‘A Touchstone For Modern Jewish Identity’

‘A Touchstone For Modern Jewish Identity’

The Folksbiene marks ‘Fiddler’ at 50.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

For a musical about the ravages of time on an ancestral heritage, “Fiddler on the Roof” has itself aged remarkably well. While much has changed in the half-century since “Fiddler” first had its Broadway debut, the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein musical inspired by the dissolution of the Eastern European Jewish way of life still crystallizes for American Jews the value of their Jewish roots.

Next Monday night at Town Hall, the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater kicks off its centennial year with a look back at the musical’s first 50 years. A year before yet another version of the musical is set to debut on Broadway, the fundraising gala will reunite dozens of cast members who have appeared in the Broadway, film and touring productions over the years. It will testify to the vital traditions that “Fiddler,” based on Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish stories, has itself engendered for both artists and audiences alike.

Co-conceived and directed by Gary John La Rosa and Erik Liberman, the event will be chaired by producer Hal Prince, playwright/performer Harvey Fierstein, and former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. Among the featured performers will be Topol (the Israeli actor who starred in the 1970 film), actress Chita Rivera, violinist Joshua Bell, and Bel Kaufman (Aleichem’s 103-year-old granddaughter).

The capacity of “Fiddler” to reconnect Jews to Yiddishkeit is a major theme of Alisa Solomon’s new book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Metropolitan Books, 2013). Solomon, who will also appear onstage at the gala, noted that we “stand in the same relation to ‘Fiddler’ as ‘Fiddler’ did to the stories by Sholem Aleichem” — two or three generations removed from a time of major transition in Jewish life.

The musical premiered at a time when American culture was itself undergoing a profound shift, she explained, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the student movement, the women’s liberation movement and the generation gap. But “Fiddler” still resonates powerfully today, Solomon observed, as both a “touchstone for modern Jewish identity” and as a show with a universal theme about the decline of a traditional way of life.

Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the Folksbiene, views the gala as a golden opportunity to continue the Folksbiene’s drive to reach to a younger audience than the aging population of native Yiddish speakers. The performance will feature a multi-ethnic children’s choir of public school students, as well as a few child performers from Broadway. “It’s an age-old cliché that Yiddish is just for the grandparents,” Mlotek said. “But Yiddish culture is not just for Yiddish speakers.” He noted that in Aleichem’s will, the author directed that his stories be read on the anniversary of his death in whatever language that the readers knew.

Harnick, whose 90th birthday will be marked at the gala, told The Jewish Week that “Fiddler” has become a “good-will ambassador for Jewish culture throughout the world.” Its power, he said, derives from its universalizing of the Jewish experience. “It shows that the Jewish people are no different from any other.” When Michael Ballam, a Mormon missionary and founder of the Utah Festival Opera Company, produced the musical last year (and starred as Tevye, along with two of his real-life daughters), he asked the audience how, after “Fiddler,” there could be any more anti-Semitism in the world.

La Rosa learned the Jerome Robbins choreography from Sammy Dallas Bayes, who was Robbins’ apprentice and who appeared in the original 1964 cast. La Rosa told The Jewish Week that he has multiple connections to “Fiddler” — it was the first Broadway show that he ever saw, the one in which he made his own Broadway debut, and one in which he has performed numerous times since — including the 25th anniversary tour with Topol, the 30th anniversary tour with Theodore Bikel, and a recent German/Austrian touring version called “Anatevka.”

The perennial challenge in staging “Fiddler,” he noted, is to acquaint a group of mostly non-Jewish actors with Eastern European Jewish culture. “Young people in particular often don’t known about shtetl culture,” he said. “You need to help them to understand the political turmoil, as well as the religious and social customs of the period.” Paradoxically, as a non-Jew himself, he feels like a “carrier of Jewish tradition” to the next generation of actors.

Many actors, like La Rosa, have done multiple productions of the show over the years; one actor, T. Doyle Leverett, has appeared in more than two dozen different productions. According to La Rosa’s co-director, Liberman, “Tevye’s daughters grew to be Goldehs and even Yentes,” referring to the characters of the mother and matchmaker, respectively. “Motels [the poor tailor who romances Tevye’s daughter, Tzeitel] grew to be Tevyes.” And some families, he said, have had multiple members, of different generations, in the show; actress Lori Ada Jaroslow, who has appeared in two Broadway revivals, is both the daughter and niece of other “Fiddler” stars.

Liberman, who recently starred Off Broadway in the new musical, “The Goldstein Variations,” has played Motel in touring productions of “Fiddler” headlined by Topol, Harvey Fierstein, and Theodore Bikel. “The show is built water tight,” he said. “Its resonances carry throughout whatever culture is doing it. Its messages grow more relevant with time, as close-knit communities seem to be on their way out.” Liberman’s grandparents escaped from pogroms in Russia, but he had “no way of understanding their experience until I was in this show. It became, for me, a way of honoring their legacy” — even as the musical itself has become an indispensable part of the legacy of the Jewish people.

“Raising the Roof,” this year’s Folksbiene Gala, take place on Monday, June 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. Tickets, $250 or $500, can be reserved by calling (212) 213-2120 x 203 or by visiting www.folksbiene.org.

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