Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Masoret, Masoret!

I read a story in The Forward last week about a production of Fiddler on the Roof in New Delhi, India, a place where there are very few Jews, and very little familiarity with Jewish culture or history.

But despite those barriers, and the difficulty of translating the songs into Hindi, the musical still resonated with the audience. “The character is so universal, he could be an Indian for all that it matters,” Rakesh Gupta, who played Tevye, told writer Ben Frumin. “It’s a very Indian thing,” Gupta said. “The problems being faced by Tevye, the problems being faced by the family about traditions, these challenges are faced by all people, all families. It sounded very familiar.”

The story about Fiddler on the Roof in India resonated with me because 10 years ago last month I saw the show for the first and so far only time, in Tel Aviv, in Hebrew, with Israeli actor Chaim Topol in the role of Tevye the milkman.

Topol has had quite a career with Tevye. He starred in the role in London's West End in 1967, then was nominated for an Oscar for the 1971 film version, and 20 years later, received a Tony nomination for the Broadway revival. (Topol is pictured at top, from a 2005 production in Sydney, Australia.

When I say I'd never seen Fiddler on the Roof before I saw it in Israel, I mean never. I'd never even seen the movie. (Yes, I know, you're shocked. I was probably the only Jewish person who'd never seen it). In fact, I was proud of my ignorance. I guess I was under the mistaken impression that the story of Tevye and his family romanticized the harsh lives of Jews in Czarist Russia in the early 20th century. I didn't want any part of it.

I've always joked that living in Israel was like being in an alternate universe. Saturday is the weekend and Sunday is a regular workday. Hebrew is written from right to left, instead of left to right. And in Israel, my natural resistance to Fiddler on the Roof evaporated. Even though I wasn't a regular theatergoer, as soon as I saw an ad for the show in the newspaper, I wanted to go see it.

Granted, I couldn't understand most it, although I picked out words and phrases and bits of dialogue. You have no idea how quickly people speak in their native language. Luckily, I went with two friends, both more fluent in Hebrew than I was. They sat on either side of me and would occasionally whisper key plot points. (If any children are reading this, I'm not condoning our behavior. I don't think we disturbed anyone, but I certainly wouldn't do it today.)

And I'm not ashamed to admit that I was wrong about Fiddler all those years. I loved it. It was a thrilling experience. I was in tears at the end, when Tevye's daughters go their separate ways and the Jews are forced by the Russian authorities to leave their homes in Anatevka. And masoret, masoret! (Hebrew for tradition) was ringing in my head for days afterward. There is one difference between the Hebrew and English versions. Instead of "If I Were A Rich Man," Tevye sings "If I Were A Rothschild."

I think the connection I felt was similar to Steve on Broadway's experiences watching Wicked in Germany and Japan. The essence came through, even if I couldn't understand every word. I just wish I'd had the same level of familiarity with Fiddler that Steve had with Wicked. It definitely would have helped.

I knew enough of the plot and I'd heard enough of the songs over the years that Fiddler on the Roof wasn't entirely unfamiliar. And certainly, I knew the history behind the story. But about six months later, when I finally saw the movie, I realized how much I'd missed. I missed some of the subtleties, some of the funnier parts.

I'm sure there are some musicals I wouldn't want to watch in a foreign language. Believe me, it can be pretty difficult to sit for two hours listening to words you don't understand. But if you have an inkling of the story, if you've seen the show in English, it's a pretty interesting experience.

Sure, seeing Fiddler on the Roof in Israel, with an overwhelmingly Jewish audience, helped cement the connection. When you're in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is only an hour away, when you see some of the Israeli soldiers who keep you safe on a daily basis in the audience, you realize how different your world is from Anatevka. It made the experience very powerful.

In any language, the music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, along with Joseph Stein's book, are truly memorable. The themes, of a close-knit, devout community fighting oppressive outside forces, of a family's struggle to maintain its traditions, of the sometimes rocky relationship between parents and children, are universal. When I saw The Color Purple on Broadway last summer, it reminded me a little of Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964 and played for 3,242 performances. When it closed in 1972, it was the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Alisa Solomon, a professor at Columbia University who's writing a book about Fiddler on the Roof, tells the Forward that there have been "thousands of productions in dozens of languages." Here' s a sample of Fiddlers from around the world.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Great story, Esther. You had told me about seeing Fiddler On The Roof in Hebrew earlier, but I loved the depth of your post.

Esther said...

Thanks Steve! Seeing Fiddler on the Roof in Hebrew will always be one of my most unique theatergoing experiences, and I'm so glad I did it.

Anonymous said...


You may be interested to know that TOPOL will be doing a US tour of Fiddler in 2008-2009.

As a Hebrew speaker, I find that in general the translations/adaptations of Broadway show librettos in Hebrew are very good. The librettos are usually translated by lyricists who a) speak fluent English and b) have written song lyrics in Hebrew. They also know that a big portion of the audience may be familiar with the English lyrics, so they hold themselves to a pretty high standard.

The most famous tranlsation of a Broadway musical is probably the French Man of La Mancha which was translated by Jacques Brel himself. It's a wonderful tranlsation.

Interesting to note that FIddler has also been done in Yiddish in Israel as well as in Hebrew.

Esther said...

Todah rabah BroadwayBaby!

I didn't realize that Topol was doing a U.S. tour. Wow, what an undertaking for a man in his 70s! I hope it comes somewhere near me. It would be pretty cool to say that I've seen an actor perform the same role in two different languages!

I never managed to find a Hebrew recording of "Fiddler on the Roof" when I was in Israel, but I did get it, and "Hair," when I came back to the U.S. I found both of them online at Footlight Records in New York. I didn't realize there was a Hebrew version of "Man of La Mancha." It was be great to hear that in Hebrew, especially "The Impossible Dream."

It makes sense that "Fiddler" would have been done in Yiddish in Israel. At one time, there were a lot of Yiddish speakers. And that's the language Tevye would have spoken. So it's fitting.