Home IT management Feminism Is The Unsung Driving Force In The Hit Show ‘Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish’

Feminism Is The Unsung Driving Force In The Hit Show ‘Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish’

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Feminism Is The Unsung Driving Force In The Hit Show ‘Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish’

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Just last month the critically lauded musical, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, returned to off-Broadway. This National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production is directed by theater titan Joel Grey and is playing at New World Stages.

As the late Hal Prince, producer of the show’s original Broadway version said, “If you have seen Fiddler before, you must see this production because it will make you feel you are seeing Fiddler for the first time.” The show is presented in Yiddish with English and Russian Supertitles.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem’s classic Yiddish stories. The musical revolves around Tevye, a poor milkman, his wife Golde and their five daughters who live in a Russian shtetl, (Yiddish for “little town”) called Anatevka or Anatevke.

It’s 1905. Because they are Jews, violent pogroms by the Russian authorities constantly hover over them. Massacre can happen unexpectedly at a moment’s notice. In addition to the struggle to survive, Tevye is also tasked with having to marry off his dowry-less daughters at a time when marriages are arranged. That brings a challenge to Yenta, the matchmaker. In the song “Matchmatcher” the three oldest daughters sing, “with no dowry, no money, no family background be glad you got a man.”

Amid all the chaos the glue that holds them together is tradition. As Tevye says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

But in this community and family which is so governed by tradition, Tevye and Golde’s three marriage-age daughters Tsaytl, Hodl and Khave will disrupt that in a big, big way. In a fierce act of courage each woman will dare to claim her autonomy and rebel against arranged marriage.

Tsaytl is determined to seek her father’s permission to defy Yenta the matchmaker and marry for love. Hodl doesn’t even seek her father’s permission to follow her beloved to Siberia to marry him. “We would like your blessing, papa,” says Hodl who tells her father of her plans. And Khave, despite Tevye’s absolute forbiddance, marries outside the Jewish faith.

It could be said that feminism is the unsung driving force in Fiddler on the Roof which features a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman. “Many of the conflicts in the story come from Tevye’s daughters and their resolve to make their own decisions,” says Rosie Jo Neddy who plays Khave. “Each daughter, in her own way, chooses that she herself, not her father nor the cultural norms, will decide what her life will look like.”

For Stephanie Lynn Mason who plays Hodl, the daughters breaking free of their prescribed molds presents the show’s great dilemma. “Tevye values his daughters being “sharp” and educated,” says Mason. “It’s ultimately one of the biggest obstacles in the play because it’s this education and smarts that give the daughters the agency to stand up for their own wants, hearts and desires and take control of their futures.”

Plus, as Rachel Zatcoff, who is in the role of daughter Tsaytl observes the iconic fiddler, who is typically played by a man, is a woman in their production. “It is not lost on me that Tevye is surrounded by six women: his five daughters and wife,” says Zatcoff. “In our production, the extension of those women is that we have a female fiddler. It is the women in this story who break the mold, challenge the traditions, explode with love and strength and ultimately shift Tevye’s mind and spirit.”

Zatcoff, Mason and Neddy are no strangers to the show and speaking and singing in Yiddish. They each appeared in their roles in the previous Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish productions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2018 and Stage 42 in 2019. The three women shared what it has been like returning to the show this post-Covid climate and proclaiming their female sovereignty both within and outside of the show.

Jeryl Brunner: Why do you think the story is especially poignant now?

Rosie Jo Neddy: Globally, this is a story about people being forced to leave their homes. One of the reasons Fiddler has remained relevant over the years is that this is something that has continued to happen throughout history. But to have it happening currently in Ukraine, where Anatevke would have been, unfortunately makes our show especially poignant.

Brunner: Because the show is performed in Yiddish it feels rich and profound and unlike any other Fiddler I’ve seen. Why do you think it’s important to do the show in Yiddish?

Neddy: Yiddish is a language that is not spoken as much as it once was due to violence against Jewish people. Fiddler depicts some of that violence. So to do this show in Yiddish is to honor the very culture we are witnessing threats against. We are portraying what is at stake, both in the play and horrifyingly, in real life, as we see a rise in anti-Jewish hate in our world. Performing Fiddler in Yiddish, is in and of itself, an act against anti-Semitism.

Rachel Zatcoff: Doing the show in Yiddish feels true. Everything is funnier. Everything hits a deeper beat in the heart. It is challenging to always keep the Yiddish running through the mouth. Since it’s not my native tongue it takes incredible focus. But it has given the entire show a deeper meaning.

Stephanie Lynn Mason: I believe it’s incredibly important, because it’s the language that the actual characters would have been speaking. Also, by having it in Yiddish, often times it removes a “wall” in our brains that we might have when seeing a show in our native tongue. I’ve heard that while people may read the supertitles, they will sometimes stop and just listen because they can tell what we’re saying through the incredible work everyone is doing on stage. It forces the audience to surrender to the emotional heart of the piece and what these characters are feeling and facing. They don’t judge things as much and it makes it a much more human experience.

Brunner: What is the joy of returning to this iteration of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish?

Neddy: The theme of Fiddler on the Roof is tradition. Tradition is coming back to something, doing something over and over again because it means something to you. So each time we come back to this production—when we originally extended downtown, when we transferred uptown, when we remounted the show this time around post-pandemic—it is imbued with more meaning, because we are embodying that theme more and more each time, in the act of coming back. That is the joy of returning for me.

When we return to traditions at different points in our lives, we are doing the same thing with different life experiences and within different contexts. A close friend of mine died during the pandemic, and I have dedicated my performance this run to her. At the end of the play, the people of Anatevke are forced to leave the town and each other. Previously when I performed the scene where Khave says goodbye to her family, I didn’t have much knowledge of what it might feel like to say goodbye to someone knowing you might never see them again. Now that I do, the entire show feels different to me.

Mason: It is rare to have the opportunity to return to a show four years after beginning the process, especially in the same roles with mostly the same people, with some incredible new additions. We have all grown as humans and we all have now been through a global pandemic which I think has made a lot of us appreciate the beauty of our show even more.

I believe the stakes are even higher this time in the production with the war in the Ukraine as well as the rise of antisemitism in society coming from many different directions. This production has changed my life in countless ways, not to mention that I fell in love with my now husband doing the show. This is the sixth production of Fiddler in the Roof that I’ve been a part of, including the most recent Broadway revival. Also, the incredibly beautiful translation by Shraga Friedman adds a depth to the story and an authenticity that deepens what was already there in the original. It adds more of the Sholem Aleichem references back into the story and we are speaking the language that would have been spoken by these characters back in the shtetl in 1905.

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