The recent passing — just nine days apart — of Jerry Bock, 81, composer for “Fiddler On The Roof,” and Joseph Stein, 98, who wrote the musical’s book (based, of course, on Sholom Aleichem’s short stories), leads us — those old enough, anyway — to recall and honor the remarkable energizing impact that the show had on the Jewish community of 1964.
Jerry Seinfeld said the other week that his first visit to Broadway “was when my parents probably shlepped me to ‘Fiddler on the Roof.” So it was for a lot of us.
But Bock, Stein and lyricist Sheldon Harnick created more than a spectacular, timeless musical. They created a conversation-starter between generations; a validation for Jewish artists that the Jewish experience, even the Orthodox and Yiddish experience, could be as richly mined as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County; and the inspiration for many to return to the original stories of Sholom Aleichem and Yiddish culture, in general.
It even led film buffs to discover Yiddish film, particularly “Tevye,” a darker non-musical version befitting 1939.
Yet, in 1964, there on Broadway was the beauty of Shabbat candles being lit throughout the community; a man, hair covered, worn down by crushing poverty, who nevertheless was supremely literate, able to find a quote in his beloved and memorized “Tehillim” (Psalms) for every occasion, even if Tevye might twist the quote with a wink.
There, on stage, were Jewish parents wrestling with their children’s intermarriage, assimilation, a messianic leftist boyfriend, and communal displacement on top of everything else.
It was a revelation for many Jewish families. Maybe modern dilemmas were not so modern. Maybe the old stories were not so old.