February 21, 2020

Make ‘Fiddler’ a Christmas Eve tradition

On Thursday night last week, 1,500 Los Angeles area Jews gathered in six Laemmle movie theaters in Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Encino, North Hollywood, Pasadena and Claremont for sold-out screenings at the eighth annual Christmas Eve “Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Along.” I was honored to host the event at the Ahrya Fine Arts. It turned out to be a profound experience of Jewish community. 

The most remarkable surprise was who turned out – a veritable tableau of Jewish Los Angeles. As I greeted the 400-plus movie-goers in the lobby, I expected to see mostly baby boomers like me who embraced “Fiddler” when it opened on Broadway, September 22, 1964 and who loved the 1971 movie version. They showed up, but so did whole families with young children, a troupe of high school students who had recently performed in a production of the musical, a scattering of millenials, couples, singles, friends, and a group of 80 organized by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (which, full disclosure, is a part of Tribe Media Corp., publisher of the Jewish Journal). There were kippah-wearing Orthodox Jews, leaders of Conservative and Reform synagogues, secular Jews, rabbis, Israelis, Persians and Russians. A few came in costume: a Hodel wearing a sheitl and carrying a broom, a Perchick, a Golde. I was dressed as Tevye – and therein lies a story I told the crowd from my memoir, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing).

In 1966, I performed the role of Tevye in a United Synagogue Youth production at Beth El Synagogue in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to standing-room-only crowds. Hardly anyone had seen the show; it was an impossible ticket on Broadway. Only one curious thing about the experience: the synagogue called the performances “A Night of Jewish Music.” I never understood why – until last year. “The whole thing was totally illegal!” John Adam Ross, the director of theater arts at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin told me. “There were no rights for high school productions in 1966. But, you realize Ron, you were probably the first person ever to play Tevye outside of Broadway!” I contacted Alisa Solomon, professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of a wonderful book about the making of the musical, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof to ask if this could possibly be true. Her answer: correct, there were no rights for high school productions to produce the show in 1966, but by then, there was a national touring company and an Israeli production of “Fiddler.” So, perhaps I was the third actor to play Tevye outside of Broadway. I showed the crowd at the Fine Arts a photo of me, age 16, as “Illegal Tevye.”

After a trivia contest (the question that stumped everyone: “What two actresses who played roles in “Fiddler” went on to star together in a smash TV series?” Answer: Bea Arthur as Yente and Adrienne Barbeau as Hodel in Norman Lear’s magnificent “Maude”) and a warm-up rehearsal led by anyone who had been in a production of “Fiddler,” the movie began to whoops and cheers. With the lyrics to every song captioned on screen, the sing-along commenced in full voice, a choir of 400 Jews of different backgrounds, religious levels, and political beliefs coming together as one community – singing about traditions, romances, dreams of being rich (“it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either!”), miracles, l’chayims, Sabbath prayers, sunrises…and sunsets. We nodded at the clever and insightful lyrics, penned by Sheldon Harnick, now 91 years old and still active: “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us.” We laughed, we cried, and we resonated with Tevye and Golde as their familial roles are challenged.  We shuddered as pogroms force the families of Anatevka to flee Russia as refugees.

“Tevye was my great-grandfather,” I told the crowd during the intermission. “My zaydie, my grandfather Louis Paperny, emigrated from Minsk to the United States of America in the early 1900’s as did many of your grandparents and great-grandparents. Like many of your ancestors, he left behind everything to seek a better life in America where he could build a family, a business and a community…as did families from Iran and the former Soviet Union more recently.”

When the evening ended, I asked the President of Laemmle Theatres, Greg Laemmle, why he initiated this event eight years ago. “There is something about all of us Jews being together on Christmas Eve. My grandmother left Russia as a young girl during the Revolution, bouncing around Western Europe before coming to Los Angeles in 1939.  And yet, even after forty plus years in the United States, she would still feel a sense of foreboding at Christmas and Easter.  Why?  Because she still lived with the fear that these were the times when a violent pogrom could erupt out of nowhere.  For me, that was part of the motivation in creating a Christmas Eve event.  And obviously, ‘Fiddler’ is a natural choice.”

The themes of refugees and immigration animate the newest revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in a production that opened on December 20, 2015, to rave reviews.  (Spoiler alert!) In a controversial decision by esteemed director, Bartlett Sher, the play is bracketed with a framing device that has Danny Burstein, the talented actor playing Tevye, in a modern red parka telling the story as family history – “A fiddler on the roof? Sounds crazy, no?” Even more stunning is the conclusion of the show which offers an unmistakable nod to the global refugee crisis unfolding before our very eyes.

At American Jewish University this coming semester, I will teach a seminar in “experiential education” to our graduate students in Jewish Education. I cannot think of a more unusual, engaging and moving experience of Jewish community outside of a great prayer service than the “Fiddler on the Roof “ Sing-Along. I encourage you to get your tickets early for next year’s sure-to-sell-out screenings. 

As the crowd filed out of the theater, the comments were universally positive. “Wonderful show!” “I hadn’t seen the film in thirty years – it holds up.” “I wanted my children to see it so they would understand.” “So much fun to sing along!” My response: “Thanks for coming. We’re still here. Shabbat shalom!”

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University and author of The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing).