This Michigan-born-and-raised Catholic girl doesn’t know many Yiddish words, but one immediately came to mind while watching the beautiful new Yiddish-language Fiddler on the Roof: bashert. This production was—and I hope I’m using the word correctly—meant to be.
After all, it was Yiddish author Sholem Alecheim whose stories—about Tevye the dairyman and his five headstrong daughters—served as Fiddler’s source material. Seeing the iconic 1964 Joseph Stein–Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick musical performed in the characters’ original language simply feels right. Actor-writer Shraga Friedman knew that; his Yiddish translation of Fiddler was staged in Israel in 1966. More than a half century later, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) and Tony- and Oscar-winning actor-turned-director Joel Grey brought Fidler afn Dakh to New York, where, after a hit run at NYTF’s downtown home of Museum of Jewish Heritage it just moved to Stage 42 on Theatre Row (formerly known as the Little Shubert).
Even if the extent of your Yiddish is “Oy vey!”—and if it is, don’t miss the OY VEY pin at the souvenir stand—you won’t have any issues understanding, and connecting with, this Fiddler. English and Russian supertitles are projected onto both sides of the stage, on yellowed parchment-like panels that frame the set. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself ignoring the translation as you get swept up in the story of the hardworking Tevye (Steven Skybell), his no-nonsense wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak), and his too-modern-for-his-taste marriageable daughters: Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), the eldest, who has arranged her own match to her childhood friend Motl Kamzoyl (Ben Liebert), a poor tailor; Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason), who scandalizes the entire town by dancing with Pertshik (understudy Michael Einav at my performance)—a man, and a socialist man at that; and Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy), who falls in love with the non-Jewish Fyedke (Cameron Johnson) and breaks her father’s abundant heart.
Some things hardly need translation, such as the boisterous “Lekhayim” (”To Life”), the whiskey-fueled, dance-filled celebration of Tsaytl’s engagement to Layzer-Volf (Bruce Sabath) the butcher. Or the delicate duet between Golde and Tevye, “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” (”Do You Love Me?”), rendered with such tenderness by Babiak and Skybell—surely one of the best Tevyes to ever tug a milk cart.
And no matter what language you speak, you’ll recognize the pogrom that interrupts Tsaytl and Motl’s wedding, which is punctuated by a lengthy series of ominous offstage cries and clatter, culminating in perhaps the ultimate act of disrespect: defacing the Torah. (There were audible gasps in the house.) Surely I wasn’t the only one who at that moment—or, toward the end, when the villagers are ordered at gunpoint to leave their beloved hometown, “underfed, overworked Anatevke…intimate obstinate Anatevke”—thought about last fall’s fatal shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Fiddler has never felt old or dated, but now, unfortunately, it feels especially timely.
Fiddler on the Roof opened Feb. 21, 2019, at Stage 42 and runs through June 30. Tickets and information: fiddlernyc.com