When MGM announced in May it would be remaking the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” some Jewish fans became nervous. What if it messed up the casting? What if the music was botched? What if there was unnecessary CGI?
“Fiddler on the Roof’s” depiction of European Yiddish villages is a way for many of us to connect with our history. Those communities no longer exist because of violent anti-Semitism, which managed not only to kill millions, but destroy an entire culture. It’s no wonder so many of us are protective of the movie, especially in a Hollywood climate of cash-grabbing reboots.
However, the risk is worth it. With anti-Semitism becoming increasingly deadly and omnipresent, now is the perfect time to reawaken the tale of the Jewish milkman and his strong-willed daughters.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only fanned the flames of Jew-hatred, contributing to various conspiracy theories that deem Jews the culprit of the tragedy. As civil unrest broke out in late May, the Anti-Defamation League reported there were 500,000 negative tweets a day about Jewish philanthropist George Soros, accusing the Holocaust survivor of funding looting and vandalism. The watchdog called these theories “a gateway to the antisemitic subculture that blames Jews for the riots.” Meanwhile, protesters have lashed out against Jews. In France, demonstrators took a break from advocating against police brutality to shout “Dirty Jews!” on camera.
But how can “Fiddler on the Roof” do anything to combat the rise in hatred? There certainly is no dearth of Jewish-focused movies. While a number of minorities in Hollywood are underrepresented on and behind the camera, Jewish voices are more prevalent than the coronavirus.
But “Fiddler on the Roof” is special. It stands out in its cross-cultural success. The musical has been a massive hit in Japan for decades, despite there being a microscopic Jewish audience in the country. The show’s strong themes of intergenerational conflict have hit close to home. Jessica Hecht, who played Tevye’s wife, Golde, in the 2015 Broadway revival, told The New Yorker “that a journalist from Tokyo, conducting an interview with her and [her co-star Danny] Burstein … cried as she explained to them how faultlessly the show portrays a Japanese family.”
“Fiddler on the Roof’s” ability to transcend cultures and generations made it a hit, and it also makes it an effective tool in the fight against anti-Semitism. The music is as catchy as the empathy for its characters and all the Jews for which they seem to magically represent.
What’s even more astonishing is that it’s beloved, dare I say universally, among Jews. In a community where disagreement has become essentially a religious practice, you will be hard-pressed to find a Jew who takes offense at “Fiddler on the Roof,” even as numerous other once-beloved classics are canceled. Meanwhile, more contemporary depictions of Orthodox Jews have been the subject of mass criticism — highlighting divisions within the community at large.
While Netflix’s “Unorthodox” received rave reviews from critics and secular Jews, those who grew up in its ultra-Orthodox setting slammed the series for portraying Hasidic women as “foreign Disney-witches in odd costumes” and that “their on-screen treatment resembled the colonialists’ impressions of primitive tribes in Papua New Guinea.” 2018’s arthouse darling “Disobedience,” which centered around lesbians in the ultra-Orthodox community, drew a similarly mixed response. It’s worth noting that both these projects were based on books written by women who grew up Orthodox. Yet somehow, “Fiddler on the Roof” has escaped such a backlash.
“Fiddler on the Roof’s” power lies not only in its vast fandom, but its unique depiction of Jewish life.
Jewish-themed cinema often focuses on the Holocaust and portrays Jews through the lens of their persecution. We rarely see Jewish communities before they are ravaged. “Fiddler” is different. Most of its screen time is spent affectionately exploring the layers of Jewish life. We not only absorb traditional Jewish practices, but the debates around them. Then we’re invited to be guests at a Jewish wedding and twirl with bottle dancers as Klezmer strings “Idle-diddle-daidle-daidle” through our ears. While the film does not shy away from the pogroms that terrorized Ukrainian families like that of protagonist Tevye, it gives audiences a chance to know and love them beforehand.
“Fiddler on the Roof’s” ability to transcend cultures and generations made it a hit, and it also makes it an effective tool in the fight against anti-Semitism.
This approach to telling the story of anti-Semitism is so innovative, it has been adopted by premier institutions on the subject. The Holocaust museum in Israel, Yad Vashem, employs the same storytelling tactics. Its first exhibit pays tribute to the Yiddish villages of Europe. It opens by featuring the hallmarks of families just like Tevye’s – their milestones, customs and beauty. The principal display aligns with the greater narrative of the museum, which features personal stories of 90 Holocaust victims and survivors, with approximately 2,500 of their personal items.
Avner Shalev, the museum’s curator and chairman, explained that this humanist approach challenges visitors to look “into the eyes of the individuals. There weren’t 6 million victims, there were 6 million individual murders.”
Showing the intimate lives of Jews establishes their humanity. It forbids us from being numb as we watch their personhood be stripped away. In an era where we, as Jews, feel so isolated — even before a global pandemic necessitated lockdown — “Fiddler on the Roof” brings us together with our fellow Jews and the world at large.
As Elie Wiesel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” And “Fiddler on the Roof” remains an extraordinary antidote to apathy, even in remake form.
Ariel Sobel is the Journal’s social media editor.