December 10, 2019

Theater: A little ‘Fiddler’ on the Montana prairie

“Fiddler On the Roof” opened on Broadway more than 40 years ago this month. The show, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, was instantly popular, won numerous Tony Awards and has been successfully revived numerous times, but for me and members of my high school production, it was our introduction to a world beyond our small Western town.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana. When I started high school, we moved to “town,” specifically, Billings, an overgrown cow town on the banks of the Yellowstone River that boasted two small colleges, an oil refinery, stockyards that competed with the refinery for foul smells, and a handful of Jewish families. Some were well-known to me — Harold “Shorty” Alterowitz, who coached college sports, was originally from Brooklyn and was said to have fought in Israel’s War of Independence. He once told my mother that he moved to Montana to get away from all the other Jews. The Rosenbergs were a couple who looked curiously alike — deep olive skin, large expressive eyes and slicked-down wavy hair. They ran a barbecue place called the Pig Pen, down by the stockyards. After they moved away, someone heard that they were really cousins from Chicago, and “Negroes” to boot, who’d run away to get married and start over. That they picked “Rosenberg” as their new identity was a testament to their naiveté; that no one remarked on it was a testament to the lingering code of the Old West: Don’t ask too many questions. And then there was Dr. Al Small and his two sons, Andy and Paul. As a 17-year-old girl, I was too wrapped up in my own self-involvement to notice any one else.

Back in the 1970s, calling yourself a “Christian” wasn’t the doctrinaire statement of personal salvation and faith that it is today. Billings had a number of well-attended churches, and unless you were a Mormon, people didn’t pay much attention to which one you went to or didn’t go to. Roman Catholics were usually Irish or Italian with lots of kids who ate fish sticks on Fridays; Episcopalians belonged to the Book of the Month Club and the Yellowstone Country Club; the rest of the Protestants kept any spiritual enthusiasms to themselves. My own parents never thought twice about anyone’s religion, probably as they had none of their own. I sporadically went to Sunday school at First Presbyterian to flip my hair in the direction of the minister’s cute son.

On the other hand, people regularly talked about “Jewing someone down” when they bought cattle, cars or just about anything else. My father didn’t use that term — he always cautiously said “Negro,” too. He’d been stationed in the Aleutians during the Korean War, and he never forgot Ben Fine, the New York doctor who got him through a near-fatal case of pleurisy. For the rest of the town, Jews were known to be very good at making money, to have killed Jesus and to live in New York and Hollywood, where they ran the newspapers and made all the movies.

My high school was a large yellow-brick edifice built under Title IX, and boasted a state championship basketball team, a respectable number of National Merit Scholars and a tyrant of a music director, Russell Creaser. Mr. Creaser not only managed to terrify his students into performing in a variety of musical ensembles including an a capella choir, he also bullied the administration into funding a lavish musical production every year. When I was a senior, after the triumphs of “Most Happy Fella” and “The Pajama Game,” he chose “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The story of a small rural town grappling with rebellious young folk, changing times and an external enemy was easily grasped by the cast, crew and faculty. Even Billings had been touched by the upheavals of the Vietnam War, youth culture and — as the local paper regularly editorialized — the Russians had long had us squarely in their bomb sights.

Mr. Creaser liked musicals with large casts, and with about 1,000 kids in school “Fiddler” was a good pick. We had singers, we had dancers, we had cows, we had carpenters — what we didn’t have was anyone who knew about Judaism. No one in the senior class was Jewish. One kid in the whole school was Jewish, and he couldn’t sing.

Enter Dr. Small. Billings had a synagogue — Congregation Beth Aaron — but ecumenical community outreach wasn’t a priority. Rabbi Horowitz wasn’t a particularly glad-handing kind of guy, and the ingrained anti-Semitism of the preceding decades had taught most synagogue regulars to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Dr. Small had moved to Billings in the early 1950s and taught literature at the same college my mom taught political science. He was a barrel-chested man with curly dark hair, and as an “eligible widower” was considered very attractive by most women. He never lacked for baked goods. Somehow, he was recruited to teach the cast how to be Jewish. I spoke to him recently, and he recalled the first meeting: “Kosher — the kids knew pickles were kosher, and that was about it.”

He added “You all were ignorant, but an ignorance born of innocence. I could work with that.”

His older son, Andy, had already graduated but told me that his father was glad of the chance to teach the cowboys and cheerleaders about the joys of Yiddish. Raised in New York, Dr. Small was the red-diaper baby of union activists who shunned most traditions and practices. He’d been wandering in the wilderness of the Far West since leaving the Army, so enlightening the sons and daughters of the goyim about Shabbos and schnorrers was a mitzvah. He had the cast practice out loud, savoring the Yiddishisms in the script. And he started every class with jokes of the “priest and a rabbi go into a bar” variety.

Through the weeks of rehearsal, Dr. Small managed to work easily alongside the cantankerous Mr. Creaser — gently pointing out small points of stagecraft or suggesting inspired bits of schtick. Under his scholarly suit jacket beat the heart of a vaudevillian. He patiently worked with our Tevye and Yente, teaching the language of sighs and shrugs. He danced all the parts for the wedding scene, explaining why the men and women danced apart. He explained why Chava’s marriage to a Christian was so devastating for Tevye. He encouraged us all to ask him anything about Judaism — no question was too elementary — even the ones that today would be considered insensitive or even boorish.