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Death, and “Fiddler of the Roof”

Death, and “Fiddler of the Roof”

My story this week is about the scholars who are pushing hard against myths about the shtetl, especially the kind peddled by "Fiddler on the Roof."

As it happens, the composer of that Tony-winning classic died yesterday: Jerry Bock, at 81. Eerily, the writer of the musical’s book, Joseph Stein, died ten days before. They both will be missed, deeply.

I’ll use the both of their deaths as an occasion to take my own stance on the importance of "Fiddler on the Roof." It seems obvious that the show, which debuted in 1964, made a deep impact on how American Jews viewed the shtetl. Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, "Fiddler" left you with the clear sense that Jews were a pious, more or less innocent bunch who fell victim to a vicious Russian anti-semitism nonetheless.

Historically, it’s pretty much wrong. Anti-semitism was a fact of European life, but as many of the current scholars are arguing now, Russian anti-semitism was not nearly as violent as "Fiddler" suggested, especially before the First World War, when most of America’s Jews arrived.

Moreover, "Fiddler" suggested that it was the Russian czars who instigated the pogroms that have also become the stuff of legend. In fact — and here’s a fact I couldn’t fit in my article — the csars, while often harboring anti-semitic feelings, and even instituting anti-semitic policies — were aghast by pogroms. They viewed any kind of flash-mob violence as dangerous to the stability of their regime. In consequence, they usually discouraged pogroms, which were essentially grassroots phenomenon.

But getting this right is not the essential responsibility of "Fiddler on the Roof." It is not the role of theater, nor novels, nor artistic culture generally, to be historically accurate. Obviously, any fictional work that is based in reality should do its best to get the basic facts right. But the burden of telling history lies fundamentally with historians — and the burden of knowing it, fundamentally with the individual. If you want to know the history, read it. Singing it won’t work.

Of course there isn’t always time to read lengthy historical tracts. But I’ll point out that some of the work my journalist colleagues who have been doing fine work synthesizing it.

A much welcomed discussion was sparked by Alana Newhouse’s excellent New York Times Magazine essay deconstructing Roman Vishniac’s pre-Holocaust pictures, "A Vanished World" (published in 1983).

The New Republic and Tablet Magazine book critic Adam Kirsch has done a remarkable job reviewing many of the historical works I wrote about in my story.

And even some of the historians I talked to myself, like Steven Zipperstein, have begun writing short, pithy essays, based on their research, that bring Jewish history alive. (Zipperstein’s article on the Jewish Review of Books about the the Soviet spy who fabricated the history that "Fiddler on the Roof" is based upon is a must.)

So Mr. Bock, thanks for pointing us in the right direction. And as for the truth, we’ll take it from here.

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