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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Fidler afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish)

It took me a very long time to see A Fidler afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish)--more on that in a minute--but I'm glad I pushed myself to go, because it's glorious. In slowing down the musical's often frenetic pace, cutting back on a lot of the usual schtik, and translating the dialogue into the language Tevye and his community would have spoken had they actually existed, the production puts new emphasis on collective Jewish life in the Russian shtetl. Still as warm, lovely, and ultimately heartbreaking as always, the show also feels newly urgent--and ended up feeding me in ways I hadn't realized I'd been quite so hungry for. 


Any good production of Fiddler needs a strong center, and Stephen Skybell delivers, even as he is also the most emotionally muted, physically small Tevye I've ever seen: there's not a trace of Zero Mostel's bluster or swagger to be found here. Gone too are the broad gestures, stagey asides, bits of clowning, bellowed dialogue. The same applies to all the musical's most comic characters: Jennifer Babiak's Golde is a levelheaded, calm and rather graceful balabusta who utterly lacks the harried exasperation and exceedingly short temper her character almost always seems to invite. The village rabbi is still a doddering, senile old man, but Adam B. Shapiro infuses him with enough grounded dignity and world-weariness that he is no longer a walking punchline. And as the always wonderful Jackie Hoffman has interpreted her, Yente is still a gossipy motormouth with a severely limited grasp of social boundaries, but she's also lonely, vulnerable, and concerned for her own livelihood in the face of political and cultural change.

These flesh-and-blood depictions result in a more moving (if also more painful) finale, in which Anatevka's residents are driven from what has been their home for generations on three days' notice. No wonder, then, that while the rabbi and Yente are still respectively as foggy and logorrheic as they always have been, there's nevertheless nothing cute or diverting about them in their final scenes; Hoffman, in particular, delivers Yente's last lines in a voice gritty with exhaustion, worry, and sorrow.


Much is often made of Fiddler's universality: part of the musical's enormous, enduring success is that you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate its vibrant characters, beloved score, or overarching themes of generational struggle in changing times. The universality remains, even as this production feels simultaneously that much more Jewish. I didn't expect the use of Yiddish to affect me as it did, but then, I haven't heard it spoken at length since I was a child. Back then, members of my grandparents' generation would regularly employ it around dinner tables, living rooms, kitchens and, eventually, nursing homes and hospitals, usually as a means to discuss serious issues not meant for children's ears, or to gossip about what was going on around them without being understood. Yiddish, which so many cultural Jews from that generation took pains not to teach their American children--whether for assimilation purposes, as a means of holding private conversations in small, family-packed homes, or both--is expressive, lovely, and frequently hilarious. Of course, it also hearkens back to an all-too-easily romanticized past that I realize I'm lucky I've never had to think too deeply about. Which brings me to my own mishegas regarding this particular production: I couldn't see it for the longest time for reasons that have a lot to do with my own sense of sorrow for and feelings of betrayal by a country I've always assumed I belonged to.

I doubt I'm alone in having been taught in my (non-religious but rather cultural) Jewish upbringing that one should place their Jewish identity before their national one: look what happened, the logic goes, to those millions of poor World War II-era schmucks who assumed they were German or Austrian or Polish first, and Jewish second. Still, though, mixed messages always clouded the teachings: after all, the directly contradictory reasoning goes, we live in America, where Tevye and his family fled to be safe! We're the destination--the land of the free. It could never happen here. This place is different. Never again.

The Pittsburgh shooting shattered what little faith I'd been clinging to in my homeland as special, accepting, free of the kinds of brutality other countries fall prey to. Pittsburgh, after all, is my homeland--I was born and raised there, taught to feel safe and free and all-American there. And while I have plenty of childhood friends and extended family members who were far closer than I was to any of the victims of the massacre, I continue to be unable to put into words just how very hard it hit me: zombified disbelief and unending flashes of the interior spaces of Tree of Life--not my childhood synagogue, but one I've been in more times than I can count--morphed slowly into the ragged sorrow of mourning: for the dead, as well as for a city I loved and felt safest in, a false sense of security I felt betrayed by, a country I don't fully recognize anymore and that I simultaneously recognize as having been pretty awful all along. This all eventually faded into a dulled but persistent fury, not just at my own stupidity for having ever placed even a modicum of faith in the notion of nationhood, but also at the immediate heightening of security in Jewish spaces, which I greeted with a deep and even childish resentment. Conversations at my synagogue--like every Jewish space across a country that has for so long prided itself on freedom and liberty--became dominated by security and surveillance; a lack thereof, a need for more; concerns about how best to employ, construct, afford, and install; panic buttons, escape routes, safe spaces, what-if scenarios; ways to make congregants feel safe without feeling watched or paranoid, more traumatized or othered than they already are.

As appealing as Fiddler in Yiddish sounded while I grieved, I just couldn't bring myself to see it: every time I walked by the theater it's playing in, I'd catch sight of the security wands (typical of most shows these days) and the metal detectors (far less so). Irrational though I knew my reaction was, the sight of heightened security in any Jewish space exhausted me almost as much as the reasons they're now needed do. Call me stubborn, petty, melodramatic--in truth, all likely apply: I'm keenly aware that a psychological inability to buy a ticket to see a show is quite the minor, middle-aged, middle-class, white-lady problem. But anyway, all the talk of new security--added security, tightened security, heightened security, more and more and more security--made this middle-aged, middle-class, white-lady Jew absolutely unable to allow herself to be in a place where there would be more.

But then a bunch of American Jews began taking it upon themselves to shut down ICE detention centers across the country, and I signed up in hopes of joining them (and of countering another irrational fear I have: of getting arrested). And I've doubled-down on other kinds of volunteering toward tikkun olam (repairing the world), which is a tenet of Judaism I've always really dug a whole lot. And this has helped me get over myself and my recent obsession with the mysterious othering powers of metal detectors. So when a dear friend and fellow secular Jew who also happens to be fluent in Yiddish expressed an interest in seeing Fiddler, I made a plan weeks and weeks and weeks in advance, gave myself many stern talking-tos, took many big-girl breaths, and went.

And lo, miracle of miracles, there was no metal detector the night I saw the show--just a wand, which I dutifully endured. And then my friend and I took our seats next to a chasidic woman in a gorgeous auburn wig, and we all chatted (them in Yiddish and English, me just in dumb old English) about our lives, our opinions about the show, our neighborhoods, our children, and our tastes in television programming. When the lights went down, I delighted in the many phrases and words I recognized and hadn't heard in decades; I laughed and cried along with the rest of the audience; I felt proudly, separately Jewish and simultaneously all-American in a way I haven't in the longest time.

We in the western world may all be fiddlers on any number of increasingly precarious rooftops these days, subjected as we are to sinister news, constant disappointment in our government, traumatic events across the globe, and the resultant rise of irrational fixations and fears. My own mourning process hasn't been made any easier by constant reminders that American Jews have long had it way, way better than many minority groups have, even as things get steadily worse for us all. Fiddler's universality speaks volumes about that in this current production. But it also speaks loud and clear to the strength, smarts, and endurance of the people it represents--my people--not just in times of great joy, but as much if not more in times of great sorrow. It turns out I really, really, really needed to be reminded of that. If you find that you do, too, mach shnel to Stage 42 for some wonderful kvelling. And then once the show lets out, maybe think a bissel about how this classic musical functions as a newly urgent cautionary tale for us all, here, now--and get back to work patching the roof.   


1 comment:

Amanda Clarke said...

Brilliant.