FIDDLER would run nearly a year longer to become Broadway’s longest-running production period, beating out LIFE WITH FATHER.
Now 2,845 just allows FIDDLER to be in seventeenth place. Still, that doesn’t diminish what it has accomplished or its classic status.
The anniversary prompted me to check out TEVYA, the 1939 Yiddish-language film that was based on the play TEVYA DER MILKHIKER, by Sholem (or Sholom, depending on your source) Aleichem. The famed Russian writer adapted it from his short story KHAVA. It was filmed not in any Anatevka-like locale, but in Jericho, New York, about sixty-five minutes from Broadway.
This year, TEVYA is celebrating a significant anniversary as well: The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry added TEVYA to its August ranks thirty years ago. And just as FIDDLER achieved a few firsts, so did TEVYA: the first foreign-language film selected for preservation because of its “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” contents.
And it’s culturally, historically and aesthetically significant in showing where it and FIDDLER both dovetail and differ.
Playing Tevya is Yiddish Art Theatre founder Maurice Schwartz (rather resembling Ron Moody in OLIVER!). Here Tevya has not five but two daughters. Tseytl is already a widow raising a son and daughter, and Khave is still single and living at home. Much like the musical, Tevya is all in favor of the girls’ learning to read.
Goldie is seen as a shrew, causing Tevya to snap “Ah, women! No wonder Solomon hated you so much!” He’s nicer to the priest and even respects the man’s Christian beliefs. It’s the type of relationship that he has in FIDDLER with The Constable (and won’t have, as we’ll see, in this film).
The priest tells Tevya that his neighbor’s daughter has married a Gentile. Tevya says if one of his daughters did that, he’d rather see her die. That statement makes Khave faint.
So we’re not surprised when Khave’s Gentile beau Fedye visits, ostensibly to give her a book by Gorky. That he picked an author who was a revolutionary wasn’t irrelevant; Fedye wants to marry Khave, and, when sensing her reluctance, asks if she cares for her father more than she cares for him. Before she can give much of an answer, both of them see Tevya approaching in the distance. Fedye scurries off, but Tevya recognizes him even from the back.
Khave explains that he was only there to give her the book, and while Tevya concedes that “books are important,” he starts railing against Fedye’s father Mikita and his father before him, naming one a slacker and the other a drunkard. He hopes that these revelations might discourage Khave from having even a friendship with Fedye. When she begins to state her point of view, Tevya blatantly demands “Would you do something that would drive your parents to the grave?”
Khave can only answer “No.”
And Tevya believes it because he wants to.
But the next scene shows Khave preparing to marry. Tevya and Goldie hear of it and come to the church in hopes of stopping her. The priest won’t let them inside. Tevya and Goldie respectively appeal to Fedye’s parents, but are rebuffed and called “pests” to boot.
Schwartz directed as well and gets plenty of tension from this scene. Will Khave or won’t she? That the lass is suddenly surrounded by many well-wishing and enthusiastic Gentile young women influences her decision to marry.
Goldie mourns “the pain and the disgrace.” Tevya takes solace in Havdalah, the ceremony that ushers in the new week. It’s the film’s version of “Sabbath Prayer,” but it has far more power in the film because disaster has already struck; the musical has only hinted that Tevye will soon be unhappy with his daughter’s choice of husband. Here, throughout the service, Goldie and Tseytl weep and pray as Tevya goes to the window and hopes that he’ll see Khave come running home. But with her nowhere in sight, he announces “Khave is no more! She is dead! She shall neither be remembered or mentioned!” He tells the women “You can cry now.” But there are hints of tears in his eyes, too.
Mikita is equally angered at his son’s choice. He tries to convince the villagers that Tevya and his family should be expelled. But even the other Christians in the group defend Tevya to the point where one of them gets into a genuine roll-around-in-the-dirt fight with Mikita.
Some time later Khave hears from townspeople that Goldie is very ill. “She was always a healthy woman,” Khave tells Fedye. “I am the cause of her death.”
She wants to see her mother one last time, but knows that her father would never allow that. The best she can do is peek through the window, and, on a night where she must endure heavy rain, she witnesses her mother’s death.
Soon after, Khava looks through her kitchen window and sees Tevya driving his horse and wagon. She runs out and rushes towards him. “Tateh! Tateh!” she screams many times over.
But he will not stop.
We next see Tevya teaching his grandson to read. Although his granddaughter wants to learn too, he sharply tells her “The psalms are for men!” Perhaps he’s remembering that he allowed Khave to read, and look where that led.
Mikita apparently had some sway over the authorities, for suddenly The Constable arrives and tells Tevya he must leave town. Unlike the musical, no other Jew is evicted. Tevya is given only twenty-four hours to vacate, unlike the three days he gets in FIDDLER.
The Constable is unstintingly severe, unlike the nice man in the musical. Tevya sarcastically agrees “to remove our sinful feet from this sacred village.” Then comes a bit of comic relief when he must sign the evacuation agreement and doesn’t know how to fill the pen with ink. The Constable’s assistant does it and inadvertently squirts ink all over The Constable’s shirt.
Tevya tries to be brave and tells Tseytl and his grandchildren “No crying! You’d think it was Yom Kippur.” Outside, that priest says “Teyva could have gone a long way if he had joined our faith.”
Tevye considers Argentina as his new home but decides on the Holy Land. Although he mentions America as a possibility, he never seriously considers it. While packing his books, he says “These are the riches we will be taking to the Holy Land.” That said, when he opens the collected books of Moses, so much dust emerges that he chokes on it.
In FIDDLER, Chava and Fyedka come to see Tevya and the family before they leave to say that they too are moving for “we cannot stay among people who can do such things to others.” The best they can get out of Tevye is “God be with you” while he won’t even look at them.
That’s quite different from the film made twenty-five years and a generation earlier. Here Khave leaves Fedye. “No one will make me leave my father’s house again!” she cries. “I must be among my own people! We’re worlds apart!” she adds before imploring “Fedye, forgive me.”
We get the impression that he will, despite his devastation.
Khave returns. The grandchildren are delighted to see “Aunt Khava” again and Tseytl tries hard to make her father reunite with her. He tells Tseytl’s children “Your mother’s words make me sick” before making the metaphor that “The twig that is torn from the tree must wither away.”
Although Khave never specifically says that she’s left Fedye, she does insist that “The priest’s words did not touch my soul. I was wrong. Your faith is deeper and greater. I can no longer live without it.” And the two reconcile.
This was the conclusion that the Yiddish-speaking audience of 1939 wanted the film to reach, for these immigrant filmgoers were far more bound in – yes – tradition.
By 1964, the next generation of English-speaking post-war assimilated Jews would feel that a wife has a greater love and responsibility to her husband. So their response mirrored FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’s main thrust: the breaking of traditions.
More traditions would fall in our country, too, through protests and demonstrations during the show’s eight-year-run and beyond. It’s one reason why FIDDLER ON THE ROOF still speaks to audiences more than TEVYA could.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.