I went to New York City for the day on Saturday. There was an extended family with two little girls also on the train. They were going to see Mary Poppins, the musical This made me think about the ways in which P.L. Travers original book has been transformed; first into a Disney movie, which I loved as a child, and now a Broadway musical. The book was not about the sanctity of the nuclear family and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s life. The movie was about this and I imagine the musical had developed this theme even further. I feel this is the Disneyfication of Mary Poppins.
When we were in Israel, I had the opportunity to see Fiddler on the Roof, performed in Hebrew at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. Earlier in the day, Noam Semel, the creative director of the theater had given us a tour and then nicely got us complimentary seats. It was a unique experience. We had spent several days talking about Israel and the goals of Zionists in founding the country. The early settlers of Israel wanted to create a new Jewish identity that had nothing to do with the life they had led in Eastern Europe. For example, they chose to revive Hebrew rather than have Yiddish, the language of Eastern Europe, as the national language.
Sholem Aleichem’s, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories is the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. He wrote the stories in Yiddish. In the early 1960’s, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein, created a Broadway musical out of Aleichem’s stories about Tevye. Later it became a film. Similar to Disney’s treatment of Mary Poppins, the creators of Fiddler on the Roof sanitized and modernized Aleichem’s original material. In the book, when the daughter Chava, marries a Christian boy from the village she is lost to her family. They cannot even see her and mourn for her as if she is dead. The play and the movie both minimized this trauma, making it more about Tevye’s inability to be that flexible rather than a complete tearing of the family’s fabric.
The Israeli production of Fiddler is a big hit and the audience genuinely seemed to enjoy the nostalgic look back at early twentieth century shtetl life. However, most of the viewers and their ancestors did not have that past and the founding of Israel was a conscious repudiation of that narrative. The play was a Hebrew translation of an English language interpretation of a Yiddish book.
I now think it would be great to see Fiddler in different languages – Russian, Japanese, Chinese, maybe even Arabic. Largely I think the material and Tevye have become everyman, international style. The family values and the ongoing daily struggle of his life have universal appeal and speak to memories, real or imagined, for various national groups.