by James Monroe Stevko
In an unassuming space in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, it’s impossible not to see how easily the audience is moved by our production of Fiddler on the Roof. Tissues fly as full houses blot their eyes and blow their noses, even at something as simple as out Ben Liebert’s “Miracle of Miracles,” or in Yiddish - “Nisimlekh, venifleoys.”
Our Jewish audience, the most predictable of fans, all claiming to not even require the English supertitles to follow along to a story they know so well. My biggest concern from the beginning wasn’t the idea of appealing Jews, but to goys like me, non-Jewish folk who aren’t familiar with the story and also have never heard Yiddish! Having performed in many an opera, reading along to a translation was often the first bone of contention, often the first bone of contention when trying to lure family and friends into an opera house. Once I started getting requests to see this show though, I was overjoyed to hear immediately afterwards that “the Yiddish wasn’t an issue.” All quickly and happily acclimated to the foreign land of Anatevka, and adding that this is one of the best productions, on or off-Broadway, they’ve seen.
The original writers of the show avoided Yiddish, at the cost of appearing ‘too ethnic’ and never getting off the ground. What they thought would run for a year or 2 ended up running for 7 and has been revived 5 times. But the depth that this now Yiddish translation adds is visceral. A complete 180 turn from appearing ‘too ethnic’ to being COMPLETELY ethnic, as the audience feels they are flies on Tevye’s milk cart, watching the real village, or shtetl, conversing in their mother tongue.
Our original Mordkha, Michael Yashinsky, goes on to add that, “Friedman (the translator) brings the musical back home, in a way: back to the stories of Sholem Aleichem, which he mines for their specific wordplays and store of linguistic riches; back to the Yiddish language, the mame-loshn of the characters themselves; and to the traditional Judaism of Tevye and his family, a religious specificity left out of the original musical in favor of universal comprehensibility and appeal, but restored in Friedman's text.”
Regardless of an alleged ‘eyes on Broadway’ run, the effect of the show on the world is palpable. Besides an outpouring of letters to the theater from over the world, I can’t leave the city without talking about our intimate Yiddish play, and I couldn’t be happier. The cast and crew really have formed our misphoke, or family, and the heart we’ve poured into the show is what shines through. Put up a three-hour musical in an obscure foreign language and you can’t help but grow closer and laugh about your trials you’ve been through.