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A Russian-Jewish immigrant sees her grandfather in Tevye's eyes
The current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof opens with star Danny Burstein in modern dress, standing beneath an old Anatevka train station sign in Russian. He takes out a book and reads the opening lines of the show aloud, as if from a diary, before shedding his contemporary clothes and assuming the role of turn-of-the-20th-century dairyman, Tevye. At the end of the show, as the characters head off to various destinations after having been evicted from their village, Burstein exits and quickly returns wearing his original present-day outfit, picks up the handles of the cart he was previously dragging as Tevye, and moves on with the community. For me, the meaning was clear: the past is something we always bring with us.
Passover is next month and one of the holiday's edicts is to read the story of the Jewish exodus so all participants feel as if they had "personally come out of Egypt." That's what Fiddler director Bartlett Sher's powerful framing device made me think of.
It's actually a snap for me to put myself in Tevye and Co.'s shoes because, in 1977, my parents and I emigrated from Odessa (then part of the USSR but now located in Ukraine) to the US. We weren't forced out by Czarist pogroms, but by state-sanctioned, Soviet anti-Semitism, the kind that limited where Jews could live, what holidays we could celebrate, which schools we could attend, and what jobs we could hold. Tevye and the rest would have experienced it, too, had they stuck around. Which is why -- despite the trauma of being driven from their homes at a moment's notice -- their forced relocation to America probably works out for the best… for most of them anyway. Motel has the skills (and a sewing machine!) to find work in the US and, with a woman like Tzeitel by his side (ready to give her man little nudges, whether he thinks he needs them or not), he could end up owning his own clothing store -- maybe even a factory. Their children would grow up as assimilated Americans, as would Tevye's two younger daughters. (Yes, I realize they have an unhappy ending in the Sholom Aleichem's stories the musical is based on, but I'm pretending they enjoy a different outcome post-show.) They'd certainly lead easier lives than their other sisters, Hodel, who's stuck in Siberia with her dissident husband, Perchik, and Chava, whose interfaith marriage to Fyedka won't save her when the Nazis eventually invade her new home in Poland.
But what of Tevye? Surely, Anatevka's most resourceful man -- who all the townsfolk turned to for help with the Russians, who could drink and speak (almost) freely with the constable, who figured out how to break his daughter's engagement to Lazar the butcher without getting his throat slit -- would do well in America! And yet, chances are, that's not the case.
Stateside, Tevye's skills as a dairyman would be useless. (Where would he keep a cow on the Lower East Side?) His lack of English would prevent him from landing even a menial job. His family won't be of much help as they'll all be too busy attempting to establish their own lives. Nobody will come to him for advice. He's the greenhorn now.
How do I know all this? Because I saw it happen -- not during the early 20th-century Russian-Jewish immigration wave depicted in Fiddler, but the one that occurred in the 1970s and '80s (after families like mine were traded to America for wheat). Men like my grandfather (and it was primarily men -- women always seemed to adjust better regardless of the hardship), too old to start over but too young to curl up and die, men who had been engineers, doctors, principals, figures of authority in the old country, were reduced to begging their grandchildren to translate what the man on the American television was saying. Instead of being the family breadwinner, they now needed to be escorted to the store so they wouldn't mistake a can of dog food for tinned meat. These immigrants like my grandfather -- and Tevye 70 years before him -- ended up being treated as irrelevant at best, a nuisance at worst.
I admit, as a child, I never gave much thought to who my grandfather had been back in the USSR, or what prompted him and the rest of my family to uproot their lives to come to the US. That would have meant confronting the fact that they had done it for me. Many of the older people who moved to America then (and, presumably, in any era) didn't do it because they wanted to. They did it because their children, now parents themselves, were determined to create a better future for the whole family. With the younger generation setting out for America, the older one had to follow -- no matter what it cost them.
Assuming the modern man at the opening and closing of this Fiddler is supposed to be Tevye's great-great-grandson, I wonder if he fully appreciates what it meant for his ancestors to head out into the unknown with no guarantee of what they'd encounter? It obviously worked out well for this guy -- he's got the money to do a sentimental tour of Eastern European shtetls! But is he merely romanticizing the past, or is he seeing the sacrifice it involved?
Usually, at the end of Fiddler, the audience cries because of what has already happened. Because of the way this production is staged, my tears were triggered by what I feared would happen next.
In addition to being an avid theatregoer, Alina Adams is a New York Times best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure-skating mysteries.
Top image: Danny Burstein in Fiddler on the Roof, photo by Joan Marcus