February 22, 2019

Awarding a Broadway ‘Wonder’

Few figures of popular culture are quite so beloved or beguiling as the character of Tevye, the pious but philosophical dairyman who reached his most celebrated incarnation in the Broadway hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Yet Tevye himself and the musical in which he is showcased can be provocative, too, if only because the character has traveled so far from his authentic Yiddish roots in the writings of his creator, Sholem Aleichem, to reach the stage and the screen.

That’s exactly why “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” by Alisa Solomon (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.) is a delight to read and, at the same time, distinguishes itself as an illuminating work of criticism and scholarship. And that’s why we are presenting its author with the Jewish Journal Book Award in recognition of a book of exceptional interest, achievement and significance.  The award, which carries a $500 honorarium, is presented each year to a book published during the previous calendar year.

Solomon, a journalism professor at Columbia University, earned her street cred in New York’s theater district as a longtime critic for the Village Voice. She also displays a newspaper reporter’s gift for cutting through fluff and myth in order to find the hard facts. Her previous books include “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (co-edited with Tony Kushner)  and “The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater” (co-edited with Framji Minwalla). She once performed in a JCC summer camp production of “Fiddler,” and she undertook the study of Yiddish in order to write “Wonder of Wonders.”

All of this is brought to bear in “Wonder of Wonders.” The book is informed by Solomon’s insight into what does or doesn’t work on the live stage, and it is ornamented with her tales of the gifted women and men who struggled — sometimes against one another — to bring up the curtain on what was destined to become a record-breaking Broadway phenomenon. She expertly decodes and explains the politics of the theater business and the psychology of American popular culture, and she shows how “Fiddler” was successful not only in making money for its backers, but also in changing the way America saw the Jewish saga and the way Jews saw themselves.

And she has accomplished something else in the pages of “Wonder of Wonders.”  Solomon has a sure sense of the tensions and conflicts that have attached themselves to Jewish identity in America, and she shows how they were played out in the American musical theater, a place where Jewish artists have been especially welcome and especially successful. In that sense, her book achieves the stature of social and cultural history while, at the same time, her scholarship is enlivened by her taste for the backstage story.

“She points out how ‘Fiddler,’ like the earlier incarnations of Tevye on the Yiddish stage, has come to serve as a ‘Jewish signifier’ for both Jews and non-Jews,” I wrote in my review of “Wonder of Wonders” last October. “But she also shows how ‘Fiddler’ came to be embraced and celebrated far beyond the Jewish world, which is yet another wonder of wonders.
‘[Tevye] belongs nowhere,’ Alisa Solomon concludes. ‘Which is to say, everywhere.’ ”

I concluded my review with the observation that “Wonder of Wonders” offers “a rich and lively slice of theater history.” The pastry metaphor also occurred to Marjorie Ingalls, who later wrote in The New York Times that the book is “as rich and dense as a chocolate babka.” Because I love a slice of babka, I suppose I shouldn’t quibble with the comparison. To be sure, “Wonder of Wonders” is a pure pleasure — not only filling, but also nourishing and even fortifying.