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16 MELAMED (HEUREW TEACHER): lf [ro11/d Ofify he Rothschild! Yo11 k11ou~ lf f u1cre Rothschild I would he richer tlian Rothschild. A 130Y'S FATHER: l:Vhy is that? MELAMED: Because I could teach Hcbreu' school on the side. -JEWISH ANEC])()TE TF THERE ARE SUCH THINGS AS PREORDAINED EVENTS, then I was L surely destined to play Tevye the Milkman. Not only did I have the requisite talent and the voice for this musical role, I also had a personal background that put me much closer to it than many who would need a longer reach in order to make the part their own. The literature was something I grew up with; twenty-six volumes of the works of Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish sat on our bookshelves during my early youth in Vienna. The books were well used; my father would read short stories or plays aloud to us. The books were rescued from the Nazis by my maternal grandmother with some of our other belongings and followed us to Israel. I grew up with the world of Sholem Aleichem at my fingertips; I was a young Jew who had started his life in the diaspora and who, as a boy of thirteen, had played a thirteenyear -old in a Sholem Aleichem play. As a professional actor my first paid engagement was at the Habimah Theatre, playing the Constable in Tevye the Milkman in Hebrew. I was a natural for the part of Tevye 322 · THEO when Fiddler on the Ro~f was first mounted in 1964; I was also unavailable . Not that they were clamoring for my services at the time; Zero Mastel had the part locked up. It would be some time before they got around to n1e. The world of Anatevka. the mythical town in which Fiddler on the Roef is set, has been written about many times. Within the Russian empire, the Pale of Settlement, the carefully circumscribed area outside which Jews were not permitted to take up residence, contained small villages very much like Anatevka. This was the archetypal shtetl in which Eastern Europe's Jewish life unfolded, where the Yiddish language flowered and where richness of spirit stood in such contrast to the poverty of the inhabitants. (A diminutive of the Yiddish word shtot or "town," shtetl literally means "little town.") They were people guided by rules of behavior laid down by the halachah, a set of codes compiled over centuries by the rabbis. These codes governed not merely religious ritual, but all facets of life outside the house of prayer as well. They covered birth, circumcision, betrothal, marriage, cleanliness , and the behavior of one Jew toward another at all times. Sabbath and the festivals turned even the poorest of shtetl Jews into a wearer of a nobleman's mantle. There was danger and pain in this place of poverty, but there was also beauty and there was song. This world furnished endless material for Jewish writers, poets, and singers in Eastern Europe; translations into many of the world's languages followed. The works of Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and Abraham Goldfaden were performed on stages wherever the Yiddish language was spoken: Poland, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States. It was only a matter of time before someone would decide that here was material for the Broadway theatre as well. Nevertheless, this did not look to be a safe move. How much of an audience could there possibly be for a play set in a poor little Jewish village in Eastern Europe whose inhabitants wore shabby and threadbare clothes> How could such a play compete with the elegance of settings like the Ascot races in A1y Fair Lady or Captain von Trapp's chateau in The Sound ef Music? Would such a play have an audience at all beyond Jewish theatergoers? It was a gamble but they decided to take it anyway. The creative ingredients were right: Jerome Robbins, the preeminent choreographer who proposed to direct as well; Harold Prince, an enterprising young producer; a book by Joe Stein based on Sholem Aleichem's Yiddish play; composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, the creators of Fiorelllo! They did create a remarkable show and a sensation to boot. The predictions of the naysayers who maintained that this play would only have a narrow ethnic appeal were proved wrong. It had widespread appeal, and not only in America , vvhere the rhyth111 and language of Eastern Europe's je\vs haJ gained con1n1on...


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