Perhaps the world of the shtetl was invented twice. Once in 18th-century Eastern Europe, when it actually existed, and then again on stage in the 20th century, with the creation of the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
The shtetl has a very special place in the Jewish heart, as a place of identity and origin. Even if not all our Jewish ancestors started there, it was the incubator and embodiment of Ashkenazi Jewish culture; we would not want to live there any more but the nostalgia it evokes among Jews today all over the world is extraordinary. And Anatevka, the shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof, was its best known fictional creation.
The shtetl in reality began to decline towards the end of the 19th century due to several factors. Emigration, modernisation, revolution and industrialisation all played their part. The effects of the First World War also contributed to its decline. But the death blow — figuratively and literally — was dealt by the Nazis. It was an essential part of the Nazi plan to obliterate every vestige of the shtetl, which they did with efficiency and abundant cruelty.
Thus our appreciation of Fiddler on the Roof is complex: it was a tragic and unspeakably painful end to a remarkable way of life where, despite living in danger, with boundaries so limited and security so flimsy, shtetl life was warm and vital.
But the pull of modernity was strong, and no one knew this better than the writer Sholem Aleichem, creator of the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof. Although his writing became synonymous with shtetl life, he was not raised in one. Born Sholem Rabinovitz in the provincial town of Pereyaslav — then in Ukraine — in 1859, into a middle-class family of timber merchants, he was exposed to traditional Jewish learning and a more modern “enlightened” mode of thinking.
His beloved mother died young and he was brought up by a hated stepmother. His first venture into writing was an alphabetic glossary of her curses, the first of many inspired uses of adversity. He wanted to write in Hebrew and Russian, but inevitably turned to Yiddish for the wide readership it would give him.
While on holiday in a rural backwater, Sholem Aleichem befriended a poor dairyman called Tevye, delighting in his philosophy of part resignation and part ironic humour. In 1894, he published the first Tevye story and over the next decade wrote many more, including several focusing on the marriages of his daughters. These stories brought fame in the Yiddish-speaking world.
The stories are bitter-sweet, dark yet very funny, written in the unusual form of a monologue in Tevye’s voice addressed to his authorial creator. Thus Tevye pleads for mercy from Sholem Aleichem as Hodel bids him farewell when she leaves to follow her chosen husband, Perchik: “Goodbye, father, she cries… God alone knows when we will see each other again.”
“Well, that was too much for me. I remembered this Hodel when she was still a baby and I carried her in my arms… Forgive me Mr Sholem Aleichem for acting like an old woman… If only you knew what a daughter she is… If you could only see the letters she writes. Oh, what a daughter… And now, let’s talk about more cheerful things. Tell me, what news is there about the cholera in Odessa?”
Sholem Aleichem was convinced that Tevye would one day work as a theatrical creation and in 1919 in New York the actor Maurice Schwartz produced and starred in Tevye. In 1939, Schwartz made a Yiddish film version, constructing a mock shtetl on a farm in Long Island, filming in a great hurry and letting the audience ponder the political parallels of the Cossacks’ pogroms to the current fate of the Jews. Many of the cast and crew had family in Europe and as filming overran into the autumn of that year, they could not return after the invasion of Poland.
The earliest stage adaptations, like Fiddler on the Roof , concentrate on the stories of the eldest three daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. All five daughters feature in the original tales. Two do not make it into the stage version and we can see why: they offer very disturbing narratives. Shprintze, the fourth daughter, drowns herself when pregnant, apparently disowned by her boyfriend’s family. The youngest, Bielke, marries for money — unhappily. Her husband tries to get rid of Tevye by buying him a ticket to Palestine but poor Tevye never gets there. His son-in-law, Motl the tailor, dies and he returns to care for Tzeitel and her children.
The series of Tevye stories ends ambiguously. In the closing scene, Chava appears and cries “father!” to him; Tevye appeals to his author — what should he do, take his daughter in his arms or turn away from her again? And we are never told which choice he makes.
I first saw Fiddler on the Roof 50 years ago, on the London stage with Topol as Tevye. As the first notes of the overture began, I started to cry, and never really stopped — although I laughed a great deal, too, until the curtain closed. Why was I so affected, so deeply moved, so very involved? Did I, at age 11, understand the layers of loss, of grief for a world that had been destroyed? Did I identify with the daughters, struggling with the fate that had been laid out for them by their parents?
Maybe, but it was Tevye I fell in love with. I identified with his love of tradition, his fear of modernity and his understanding of its lure, his rage against the impossibility of halting progress, his anger against his rebellious daughters and his admiration of their independence and brains.
I delighted in his intimacy with God, his trust in Him and his frustration with Him — this seemed to me to be the very quintessence of Judaism, together with the impossibility of reconciling “on the one hand… and on the other hand.”
I loved his half-mangled Hebrew quotations, his silly all-too human vanities, and his longed-for, failed authority over his wife and daughter.
And his ability to make the best of what he had, which was simultaneously so little and so much. Sholem Aleichem had taken a simple dairyman and made him, tenderly and lovingly, into a hero.
Maureen Kendler is an adult educator in the Jewish community and a Teaching Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies. She advised the current production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Chichester Festival Theatre which is on until September 2