Yesterday was a great day, but filled with mixed emotions, which is what happens in my family when we spontaneously make plans in the morning and have enough perseverance to actually follow them. My son wanted to see a Broadway show, so we ended up seeing Fiddler on the Roof, after scoring tickets in the TKTS booth on Times Square. This was my second time seeing this show, since my daughter wanted to go in February, and at that time my son was not so inclined. The show was great. Broadway shows and plays always are. At least the ones I’ve seen so far. However, this one takes a special place in my heart.
You see, I was born in the city where Sholem Aleichem lived for a long time. When I read his books (not in Yiddish, alas!), I could relate to every single place he mentioned, every small village, every city. Not all the villages in his books really existed, of course, but if you know one, you know them all. His books are about the vanished world of little downtrodden Jews, their small businesses and great dreams. In the pre-revolutionary Russia Jews couldn’t live in certain places. They were scattered behind Pale of Settlement in shtetls (little villages), and could move no further into the country. Even within the Pale they were prohibited from living in certain cities. My husband’s family is hailing from one of those shtetls, my family is from another. So Anatevka is not a mythical place for me. But it’s not home either, because when I was born this world almost ceased to exist already.
All Sholem Aleichem’s books have a peculiar delicate quality to them. They are filled with such self-deprecating humor, tender love and appreciation of little fragile things that make people happy, that by the time I make it to the end of the book, I am crying like a fool. I always felt that a disproportionate number of his novels deal with unhappy life of truly talented people. It’s always unfair when a great artist is not appreciated by his peers and it’s downright tragic when a great talent is exploited by the selected few for selfish or pecuniary reasons. This unsettling theme is present in Yosele Solovey, Stempenu and Wondering Stars, and I think I see a whiff of it in Tevye the Milkman (on which Fiddler on the Roof is based) as well.
The show follows most of the book pretty close, bar the ending, which is so dismal, that would definitely turn joyous musical into a tearjerker. My husband and yours truly ended up crying anyway. As we were letting the human current take us to our car, I was thinking about why exactly did we cry. Maybe it was because of the heartbreaking departure from Anatevka. Or did we spill our tears for poor Hodl and Perchik, who were believing in revolution with such a passion, and probably died in Gulag for their troubles in its aftermath? Or maybe they were for Hava and Fed’ka, the star crossed lovers, rejected by the family and pushed into the same bloodbath of revolution because of this rejection? Were we crying because we knew what would befall these people one more time in 20 years? The little people, forced from their tiny houses in that inhospitable corner of the world, and sent adrift like goose feathers from the despoiled pillows, would ultimately be building their new lives in America, Israel, Germany or Poland. And nowhere they would be safe.
My favorite moment of that show was at the very end, when Lazer-Wolf the butcher seemingly forgave Tevye for the sticky situation with Tseitl and surreptitiously hid some money among brick-a-bracks in the wagon that contained the life of the family of five. I don’t think this moment is in the book, but it fits the message of both the book and the show: no matter what our differences are, we are in it together, and we will help each other with whatever little we’ve got, because no one else will.
I guess we were crying because of ultimate goodness of human nature…