Fiddler on the Nakba

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A scene from Fiddler on the Roof

Yesterday I listened to Terry Gross interviewing Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for “Fiddler on the Roof.” As they talked about Russian villages in which Jews were persecuted, and which they fled to come to America– “forced out,” Gross said repeatedly — Gross and Harnick became emotional. Gross is a private person; but she spoke of her parents openly. She and Harnick were telling an ancestral Jewish story, and a moving one.

I could not help thinking about Palestinian remembrances of their villages that they were forced out of during the creation of Israel. “Their only home,” to use Gross’s phrase. They speak with similar attachment about a lost world. They cherish photos and keys and memories. Just look at the movie “When I Saw You.”

And of course I wondered when American culture will commemorate and honor the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, in which 750,000 Palestinians lost their homes.

Excerpts of the interview:

Gross: And “Fiddler on the Roof” is set in 1905 in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia, where the Jews are under attack and eventually forced out. ..

So in the show “Fiddler on the Roof,” there’s a song called “Anatevka,” which the Jews in this small town sing when they are forced out of their village, Anatevka. And it’s a very – the song that’s used in the show is both about well, it’s just a place, it’s not an important place, but it’s also very nostalgic song for the place that they are being forced to leave, the place that is their only home….

You know, when I hear some of the songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” I get tears in my eyes, in part because my parents had very few albums when I was growing up but they had “Fiddler on the Roof” and they played it over and over and over and over. And it really started to drive me crazy.

But when I hear it now, you know, my parents passed, you know, like several years ago and when I hear it now I think about my parents and I think not only about how good the songs are but I think what those songs meant to them and what it was like for them in the 1960s to go to Broadway and see a show about Jews on a shtetl in Eastern Europe because their parents had been Jews in shtetls in Eastern Europe.

And I’m sure you know how much this musical meant, you know, has meant to so many people.

HARNICK: Yes. One of the things – when Jerome Robbins became our director he told us this story. He said when he was six his parents took him to that part of Poland where their ancestors came from and even at the age of six he remembers it as being a very emotional experience.

Then during World War II as he read about the extermination of these little village by the Nazis he was certain that the village that he had visited when he was six was one of those villages that had been obliterated. So when we gave him the opportunity to direct “Fiddler” he said I want to put that culture back on stage. I want to give it a theatrical life of another 25 years. He was being modest because now it’s almost 50 years and it’s still going strong.

But he was like a man obsessed with restoring that culture.

Some day Palestinian culture will be similarly honored. But it’s a ways off…

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“Fiddler on the Roof” didn’t come into existence because a bunch of people sat around complaining on the Internet. It was created by three people who worked together on a musical production based on the work of another writer. They made a musical that was entertaining, funny, catchy, and had… Read more »

Do we need a Palestinian Chagall? Or more like, just one very influential person in Hollywood?

Just before hearing this discussion on NPR, I had the opportunity to view “Voices Across the Divide,” which is being shown at several venues in Philadelphia this week. The documentary is narrated by Alice Rothchild, whose mother was the author of a book featuring voices from the Holocaust. While the… Read more »

I hear the violins for victims of another century. She should think about villagers in Gaza who only a few years ago are routed out of their homes with white phosphor bombs delivered by IDF helicopters. But who wants to discuss the present, when history is full of much more… Read more »

Fiddler on the Roof was also one of the few records my parents owned. Watching part of the movie on youtube relatively recently I was surprised (but why was I surprised?) by how kitsch it was. Not sure it is something to aspire to. Maybe the movie version was inferior,… Read more »