June 27, 2019

‘Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish’ Captivates New York

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Ever since it opened at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage last July, audiences have been kvelling over “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish,” the first production of the Shraga Friedman translation of the musical in the United States. Produced by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and directed by Joel Grey, “Fidler Afn Dakh” moved to Stage 42 off-Broadway in February and just scored four Lucille Lortel Award nominations for best revival, director, lead actor and featured actress.

Presented in the language of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, this Yiddish version — with English and Russian supertitles — has an element other “Fiddlers” do not. “It has more authenticity, more earthiness. It connects you in a deeper way to the old country, to Eastern European Jews,” Lisa Fishman, who plays Grandma Tzeitel, told the Journal. 

“It has obviously touched a nerve for Jewish people and Yiddish speakers, but also non-Jewish people have been so moved by it and exhilarated by it,” said Steven Skybell, who stars as Tevye. “That was a surprise. But it’s also not surprising because ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a classic that’s being done every day somewhere in the world. It’s the perfect classic play with incredible songs and depth of character and storytelling. It’s not like we unearthed an obscure Jewish musical.”

“[With] immigrants being forced out and ethnic cleansing, it’s as relevant today [as ever], if not more,” Fishman said. “I think that’s why it’s touching so many people. When is it going to stop? When are we going to be able to say ‘never again’ and truly mean it? We have to learn a lesson from this and learn to live together in peace.”

Skybell confided that he used to think of the Anatevka villagers’ ultimate exile as a positive thing, because it would send Tevye and his family to America. “But with the turn of current events and the rise of anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry, that nostalgic view is now a dire message,” he said. “This is a story about family and generations and how best to provide for your children, but also what it means to be displaced.” He does see the ending as hopeful, however. “It says you can be tossed and buffeted by the world, but you don’t have to lose your Jewishness or tradition.”

Skybell, of Polish ancestry with a “very strong” Jewish identity, was born and raised in a small, tight-knit Jewish community in Lubbock, Texas, attending a Reform synagogue. His grandparents spoke Yiddish, so he was familiar with it but wasn’t able to speak it until he decided to study it on his own. “I hoped one day it would be an avenue I could pursue in the theater,” he said. “It really is beshert that it’s happening.” 

This is Skybell’s fifth production of “Fiddler.” At 11, he held the chuppah in a community theater production, then at 17 and 23, he played Tevye at Interlaken music camp and at Yale University, and he portrayed village butcher Lazar Wolf in the 2016 Broadway revival. 

He likened Tevye to the greatest Shakespearean roles and finds playing him a “three-hour workout,” adding that doing it in Yiddish made it easier to make the character his own. “I don’t have to stand against those greats who have preceded me,” he said.

While Grandma Tzeitel is her first “Fiddler” role, the “over-the-top” character is not Fishman’s first experience with Yiddish. Of Russian, Polish and Latvian heritage, she was raised Reform in Highland Park, Ill., with a Yiddish vocabulary limited to meshugge and shayna punim. But she later got into klezmer music and sang
with a touring band and did Yiddish theater in New York. She also studied
Yiddish with the same teacher who taught Skybell.

Singing, writing songs and acting since childhood in camp and at school, Fishman is a musical theater veteran, with roles in “Funny Girl,” “Oliver,” “Cabaret,” Tintypes” and the Folksbeine’s “On Second Avenue” to her credit. 

Skybell, whose numerous theater credits include “The Full Monty,” “Pal Joey,” “Camelot” and several Shakespearean roles including Hamlet, also teaches acting. He has appeared often on television in New York-based shows, “Blue Bloods” most recently. He said he would love to do “King Lear” in Yiddish and a Yiddish film version of “Fiddler.” The show is set to run through Sept. 1, but that may be extended, and a cast album will be released soon, with bonus tracks of songs cut from the original production.

“We’ve been doing it now for almost nine months and I could do it for a lot longer. It’s so rewarding because the material is so deep,” Skybell said. “To be able to embrace my Jewishness so wholeheartedly with a role like Tevye and a play like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is empowering and feels larger than just an acting gig. It’s emblematic of me and my people.”

Fishman hopes that the production eventually will tour or be staged in other cities.

“It’s proving to be something that people even outside the Jewish community are responding to,” she said. “This is a universal story. It has a theme that humans have been dealing with since the beginning of time and keep repeating over and over. We are all connected to each other in one human family. We have to move forward from this ‘us versus them’ mentality and start learning to live together.”

“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” runs through Sept. 1 at Stage 42 in New York.