men they love. Tzeitel chooses Motel, a poor tailor in Anatevka; Hodel falls in love with Perchik, a student Bolshevik from Kiev, soon arrested in the protests of 1905 and exiled to Siberia. Finally, Chava meets Fyedka, a self-taught Russian Orthodox intellectual, in a bookstore, and Tevye orders her to never see him again. In the original stories about Tevye and his daughters, the Ukrainian writer Sholem Aleichem (born Sholem Rabinowitz in Kiev) called Fyedka a “clerk,” a “young fellow with a long mane of hair and tall peasant boots,” and Chava calls him “a second Gorky.” In the cast list, he is identified only as “a young man,” and he stands up for Chava against the village bullies. But on stage in the musical, it’s always ambiguous whether Fyedka is one of the Russian soldiers—that is, Cossacks—in the village.

While Tevye comes to accept the husbands of Tzeitel and Hodel, he can’t accept Fyedka or condone Chava’s choice. For me, the heart of the show is the scene when Tevye, told by his wife Golde that Chava and Fyedka have been married by the local priest, declares that “Chava is dead to us! We will forget her.” When Chava comes to beg him to accept her marriage, he cries, “No—no—no!” He turns his back on his daughter, and sends her away.

In the last scene, the Jews of Anatevka have been cast out by the edict of the tsar, and Tevye is forced to leave with his neighbors and take his family to seek familiar faces in the strange new land of America. But when Chava and Fyedka come to say farewell, he will still not speak to them, although he mutters “God be with you” under his breath. The emotional parallels between the tsar’s edict and Tevye’s casting out of Chava are powerful, and they were emphasized in the script by the playwright Joseph Stein. Fyedka and Chava will leave Ukraine, too, for ethical reasons; as he declares, they “cannot stay among people who can do such things to others.” On stage, moreover, Fyedka gets the last word in the argument with Tevye, saying “some are driven away by edicts, others by silence.” Yet the young couple do not join the procession leaving Anatevka. Chava is among the “profoundly prized” things Tevye chooses to leave behind as he signals the fiddler to follow them to America.

*

For me, the story is personal. In June 1963, when I married a nominally Episcopalian professor of French, my parents disowned me, and so did my grandparents, all but two of my twenty-plus aunts and uncles, and all but three of my dozens of cousins. No one from my family came to our wedding, and I did not see them again for fifteen years.

I wasn’t expecting this to happen. My parents were not Orthodox or indeed very observant Jews. We weren’t kosher, enjoying the clams and lobsters of New England, the ham sandwiches of Schrafft’s, the roast pork of the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and the BLTs of Jack & Marion’s deli. We lived in suburban Brookline, not Dorchester, Roxbury, or Chelsea, where the first Jewish immigrants to Boston had made their homes. I had gone to Bryn Mawr, the most unpronounceable Main Line outpost of the Seven Sisters. So why did they slam the door on my marriage so quickly and so hard?

Tradition.

In 1963, the rate of Jewish intermarriage in Boston was still only 7 percent. At that time, I had never heard of anyone in the Jewish community marrying a Gentile, and I guess my father, who had come to the United States in 1909 from Makarov, a shtetl near Kiev, found my refusal to back down almost as shocking as if I had decided to marry a Cossack. At any rate, he believed that everyone he knew would feel that way, and would expect him to disown a daughter who violated Jewish tradition. Even in 1963, the father had the right to make the decision and maintain the family’s honor.

Since 1963, though, Jewish intermarriage has increased dramatically in the United States. It started going up in the mid-1960s and soared in the 1970s. By 1990, according to the Jewish Population Survey, it was up to 52 percent among Americans. By 2013, the Pew Research Center found that among non-Orthodox Jews, it was 71 percent.

Fiddler on the Roof, which offered a new narrative on Jewish intermarriage, constructed a new set of traditions for it, and would launch a new set of songs and ceremonies to accompany it (which now accompany gay Jewish intermarriage as well), opened in New York on September 22, 1964, about a year after I got married, but just too late for me. Indeed, exactly at that moment, rabbis and community leaders were beginning to worry that rates of intermarriage were starting to rise, and that the integration of Jews into American society they had enthusiastically promoted for decades might be threatening the survival of Judaism itself. The specter of intermarriage was frightening and the heavy weapons of science and university prestige were brought in to fight it.

In his vast book Intermarriage: Interfaith, Interracial, Interethnic (1964), a study aided by computerized data analysis at the Harvard Laboratory of Social Relations and MIT Computation Center, Albert I. Gordon, who had a doctorate in social anthropology and was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton, concluded that intermarriage “constitutes a threat to society and is not necessarily a promise of a brighter day to come.” An imposing list of academic experts and prominent clerics endorsed Gordon’s tome as “the definitive book on intermarriage.”

In May 1964, when Fiddler was still in development, Look magazine published an article by Thomas B. Morgan called “the vanishing American Jew.” Morgan described anxiety about the Jewish future because of intermarriage, a declining birth rate, and reduced synagogue attendance. The President of the New York Board of Rabbis warned that “the vitality and the entire future of the Jewish people would be jeopardized if young people continue to marry out of the faith.” American Jewish organizations began decades-long and totally unsuccessful efforts to fight intermarriage.

Robbins clipped the Look article and put it in his background file. Composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and playwright Joseph Stein had started working on a musical adaptation of Tevye’s Daughters in March 1961, without thinking of the material as personal. “It never entered our minds that it was Jewish,” Harnick, who would marry the comedian Elaine May in 1962 (they divorced the next year), astoundingly recalled. Not until Robbins came on as director, in August 1963, did the team agree that the idea of Jewish tradition was the main theme of the story. “We have to establish the traditions at the beginning and then the audience will see how they’re breaking down,” he told the team. “That’s the show.” The opening number was written to establish the theme along the lines of gender and generation.

It was Robbins who brainstormed with the team to present the story of Chava as the heart of the show. During the period of rehearsal, the Chava scenes were constantly revised, “undergoing more rewrites and more restagings than any other sections as the company rehearsed the show and then took it on the road.” The first Tevye, Zero Mostel, also brought elements of his personal story to the part. Mostel grew up in a traditional Orthodox Jewish home on the Lower East Side. But in 1944, when he married an Irish Catholic woman, Kate Harkin, his parents would not accept her. Mostel felt that the rejection of Chava, not the exile from Anatevka, was “the play’s emotional climax.” In his view, Tevye’s “tragedy was his separation from Chava.”

Stage Production/Getty Images
Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova in Fiddler On The Roof, New York, 1964

As a gay man, a dancer, and an artist, Jerry Robbins had his own history with Jewish orthodoxy and patriarchy. His father, too, had emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York around 1905, changing their family name from Rabinowitz. For many years, Robbins worked on an autobiographical text called “The Poppa Piece,” in which he confronted the issues of Jewish tradition, masculinity, and homophobia that he had faced with his father, and had led him to years of psychoanalysis. In his extensive notes on the musical, Robbins thought about the personal resonance of the plot, and especially about Tevye’s inability to abandon his strict traditions and accept a marriage of love, even to a Gentile, for his daughters. “Why Jew and & Gentile…,” he noted. “It is a fearsome question, with terrifying ramifications—& it is this which so deeply flings him into a panic.”

At one point, Robbins imagined a scene in which Tevye breaks down in anguish over his decision, which he would dramatize as a Freudian nightmare ballet in which Chava’s “ghostly image” follows her father around the stage. But the ballet never made it into the production. Tevye’s conflict and loss are expressed in his song “Chavaleh,” about Chava as a child.

For Robbins, the experience of directing Fiddler allowed him to forgive his own father, and recover his own Jewish heritage. He had “blacked it out—forgot it & threw it away i [sic] was sure… No, don’t adopt the Christian religion—do not go that far; but leave behind forever the Jew part, I became Jerry Robbins.” All of the members of the team, non-religious and non-political Jews, worried about making the musical too sentimentally Jewish. Robbins especially feared that it would actually be “terribly anti-Gentile and Jewish self-loving.” He insisted on avoiding Tevye’s conventional lament of the marriage of his daughter to a Christian. Instead, he wanted to present the conflict as Tevye’s failure to grow and change beyond a certain point.

Tevye faces a trial of development and, as Robbins wrote in his notes, “the climax of that trial is his denial of Chava.” It’s a tremendously important change of emphasis. The scene of casting her out is not about Chava’s disobedience, but about Tevye’s inability to adapt. That is one of many reasons why the play is much deeper than the “shtetl kitsch” of Philip Roth’s notorious accusation. It moves the question of intermarriage from adherence to religious tradition to a higher psychological and ethical plain.

In order to bring out this twist, the Fiddler team made several important changes to the original stories. First, they gave the daughters a voice, collectively and individually. In “Matchmaker,” they emphasized the risks of arranged marriage for poor girls without dowries, and they opted for spinsterhood rather than bondage to an old or abusive man. They addressed the theme of women’s right to education from the beginning. Tevye hires Perchik, the student radical from the university in Kiev, to teach his daughters. “Girls should learn, too. Girls are people,” Perchik declares. He wants to “open their minds to great thoughts.” The daughters are assertive; Tzeitel takes the initiative in urging Motel to ask for her hand.

Matthew Murphy
The company of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, directed by Joel Grey, New York, 2018

In the documentary Miracle of Miracles, the three actresses playing the daughters in Bartlett Sher’s production talk about female empowerment, but their comments are undermined by the voices and viewpoints of male directors who denounce Chava’s choice of Fyedka as totally different from that of the other sisters. One says that Chava naively did not understand what a transgressive act she performed in marrying out of her tribe. Overall, they ignore her story, and focus instead on the effects of her decision on Tevye, who stops speaking to God after she marries Fyedka. One director, however, recalls his surprise at one performance when Tevye says Chava is dead to them, and a woman in the audience applauded and yelled “Yes!” Historically, Chava has always been the target of anger rather than sympathy. Stories where sons marry out are still viewed more sympathetically than those of daughters.

When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway, a Jewish girl marrying a Gentile man was a rare and radical event in popular culture. Intermarriage was much more frequent and accepted for Jewish sons than for Jewish daughters. There had even been hit plays about Jewish-American men marrying non-Jewish women, such as Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (1908), which featured the marriage of Russian-Jewish immigrant David Quixano, to a Russian-Gentile immigrant, Vera Revandal, whose father actually turns out to be the officer who commanded the infamous Kishinev pogrom. The long-running Broadway hit of the 1920s Abie’s Irish Rose (1922) celebrates the union of Abe Levy and Rosemary Murphy.

 No such stories for daughters, though. Instead, one scholar noted, while the Jewish gender differential in mixed marriage was often observed, up to the 1970s, any analysis “took the form of blaming Jewish women for the out-marriage of Jewish men,” as Rela Mintz Geffen wrote in a paper titled “Intermarriage and Conversion in the United States”:

Several analysts theorized that some Jewish men felt that marrying Jewish women would be like “marrying their mothers.” Other social scientists explained away the greater penchant for interfaith marriage on the part of Jewish males by citing characteristics that were “wrong” with Jewish females, implying that if only Jewish women were different, there would be considerably fewer Jewish males marrying out of the group.

In other words, the Portnoy defense. The shiksa temptress, usually blond, became a cultural icon in the marriage of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe from 1956 to 1961; in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969); and later in the films of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Woody Allen, especially Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and Annie Hall (1977).

Joan Marcus
Members of the cast in the Bartlett Sher production of Fiddler on the Roof, 2019

A Jewish daughter who chose to marry out was more disturbing to a family than a son who chased shiksas, and it demanded an extreme public response: disowning and the ritual mourning of sitting shiva. “Traditional parents,” a scholar noted, “were known to disown children who married out of the faith and even to mourn them as if they had died.” And like other traditions, disowning carried cultural weight. It was expected by the community. It was the parents’ dramatic act of atonement and respect for the culture and the faith. Everyone got in on it.

Sholem Aleichem was constantly tinkering with different resolutions of Chava’s story. In 1913, he wrote two screenplays for silent movies. In one, there is a “happy ending.” Chava “leaves her husband and returns to the family fold when she hears the Jews are to be expelled from their homes.” In another (even happier?), she drowns herself in a well. Yet, in 1914, he wrote a story that brought her back from exile called “Get Thee Out.” Motel and Golde have died and Tevye has decided the time has come to leave Anatevka. Then Chava appears “tall and beautiful… except that her face looked a little drawn and her eyes were somewhat clouded.” Sholem Aleichem appeals to the reader to imagine what happens next: “Try to put yourself in my place and tell me truthfully what would you have done? And if you don’t want to tell me right away, I will give you time to think it over. Meanwhile I must go—my grandchildren are waiting for me.”

Some earlier theatrical versions of Tevye’s Daughters took draconian views of Chava’s choice. A 1919 Yiddish stage version ended with the widowed Tevye and Tzeitel and her children leaving for Palestine rather than America. Chava returns, saying that in her heart she always loved her father, had fasted on Yom Kippur, and visited her mother’s grave on her yarzeit. She has left her husband and wants to return. B. Vladek, a reviewer for the Yiddish paper Forverts, noted that “when Chava comes back and Tevye turns out to be the conqueror in spirit and in belief,” the audience “broke out in thunderous applause.” Order had been restored. That ending seemed culturally satisfying. In the 1939 Yiddish movie written, directed by, and starring Maurice Schwartz, Tevye and Golde sit shiva for Chava; Golde dies, Tevye is evicted, and Chava then pleads to come back because her marriage has turned out to be a disaster.

*

And me? No Cossacks came to break up our little wedding in a Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, attended by my husband’s family and our friends. The next day, we set out for two months in Mexico in our VW Bug, driving behind military convoys through the deep South in the summer of what has been called the most important year for civil rights in US history, the year that saw the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the church bombing and riots in Birmingham, Alabama, and Governor George Wallace blocking black students from the University of Alabama. Perhaps, my husband thinks, we did not run into trouble ourselves because the car had Virginia plates.

I didn’t see my family again until 1978. By then, my father had died, we had two children of our own, and I was active in the women’s movement and had become an English professor at Douglass, the women’s college of Rutgers University. Being disowned had given me the freedom to invent my life on my own terms: as an atheist, feminist, professor, and liberal. I initiated the reunion, but not because I missed my family or needed Jewish traditions to organize my life. It was because Adrienne Rich, my colleague at Douglass, had insisted to me that no woman could be an honest feminist who had not made peace with her own mother and sister.

The family I rejoined was not the family I left. No one in my generation, none of my cousins, my uncles or my aunts, was untouched by those turbulent years of American history. Fifteen years is a long time, and while some of the emotional threads that were broken were mended over the years since, most were not. But that is another story.

Still, I sometimes wonder if I should write a sequel called Chava Returns. As far as I know, there has never been an explicitly feminist production of Fiddler, although there have been at least two productions with women directors, Molly Smith at the Arena Theatre in Washington in 2014 and Gemma Bodinetz at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 2017. Smith’s production, which I saw, disappointed the feminist theater scholar at Princeton, Jill Dolan, who thought it didn’t “add anything very new to the canon of fifty years.” The British theater critic Lyn Gardner in The Guardian commented that the Liverpool production was still about Tevye: “Bodinetz hints that we are all Tevyes to some degree, preferring to close our eyes to technological, environmental and social change.”

The most feminist suggestion for a production I have seen was in an online essay in 2016 by the journalist and author Barry Singer, who proposed a revision of Bartlett Sher’s staging. Instead of opening with an anonymous man in a red parka, Singer suggested, “three girls in parkas, guidebooks in hand… appear separate and alone, from three different directions; the descendants of Tevye’s lost daughters.”

I love the image, but Tzeitel and Hodel are not really lost to the family. In my directorial mind, just one woman appears, and she’s no longer a girl. It’s Chava, but she’s not alone. She’s with her husband and she’s happy.


Joan Marcus
The Bartlett Sher production of Fiddler on the Roof, 2019