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“Fiddler” a fitting production as antisemitism rises


In its riveting revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” running through Jan. 7, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Essex County, N.J., provides a savvy staging of literary/theatrical proof that antisemitism is no paper tiger. Clawing its way through history, it remains a real feral threat.

And, most unnervingly and incomprehensibly, judging by today’s headlines of hate-mongering making headway globally, evidence persists that Anatevka is no anachronism.

The repercussions of the Russian pogroms and other pernicious activities targeting the Jews of Sholom Aleichem’s wittily, if warily, fictionalized accounting of the era, circa 1905 — supplying the bite and substance of sadness to Joseph Stein’s book and the bittersweet score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock — have never been deactivated among those who harbor hate for the Jewish people.

It is all exemplified daily in Hamas’ jihad against the Jews, with tendrils tenaciously tearing at our conflicted country and elsewhere.

It is almost 120 years since Tevye, family and friends toted their Torah and fled their victimized village of “underfed, overworked Anatevka” to find homes where welcome mats were not torched and singed by souls set on fire. Ironically, 120 years is the scientifically theorized lifespan limit of humans, but history seems to have no timelines for the ageless aggression of antisemitism, no borders for the bias and bigotry that fuel this forever senseless pandemic of prejudice. Thus, in scientific terms, antisemitism has outlived its outrageousness.

Yet, there is a sunrise shedding light but no sunset on the fear Jews face in their daily efforts to scratch out a simple tune without someone angling to push their fictional Fiddler off his perilous perch.

Since smashing Broadway barriers in 1964, “Fiddler” and his Talmudic tale-spinning friend Tevye — the dairyman blessed and cursed with both a vestige of unfounded optimism and life’s limitless servings of soured cream heaped into cups of chaos — have provided more than eons of entertainment; they have educated the world on the tyranny of hate undermining the human condition.

Which is why, in many ways, this 60-year-old iconic musical qualifies as a brand new American anthem. Since the more things change, the more they remain insane, the show shows that the problems of the past often wind up imperiling the present if nothing is done about defusing them.

But to face them in America? Did Tevye really leave behind the antagonism and antisemitism of Anatevka only to find antisemitism hitching a ride on the barge they boarded for Ellis Island? Even spitting three times, Golde couldn’t wash away or ward off the lingering memories of the hate of the Russian soldiers that altered her daughter’s marriage ceremony, a meaningful mitzvah suddenly and tragically laden with horrors and tears.

In his tête-à-têtes with God, Tevye knows there are no easy answers. But there are quite a few questions that need to be asked. Indeed, it was encouraging to watch as a school bus unloaded a group of what looked to be a batch of high schoolers to take in a matinee of this musical of Jewish substance and catholic lessons. There are lessons to be learned in the Talmud, sure; yet there are also teachings to be gleaned from watching this classic about Broadway’s most famed Talmudist.

As the dust of danger — the dust that managed to evade Golde’s late-session sweeping — swirled around the town, Tevye put things in their proper places

But when he would arrive in America, one pondered, as the Paper Mill Playhouse brought down the curtain on an incredible production even as new curtains of opportunity were parting for the departing townspeople, how would they react to the new prejudices, the new back-stabbings that would greet them on the morally stained streets of America? How would they react to the wretched acts of antisemitism that would up the ante of being a stranger in a strange new place?

What would Tevye say?

On the one hand, the two-fisted philosopher would possibly argue, antisemitism should have been stopped years ago. Why hadn’t government leaders attempted more to tax the tyranny of this senseless, suffocating and systemic hatred? Why do so many so-called intelligent people put up with it?

On the other hand...

There is no other hand.

Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist who lives in Abington. He writes columns about theater and the arts.

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