Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’
By Alisa Solomon
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company
Lisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a fascinating look at how Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish short stories about “the affable dairyman Tevye” were transformed into a Broadway blockbuster and a film that far exceeded the author’s expectations.
I adore reading about the theatre, particularly the changes that occur from a show’s inception until its final production on stage, so I was eager to get my hands on Solomon’s work. However, she accomplishes far more than an offering of backstage gossip (although there’s plenty of that to enjoy), starting with Sholem Aleichem as he began writing for the New York stage, and ending with the 2004 revamping of Fiddler on the Roof for a new production on Broadway.
Solomon chose to write about Fiddler because of its identity beyond a commercial Broadway offering. She sees the show as “a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity and interracial bridge building, among them.” Even those who condemned the musical – saying it destroyed the humour and satire of Sholem Aleichem’s short stories – can’t deny that it speaks to a wide audience.
After discussing Sholem Aleichem’s limited success as a playwright, Solomon shows the different forms his Tevye stories took in the decades after his death – from new translations to staged versions to the television broadcast of one theatrical offering. Some productions, particularly by left-leaning theatre groups, were used to stir up social consciousness, while others appealed to the nostalgia people felt for Old World life. However, many American Jews began shying away from their heritage in the 1950s after many Jewish performers and writers were blacklisted and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era.
According to Solomon, this began to change partly due to the success of the movie Exodus. Its story of proud Israeli heroes helped make the past safe again by giving “Jewish history in Europe a meaningful role as glorious legacy.”
Fiddler gave North American Jews a safe way to look at this past. The show jelled when the writers and directors found the focus of the show: a portrayal of “the dissolution of a way of life.” With the opening song, “Tradition,” setting the theme, the action showed “the forces breaking down the traditions … from both the inside and the outside. In the first instance – modern children challenging their parents’ staid ways – the generational conflict would make the story universal. At the same time, the violent anti-Semitism of czarist Russia would exert pressure externally.” Solomon notes, though, something was left out of the picture: “Jewish law and religious practice.” Fiddler gave Jews “a legacy that could be fondly claimed without making any demands.” For the larger community, it depicted Jews with whom they could sympathize.
Solomon talks about numerous productions, with a special focus on the Israeli and British versions, along with a chapter on the making of the film. Two other in-depth discussions look at an all-black student version performed in Brooklyn in the 1960s, including information about the tensions then between blacks and Jews over the New York City school system; and a Polish adaptation early in the 21st century that takes place in a landscape devoid of its Jews, most of whom perished during the Holocaust.
For me, the most amazing section of the book is Solomon’s discussion of Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer of the original Broadway production, who has been vilified for naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
While the author doesn’t excuse his behaviour, she makes it understandable. The self-hate he felt about being Jewish and gay forced him to disavow his past. As Zero Mostel, who played Tevye in the original Broadway production of Fiddler and who was among the Jewish performers that were blacklisted, proclaimed, “Naming names is not Jewish.” Solomon believes that was the reason Robbins did it: to deny his essential Jewishness.
Wonder of Wonders ends with an overview of how Fiddler has spoken to several generations of Jews: “In the 1960s, Fiddler on the Roof served as an engine of Jewish acculturation in America. For the next generation of assimilated Jews, it became a sacred repository of Jewishness itself. And, for the next generation still, it became part of a multivalent legacy, available as a source of further exploration for those who wish to follow Tevye as he wanders on.”
Solomon’s marvellous work makes Tevye’s journey from the Pale of Russia to the shores of America come alive.
This review originally appeared in The Reporter, Vestal, NY.