Omid Djalili: Ready for Tevye

He's played so many Jewish roles that some think Omid Djalili is one of us.


Omid Djalili would like everyone to know that he has no plans to convert to Judaism– but he can understand the confusion. Omid’s theatrical shift towards yiddishkeit began when he played the Muslim who turns out to be Jewish in David Baddiel’s The Infidel. No sooner had the kippah slipped off his head, he was wearing Fagin’s ragged frock coat in Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver!.

His recent stand-up tour called, Schmuck For A Night only fuelled the rumours and now the Iranian Baha’i comedian is taking the biggest leap into our faith by playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

“You don’t have to tell me, I know that it is an iconic role. A huge role,” said  Djalili who would be on shpilkes if he knew what they were. “As a person I’m a bit of a dichotomy because sometimes I have too much confidence and think ‘of course I can do that’, but I also have an acute lack of awareness. So this mixture of over-confidence and lack of intelligence is outrageous.”

Fittingly he was  ‘chosen’  to play Tevye – “you can’t audition for leading roles like this at Chichester,”– and the Fiddler on the Roof estate are always presented with names of suitable contenders in any revival.

“I was told that I was their preferred choice, but they may have just been boosting my ego,” he suggests, though the struts, shrugs and raised eyebrows delivered during rehearsal indicate he has the measure of the milkman from Anatevka.  He is also crazy about Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical.

“I have seen so many lousy musicals, but this one I seriously love.  l hate it when they drop a song into a show for no reason, but every song in Fiddler moves the story on brilliantly and is there for a reason.”

Almost on cue the actresses playing Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava burst into a harmonious rendition of Matchmaker in the studio.

“Listen to that,” says Djalili dreamily. By his own admission the comedian is not a brilliant singer. “But Tevye doesn’t have to be. Although my performance will be nothing like Topol’s I have studied it and I was told he was taught English phonetically for the role. That’s why he has such pronounced vowels in If I Were A Rich Man – ‘And one more leading nowhere just for sHOw.’... but I’m not going to have his deep voice and presence.”

The festival’s artistic director Daniel Evans would disagree as this self-effacing stand-up is a sell-out wherever he performs. Just don’t expect his  legendary disco dancing Iranian character to deliver the ‘Daidle daidle deedle daidle dumb’ moves in Rich Man .

“ I assumed my Middle Eastern dancing was right for the job, but I was wrong. We dance with arms bent in the middle, Jews dance with their arms straight. I have learnt so much from this crack team.”

Tracy Ann Oberman who is playing Tevye’s wife Golde has also taught him a lot about Jewish customs and attitudes and she wandered over to share her joy at being cast in the definitive Jewish musical. “It gets you right there, “ she said with her hand on her heart. “It’s the story of our people, though my family thought they had arrived in New York when they were actually sailing into Liverpool.”

“Ask me more questions about the show,” said Omid who could talk about Fiddler all day. “It’s interesting because Tracy keeps reminding me what this show means to Jews, but I think it belongs to everyone. There are at least five touring productions of it in Japan because it resonates with the Japanese. I watched the film with my own family and they felt it was the story of the Baha’is leaving Iran. The message about togetherness and communities coming together is universal and very relevant at this time.”

Fiddler on the Roof has been extended to September and though he wanted a holiday, he is ready for the run. “It is the King Lear of musicals and the whole of north London is coming to see it, though the booking office is struggling a bit with the Muslim and Jewish names. ‘So is that Abdul Kahani Mahmood with two o’s’.”

As he heads off for a bit of Tradition in the studio Djalili  brushes biscuit crumbs from his tee shirt. “Look at me covered in schmutz. I just attract schmutz,” he moans. Sounds like a man ready to be Jewish – even if it’s only on stage.

Fiddler on the Roof is at the Chichester Festival Theatre from July 10

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive