The Schlemiel as Shakespearean Fool
Program notes by Darren C. Marks
Fiddler on the Roof consistently places in the top-five list of best Broadway musicals. Some attribute this to the ubiquity of its songs, which have accompanied so many pivotal life transitions such as weddings, bar/t mitzvahs and even Christian baptisms. Others admire it as the last flowering of a musical tradition in which the spoken, sung and danced are in nearly perfect balance. The sublime mastery of Jerome Robbins’s direction and choreography, gesturing the shtetl traditions of his parents and grandparents, balances Sheldon Harnick’s economical and powerful lyrics with Jerry Bock’s infusion of klezmer and Jewish folk music, all driven by Joseph Stein’s story of people under the intense pressures of change. They collectively saturate the theatre with ghosts of a culture lost but which never seems alien to us.
The show’s popularity might also be traced to Stein’s borrowing from the beloved Sholem Aleichem’s source stories, which themselves have proven timeless and beyond “Jewish-ness,” or to the Marc Chagall-inspired scenic design and colour palette, which reminds us that this is not only a real place but also one of heightened, intensified imagination. But perhaps the most salient reason is that Fiddler is greater than the sum of all its parts: its particularly Jewish story, anchored in a way of life most audience members know little about, continues to resonate as human, independent of race, nationality or religion. A Japanese producer once asked Stein whether Americans truly understood the musical because it seemed so Japanese.
Fiddler’s New York Jewish creators wished to honour the shtetl Yiddish culture largely eradicated during the Holocaust. Their show came to life as Jewish Americans addressed enculturation and assimilation in the 1960s while experiencing previously unrivalled equality. It reveals tensions in a Jewish American population that was coming to understand more deeply the human and cultural cost of the Holocaust, and its own quietism on the subject. It manifests the ideals of Jewish American intellectuals and youth avidly involved in the civil rights movement, which challenged the role of tradition as a guise for racism, hatred and intolerance.
Born in this unique time of transition, Fiddler is both a traditional Jewish story (by Jewish creators who invested three years of their careers on a project producers openly rejected for its perceived ethnic specificity) and a modern American one. For some, its Jewish focus is incidental to its wider human focus. But it also just happens to be more than a human story about Jewish life; it is Jewish – even though more Gentiles than Jewish actors have likely been cast in the musical’s past productions. And even when performed by Jewish actors Fiddler can invite the same exaggerated nostalgia felt by Italian, Irish or English Americans as they celebrate Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day or a Dickensian Christmas.
How exactly is it Jewish? The easy answer is that its texture pays a real tribute to Yiddish Eastern European Jewish culture and religion. But it is more Jewish in this way: two thousand years of Jewish experience as outsider to, or other than, the Christian world interrogates European (and American) cultures that were often hostile and certainly dominant. It holds a Yiddish/Jewish mirror up,as to be Jewish was, by default, to be an outsider. And regardless of where any “outsider” comes from – China, India or Latin America, to name a few – all can see themselves in that mirror.
The musical takes place in an imagined village in 1905, but the experiences of Tevye and the village in both Aleichem and Stein’s adaptation are real histories. Living in what is now Ukraine, in the imperial Russian “Pale of Settlement,” Jewish populations acutely felt the pressure of ghettoes and assimilation as their unique language and religious life were openly discouraged, despised and actively persecuted.
The easiest future for all, as Aleichem’s source material intimates, was for Jews to become “beardless”: to assimilate into European culture and abrogate millennia-old traditions by converting to new ideas of politics, humanist religion and, most of all, love, which alone could sustain them in the coming evil. Even Tevye can taste a future free from the restrictions he has known, while experiencing the first blows of a European century notorious for its inhumanity and anti-Semitism. Tzeitel and Motel’s insistence on love and self-destined happiness, Hodel and Perchik’s dangerous political commitment to social and class freedom, and Chava and Fyedke’s conversion to a humanist religion that is neither hateful nor restrictive are glorious promises that any good father would wish for his children, particularly in view of the coming religious hatred. But the real cost of unravelling this tapestry of tradition, the very thing that has sustained Jewish people for millennia, is at the heart of Tevye’s questionings: “One little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop?” How do we change and adapt to the future without losing all of the past?
Tevye’s name is a play on the Hebrew word for “good,” and he is literally “the goodman.” He is not a perfect man. In Chava’s story, Teyve’s unbending is as unsatisfactory to modern audiences as it was to the show’s creators. However, this unbending and lack of resolution is important, for Fiddler takes place in the real world with real consequences. Teyve comes from a tradition of Yiddish clowns who, being outsiders at a linguistic and social disadvantage, find themselves inadvertently commenting on something much greater, whether Jewish law and tradition or the non-Jewish world outside. He is a comic Rashi whose situational comedic inversions and linguistic malapropisms resonate in the deeper tradition of the schlemiel.
This is the genius of Aleichem, left intact by Bock and Stein, which would found so much of American popular comedy, from the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen. The schlemiel’s misadventures present a double critique. On the one hand, the schlemiel exposes prejudice within the dominant external culture; on the other, he does the same for his own culture as he imperfectly jams the two together. The schlemiel belongs to two real worlds and to none. Like the Shakespearean fool, he is no fool at all: he heightens reality by exposing its folly. To do this, he must not experience resolution or an “all is well” ending; he must remain an outsider. It is no accident that Fiddler ends as it does. It asks us about our limits, intolerances, hatreds and moral quietism when the outsider is struck down and cast out and we fail to act.
This, of course, draws on the deepest Jewish theological theme and experience, both in the Tanakh and the Bible and in history: the double experience of being chosen and despised, of being homeless (until 1948) with the promise of a home, and of simultaneously feeling G-d’s presence and absence. What sustained Jews throughout was a tradition that bound them to G-d, often in contradiction to experience. But those traditions are costly, perhaps restrictive and not the same as G-d. To struggle with them is in part to struggle with G-d. But Jews have being doing that since G-d called Abraham. This is the Jewish experience. Teyve asks the audience to become Jewish for a few hours, to become schlemiels and, like all good Jewish people, to question the past, live in the present and hope for the future “and, regardless of whether good fortune or that future comes or not, to drink to life. L’chaim.”
Dr. Marks teaches at Huron University College at Western University in London, Ontario.