Friday, November 29, 2013

Stuff they left out of Fiddler on the Roof

More from my "Jewish Post" articles....

“Fiddler on the Roof” was on TV a couple of weeks ago. I suppose the last time I watched Fiddler all the way through was probably in 1975 when my sister played Hodel in the Gordon Bell High School musical production, and I was honestly surprised (!) at how good the Norman Jewison version was by comparison. Yes, Topol was actually a better Tevye than Gordon Bell’s Paul Bachin, whom I found so convincing at the time when he growled, “would it have been so terrible if I had been born with a SMALL FORTUNE?” 

Topol was great! As a died-in-the-wool Yiddishist, I thought I would be put off by the Israeli accent, but he totally made it work. Zero Mostel? Forgive me, but after Topol, I can’t even look at Mostel without seeing Bert Lahr in his place as the Cowardly Lion, standing up to the Russian Mob and mincing away: “Put em’ up, I dares ya! Put em up!”

More significantly, I thought I would be offended by Hollywood’s sanitized version of shtetl life, but instead I found a great deal of historical truth in the overall portrayal. I can quibble with the facts and details, but allowing for a reasonable amount of poetic license, almost nowhere did I find myself saying: “now that couldn’t have happened!” Quite the contrary.

And yet, through no fault of Hollywood, Fiddler leaves out one huge aspect of Jewish life that we ought to know something about. The problem is that Sholem Aleichem created a fictional character called Tevye the Milkman (Tuvia der Milchiger) who was “blessed” with five daughters and no sons. So Fiddler is written around the fascinating theme of how those daughters get married off; but it tells us nothing about what life was like for boys growing up. I know something of shtetl life from my extensive readings in the original Yiddish, especially thememoir of Falek Zolf which I translated into English some years ago. Zolf’s childhood was dominated by learning, first in the talmud-toyreh, then the kheder; eventually, at the ripe old age of eleven, when he had mastered everything the small-town melamed could teach him about Jewish Law, he was packed off to become a yeshiva-bokhur, first in Brisk and later in faraway Slobodka.

Zolf’s story is peppered with folkloric expressions that I could never have translated without extensive help from Rabbi Weizmann, who never turned me away when I showed up at his office in the Bnay Avraham with bundles of transcriptions that I was working through. The funny thing is that the questions I had were of a nature that any twelve-year old boy in Old Russia could have answered with ease. I thought maybe it would be fun if I listed some of them here for your enjoyment in the form of a little pop quiz on Jewish Law and Tradition. Here they are:

1.         What is the deal with the shor she-nagakh es ha-porah?

2.         What is the opposite of ha-yadayim yedey eysav?

3.         What is the controversy over the beytzah she-noldah be-yom tov?

4.         What is the difference between a shtut milguf  and a shtut milbar?

5.         What is the solution to the problem of shnayim ukhzin be-talis?

6.         Where would you apply the doctrine of kol dalim gavar?

And lastly, a bit of a trick question:

7.         Who was Baba Kama?

I’ll give you my answers (with commentary – it’s all about the commentary!) next week. If anyone wants to weigh in on these with their own perspective, you can email it to Bernie and he’ll forward it to me. Knock yourselves out…

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