1964 was a difficult and busy year.
The United States still was attempting to come to terms with President John F. Kennedy’s murder the November before. Suspicions roiled. The man accused of assassinating the glamorous and brilliant young president, Lee Harvey Oswald, was murdered by Jack Ruby, a Jewish nightclub owner, two days later.
It was a time of enormous sadness and upheaval; Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a politician of great skill and charisma — although his charisma was entirely different from Kennedy’s — took the nation forward in what had been its benighted approach to civil rights through his Great Society, although his escalation of the war in Vietnam ended his attempt to run for a full term.
The Beatles made their first trip to the United States in 1964. That year, their songs were all over Billboard’s Top 100 list; in fact the top two, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” were theirs.
That year’s third top song, Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly,” reflects the fact that 1964 also yielded an extraordinary crop of musicals, including “Hello Dolly,” “Funny Girl” — and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
That first “Fiddler” starred Zero Mostel, who by most accounts incinerated the scenery, the stage, and most of the other players. The musical was immensely popular, but it seemed as if it might have been a total star vehicle. But eventually that production finished its run, and the show took its place as a frequently performed story of the universal tug between tradition and change, and of the pull of home that an insular community feels against the push of their violent, hateful, more powerful neighbors.
It became so ubiquitous that often it was dismissed as kitsch, an all-singing, all-dancing paean to the glories of the shtetl, a place that nostalgia cleaned up thoroughly.
Now, 54 years later, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is performing “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish. The show has a somewhat back-and-forth relationship with the language. It was based on stories by the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, but it was written in English. (Its book is by Joseph Stein, its music by Jerry Bock, its lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and the legendary first stage production was by Jerome Robbins.) But Shraga Friedman, a Polish Jew who escaped the Shoah by fleeing to Israel, translated it into Yiddish. His “Fidler Afn Dakh” first played in Israel in 1965; it first played in New York in 2018.
Non-Yiddish-speakers shouldn’t worry, though. Translations into both English and Russian show up on both sides of the stage.
Even brilliant pieces of art are not timeless, because audiences see them (or readers read them or listeners hear them) through the filters of their own experiences. Each “Fiddler,” like every production of any classic show, is a product of its time, and gives its audiences what it most needs to make sense of the world.
This “Fidler Afn Dakh,” directed by the iconic American actor Joel Grey — the same Joel Grey who created the character of the emcee in the film “Cabaret” in 1972, the very same Joel Grey who is the son of the even more iconic Yiddish performer Mickey Katz.
This “Fiddler” (or “Fidler”) includes scenes of great joy. It has beautiful singing and spectacular dancing. But now, 54 years later, it is another time of great turmoil, another time when many people — although this time around people who are not us — are considering what home means, and what leaving home demands.
This “Fidler” is a tragedy; there is a death in it, although it is not the death of a person. It is the death of a place. Anatevka is alive when we first are introduced to it. At the end, it is dead. We see the tragedy. We also see hope, as people go on to new lives, as they make plans and think ahead and suddenly the world opens up for them just as it also is closing behind them.
Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck is the Folksbiene’s artistic director. He’s the production’s music director and conductor — you can see him, at the back of the stage, his back to the audience, conducting the orchestra throughout the production. He was also the guiding force behind this production, practically willing it to life.
“I don’t know that this production is darker than most ‘Fiddlers,’ but I feel like it’s deeper,” Mr. Mlotek said. “I feel that it is deeper because of the Yiddish.
“And I know that Joel’s concept in doing it here was that he was not looking to do another Broadway version of this piece. It’s been done so many times on Broadway, with big casts, big sets, a big orchestra. He looked at the space here” — it’s a relatively small stage in a relatively small theater, which gives productions an accurate feeling of intimacy — “and he said we have the opportunity to tell a story, and to find the best actors, who can relate that story in the most honest ways, without fancy sets and big theatrical extras that would divert our attention from the essence of the powerful stories that are being told.
“And I’m not saying this just as a Yiddish speaker,” he added. (Mr. Mlotek is the Yiddish-speaking son of famous Yiddishists, Joseph and Chana Mlotek.) “I am relaying what non-Yiddish-speakers have said about hearing the text conveyed in this way, and with the translation and adaptation by Shraga Friedman.
“You know that this is the language that these characters would have spoken. And of course it is peppered with phrases from liturgical and biblical sources.” Those phrases are clear to non-Yiddish-speaking shul-goers, who can pick them out easily.
This production is arguably more Jewish than most, although the universality is unmistakable as well. “The original authors, who were the sons of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, were looking to build a universal piece,” Mr. Mlotek said. “The themes are universal — being kicked out of home, marrying out of the faith, commitment to tradition — but with the Yiddish, you get a wonderful authentic view of it. Sholem Aleichem created that, and Stein and Bock and Harnick enhanced its universal power.
“Every time I conduct it, I feel humbled by the experience,” he said.
“Fidler’s” specificity is signaled when the audience first walks into the auditorium. There is no curtain, and the word “Torah,” in Yiddish (and in Hebrew, because it’s the same letters spelling out the same word) hangs on a browned cloth toward the back of the stage. Shraga Friedman had used the word ‘Toyrah,’ as it is pronounced in Yiddish, to stand in for tradition — Torah is a translation of tradition, and if you put a definite article in front of it, it scans. “That very much inspired Joel and the scenic people to use it as the basis of the design,” Mr. Mlotek said. But he invited Sheldon Harnick to see the first rehearsal — and he hated it. “He called me and said, ‘Zalmen, isn’t there another word for tradition? We didn’t write the song about the Torah. It’s not about the Torah. It is about tradition.”
The two men discussed the many meanings of the words Torah and tradition, but Mr. Harnick was unswayed. “He said, ‘maybe that’s all true, but that’s not what I wrote,’” Mr. Mlotek reported. “So as much as I loved the Shraga Friedman translation, I had to listen. I wasn’t legally obligated, but I was morally obligated, out of respect for this genius of the American musical theater. So I changed it.” (Although Mr. Mlotek used a different word for “tradition” — traditzia — he kept the word hanging at center stage.”
“And then Harnick came to the opening, and he loved it,” Mr. Mlotek said.
Joel Grey said that the earlier productions of “Fiddler,” like his, always had tragedy within it, but “it always was so entertaining that it let the audience off the hook a bit. But not this time.
“I didn’t have any choice,” he added. “I needed to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, and that was that.”
He agrees with Mr. Mlotek that much of the added power comes from the Yiddish — which despite his parentage he does not speak. “I think it’s the Yiddish that makes it so basic and visceral,” he said. “The issues of family, of children, of losing your home, of being an immigrant, of always being a little bit ahead of the enemy — those are the realities.”
Maybe because the stage is smaller, maybe because of the Yiddish, maybe because of the need to tell the story accurately, this production is more frightening. Toward the beginning, when the Russians who are at the bar with Jews, drinking with them, then take over the room with an angular, threatening, spectacular dance, the feeling of terror is palpable. That dance showed the danger of thinking you can domesticate a lion; it brought to mind the jaguar that escaped its enclosure in a New Orleans zoo last weekend, killing six other caged animals. “That feeling was in the original choreography,” Mr. Grey said. But it might have seemed even more dangerous in this one.
What else makes his production different? “We made a commitment to storytelling and simplicity and insinuation rather than dogma,” Mr. Grey said. “That kept us focused as creative people — my production team, the design team — we all talked about it, and came to the decision that this was how we wanted to tell the story.”
And he and everyone else involved in this ‘Fidler’ was well aware of the echoes of its tragedies in the world raging just outside, echoes that became only louder as the rehearsal period drew on. “We were about to do a theater piece, and the world is dealing with its own theater piece,” Joel Grey said.
What: “Fidler Afn Dakh”
Where: At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place
When: Until September 2
How to learn more: Go to nytf.org
And also: On Wednesday nights, discussions with guest experts will precede the performance.