The Life of Any Refugee Is as Shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Fiddler on the Roof

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The musical Fiddler on the Roof, about the eviction of Jews from their village Anatevka in Russia in 1905, has been running somewhere in this country for fifty years. It is now getting its sixth revival on Broadway and this latest, that just opened, is not only a superb restaging of a majestic play and a towering story about history, but the very best Fiddler I have ever seen, and I have seen a number of them.

The power of the play is not just in its array of splendid songs, such as Sunrise, Sunset, Tradition, If I Were a Rich Man, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Miracle of Miracles, but in its rich and triumphant story of an oppressed people, constantly persecuted by the Russian government, who refuse to submit to the tyrannical yoke of the Tsar.

It is, too, the story of a proud people who love their lives in turn-of-the-century Russia, lives in which they have little, exist in a state that is best described, as Tevye constantly moans, as “miserable” and yet remains optimistic.

This latest revival of Fiddler soars, too, because of the superb acting. The performers, led by Danny Burstein as an inspired Tevye, add an historical luster to the play. They not only convey the lives of the people in the story, but the hard lives of peasant farmers in the Tsar’s Russia in a turbulent world, clutching to each other, and an eternal hope for better times. You love Tevye and his family, and the men in his daughters’ lives, as you love your own family – warts and all. You sympathize with Tevye as he struggles through life, and both fears and loves his brassy wife, Golda, all in the shadow of the Tsar’s troops and guns. The actors give new life to the story, making it as fresh, and as bold, now as the day Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote the music and Joe Stein the book back in the early 1960s.

The story is simple. It is 1905 and the Tsar has started a number of pogroms against the Jews who live in small villages. In Anatevka, one of them. Tevye lives with his wife and five lovely daughters. He expects them all to grow up, marry and flourish under the old rules but each of them rebels, causing their Dad lots of angst (like any parent today). They break all the rules and through their rebellious story we see the changes in life in Anatevka. Tevye and Golda put up with them all and do all they can to insure their happiness. At the end, for no reason except anti-Semitism, they are booted out of the village where they all grew up.

Much has been written about Tevye starting the play wearing a contemporary jacket and ending it with it on, too, to symbolize contemporary refugees, in the news every day, and the problems they face. It is a small gesture and really not needed. Anybody who sees the play immediately connects with the troubles of today’s refugees, whether those teeming out of Syria or some other Middle East nation where gunfire routinely shatters the night.

The history in Fiddler on the Roof is spot on. Tsar Nicholas II ordered six pogroms in both little villages, or shtetls, and big cities, such as Odessa, in 1905. In the play’s village of Anatevka, tables are overturned, some buildings ransacked and villagers clubbed and pushed around, but the damage in minimal. In reality, there was horrific damage to the Jews and many were killed. Altogether, about 1,500 Jews were killed in those 1905 pogroms, thousands wounded and many forced to evacuate their towns and flee. There was no reason for the pogroms other than anti-Semitism, which had been carried out in Russia since the eleventh century, when the Jewish population of Kiev was restricted to a separate neighborhood. In the fifteenth century, Jews were only allowed to live in a certain territory of Russia or in ghettos in urban areas. Official pogroms, or raids, on Jewish settlements and neighborhoods started in earnest in the early 1880s and continued into the 1920s. In pogroms from 1918 to 1922, 150,000 Jews were killed, most in the Ukraine. These pogroms were not governmental, but carried out by civilian organizations. During this period, some two million Jews fled Russia, most settling in the United States. When the new Bolshevik government was stabilized in the early 1920s, it punished many of the pogrom leaders. The Bolshevik government supported the construction of 1,000 schools for Jewish students and from 1917 to the 1930s the Jewish population grew back to nearly two percent and about one sixth of University students were Jewish. Some 500,000 Jews fought for Russia in World War II.

Joseph Stalin’s rise to power in the 1930s began a new era of anti-Semitism though. While Stalin supported the Russian Jews at first, and publicly applauded the formation of Israel as a Jewish state, he continually worried about Jews as rebels in Russia, as he worried about everyone. Starting in 1948, following a pro-Jewish demonstration for Israel Ambassador Golda Meir, new purges began. Several Jewish leaders were assassinated. Many were jailed and Jewish settlements were closed. From the late 1940s on, life for Jews in Russia became extremely difficult.

Danny Burstein captures al of the difficulties as Tevye. He is a revelation. The plays and movie over the years have featured dozens of fine Tevyes, but Burstein gives Tevye real depth and character. He is a laid back Tevye who goes through the play with frustrated shrugs of his shoulders and wide eyed grimaces, whether in dealing with butcher Lazar Wolf, the pushy matchmaker or the police. He is not the larger than life character, such as Zero Mostel, but a Tevye whom every man in the audience, especially the dads, can appreciate. They all see themselves in this 1905 farmer, trying to run his business and his family under the thumb of the Tsar, always worried about something.

The director gets other fine performances from Jessica Hecht as Golda, Alix Kory as Yentl, the matchmaker, Adam Kantor as Motel, the tailor, Ben Rappaport as Perchick, the radical student, Nick Rehberger as Fyedka, the non-Jew boyfriend and Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Jenny Rose Baker and Hayley Feinsten as Tevye’s feisty and adorable daughters.

Just brilliant choreography by Hofesh Shechter is one of the strengths of the play. Dancers whirl about the stage in engaging and magical dance numbers that dazzle the audience (oh, the famous bottle dance is there and better than ever!).

Director Bartlett Sher, handed one of show business’ great plays, has done superb work in turning the play into something that is both unbelievably fresh and resilient and delights every generation of playgoer.

See this play. Take your family to see it. Start a tradition…

PRODUCTION: The play was produced by Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, others. Sets: Michael Yeargan, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Lighting: Donald Holder, Sound: Scott Lehrer Choreography: Hofesh Schechter. The play is directed by Bartlett Sher. It has an open-ended run.

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