(RNS) — Ask any rabbi and they will tell you that inadvertently omitting someone from a list of people who have died is a bad faux pas.
That is what happened in the “in memoriam section” of the Academy Awards. They forgot to include the Israeli actor Chaim Topolwho passed away last week at the age of 87 and who was best known for playing Tevye in the film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof,” for which he received Academy Award nominations.
(Topol was not alone in the list of those who did not walk the red carpet postmortem. Pablo Sorvino was also omitted, much to the anger of his daughter, actress Mira Sorvino, as was Anne Heche).
There’s no question about it: “Fiddler” is perhaps the most famous piece of American Jewish culture. The show is so popular that since the day it opened on September 22, 1964, it has been performed every day, somewhere in the world.
I’ve been playing “Fiddler” in my mind. I’ve also been thinking about something peculiar: the changes that were made to the show during production.
Those changes reflect how American Jews struggled with and adapted their Judaism.
Walk with me through various musical numbers that were left out of the final show, or changed slightly, and you’ll see what I mean.
The opening number you never heard: “We’ve never missed a Saturday yet.”
The opening song was to have been about preparing for Shabbat: “Who can relax when there’s so much to do / With one eye on the soup and the other on the sun?”
But, in 1964, American Jews still did not feel comfortable talking about “Shabbat” or “Shabbat”; it was “Saturday”. American Judaism was about assimilation. Let’s not highlight our differences.
Instead, let’s just sing about “tradition” and the challenges and changes to those traditions.
As lyricist Sheldon Harnick explained:
What is this show about? It’s about this change in the way of life, of a village, in these Eastern European communities, these small towns, these shtetls, and (director Jerome) Robbins got very excited about that. He said if that’s the case, then you have to write a number on the traditions, because we’re going to see those traditions change. Every scene or any other scene will be about whether a tradition changes or whether a tradition stays the same. …
That’s what happened. The new opening number became “Tradition”. It’s a great song, with Eastern European Jewish scales. It is probably the most universal song in the entire Broadway music canon, with numerous versions.
But, when it comes to a specific religious tradition, American Jews, and American Judaism, and perhaps even the world, were robbed.
We could have had a song about Shabbat observance. We got one, of course: the beautiful and haunting “Saturday Prayer,” which we sang at the Jewish summer camp and is still, in my opinion, the most beautiful song on the show.
But we could have had a song about what really makes Shabbat different and therefore sacred, a word many American Jews were reluctant to use back then, and still slur their tongues about.
They changed the lyrics of “if i were a rich man” (here it is Topoliconic version of).
Tevye’s soliloquy about his fantasies of wealth originates from the original version by Sholem Aleichem, in Yiddish: Come ikh bin Rothschild.
Tevye fancies himself the quintessential rich Jew. Rothschilds.
If I were a Rothschild, guess what I would do. First of all, I would pass a law that a wife should always have a three-ruble piece on her so that she doesn’t have to start nagging me when Maundy Thursday rolls around and there’s nothing in the house for Saturday. Second, I’d pawn my Sabbath trench coat or, better yet, my wife’s squirrel-skin coat. Let her stop complaining that she’s cold. Then he would buy the whole house, from the foundation to the chimney, the three rooms, with the bedroom and the pantry, the basement and the attic. …
In the Broadway and film version of “If I Were a Rich Man,” the benefits of Tevye’s wealth are clear. She builds a huge mansion, with a third staircase “just for show”. He lavishes his wife, Golde, with luxuries. He envisions a great seat in the synagogue. He “wouldn’t have to work hard”; he would have time to study the holy books. In a sardonic moment, he imagines that when he was rich, people would come to him for advice: “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”
In other words, Tevye’s wealth (with certain exceptions, namely piety) made him an upper-middle-class American Jew.
But, it didn’t have to be that way. A few years ago, I heard a recording of an early Yiddish version of what would become “If I Were A Rich Man.” In that version, Tevye imagined that when he got rich, he could give charity to the poor.
What happened to that version? Why did it end up on the cutting room floor like Shabbat in the song that could have been the opening number?
The fate of the final song: “When Messiah Comes.”
Another song that most people have never heard, and it’s a fascinating story:
Here is the songas sang by Herschel Bernardi:
When the Messiah comes he will tell us:
“I apologize for taking so long.”
“But it took me a while to find you, a few here, a few there…
You were hard to put back together
But everything will be fine.”
Up there in the sky how I wrung my hands
when you were banished from the promised land.
You went to Babylon as shipwrecked,
On the first of many, many days of movement
What a day …. and what a blow!
How terrible I felt, you will never know.
From that day on, many men told us: “get out”,
Kings they were, they left,
We are still here. …
When the Messiah comes and begins his reign
Truth and justice will then appear on Earth.
But if we were worthy of this reward
We must keep our covenant with God above.
So be patient and devoted, and
Pick up your things and get out!
this song was cut of the show before it made its Broadway debut. It was considered to be too long, too slow, and perhaps too tongue-in-cheek. When the people of Anatevka are experiencing a tragedy, she dares to imagine a world in which the Messiah comes.
Years ago, I heard that the song just didn’t have a good preview among Jews.
Because? It was that whole assimilation thing again. In the 1960s, American Jews were not yet comfortable talking about Shabbat (as in the “missing” opening number); tzedakah (as in the changes in “If I were a rich man”) – and now, the Messiah, and/or on messianic hopes and dreams of redemption. At the time, most Jews would have thought that the idea of ”Messiah” was exclusively Christian.
So instead of a song in a major key about the hope of restoration, a song that echoed God’s call to Abraham, “Go away…”, we have a song in a minor key that reinforced the sad narratives. from Jewish history, about being refugees – “Anatevka”.
All these things go through my mind when I remember Topol, and when I think of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But one last thing that haunts and inspires me: a fact about “Fiddler” that most people don’t know.
Jerome Robbins he made sure that every character on the show—every villager, every Russian, everyone—had a name.
I’ve been thinking about that, and about the tortured and complicated legacy of Jerome Robbins: a conflicted Jew, a conflicted gay man, a man who gave names during the McCarthy hearings, earning him the enduring scorn of the first Tevye, mostel zero.
Robbins’ insistence that every character would have a name, no matter how small their part and how seemingly irrelevant their role, testifies to his belief in the dignity of all people.
It was a dignity often in short supply in the shtetl, when Jews faced their enemies.
Today we need a little more of that dignity.