Neal Milner: Yiddish 'Fiddler' Is A Balm For Our Troubled Times - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Here is quite possibly the most amazing sentence I have ever written:

Because of the coronavirus, the Chinese government cancelled a month-long Yiddish language production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

We’ll get to what’s so amazing in a moment.

Seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” in Hawaii  would be a balm against COVID-19.  And it would even be more so if people here could see the Yiddish version.

Just about everyone in Hawaii has seen the movie or the play, giving it the comfort of the familiar. Wikimedia Commons

What’s so amazing?

First, what is a Yiddish-language musical doing in China, where — believe me — no one (even maybe literally) speaks Yiddish?

Second, isn’t Yiddish, for all intents and purposes, a dead language?  Hebrew is what Israelis speak. Most people who grew up in Yiddish-speaking families, like myself, can hardly speak it and understand it about as well as do the characters on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Third, then why did a Yiddish-language production, which began in New York City a couple of years ago in a very small space with a six-week run, catapult first to an off-Broadway theater, then to Broadway itself where it became an extraordinarily hot ticket?

Since a wedding is so much a part of “Fiddler,” think about the play’s resonance with Hawaii in wedding terms: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Something old: “Fiddler” is familiar. Many of you have seen either the movie or the play.

Is there a high school in Hawaii that hasn’t done it? Why is it so popular? One reason is that it’s easy to stage. It’s become part of the drama department canon for high school, maybe even intermediate school. “South Pacific” with beards.

Who knows, if we ever get universal pre-K in Hawaii, we may get to see the role of Motel the Tailor performed by a 3-year-old local kid, wearing a yarmulke and standing on a chair waving to his tutu.

People love the show. They relate. With social distancing and separated families, we could all use more familiar things we really enjoy.

Something new: What’s new of course would be the Yiddish. The English version isn’t hard. “Sunrise, sunset” means what happens over Koko Crater in the morning and over Diamond Head at night.

It’s the very unfamiliarity that would make the Yiddish version so resonant with folks from Kaimuki, Nanakuli and Kahaluu, sitting at a safe distance, listening to those strange sounds.

When I first began storytelling, I wrote a story about surname changes in my family, like Himmelreich to Hillrich, so they sounded less Jewish.

I worried that people here wouldn’t get it because they were unfamiliar with Jewish names.

“Don’t worry about it,” a well-known local storyteller who was my mentor said. “Think of the sounds of the names as music. That’s what the audience will do.” She was right.

You’d get lost in the Yiddish sounds, and that’s a good thing.

I’ve seen people here laugh derisively at a polka band’s kitschy and strange instrumentation (a tuba?) until it played a number or two. Then everyone began to dance.

Most of us here can’t speak Hawaiian. We listen to its sounds, and with hula, we watch its movements.

That’s Yiddish “Fiddler.” The resonant sounds and movements. Getting lost at a time when losing yourself  is such a benefit.

Here’s what else has always been new, call it “Fiddler Hawaii Style.” There are not a whole lot of Jewish people in Hawaii, so there is an excellent chance that a student has no Jewish friends and knows no Jews. In fact, the same may be true of their teachers.

Local “Fiddler” productions get some wacky local touches. Wikimedia Commons

So like Chinese food with lunch meat or saimin with jello, “Fiddler” here gets some wacky local touches.

In the mid-’80s, my son played Motel the Tailor in a Kaiser High School cafetorium “Fiddler” production.  Watching a play in a cafetorium is like the “Sermon on the Mount” scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” where some of the people are so far back that they think the sermonizer is saying, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”

Anyway, the Kaiser Tevye was a blond surfer dude who got the idea that it would be a nice flourish if Tevye made a sign of the cross during the wedding ceremony.

It didn’t happen, but just the possibility … lox and bagel with macaroni salad.

Something borrowed: To tell you the truth, it’s not clear who borrowed from whom. Starting at roughly the same time, both Yiddish and Hawaiian began a renaissance.

The reasons for this are not the same, but the dynamic and emotional power definitely are. Learning Hawaiian was not just about skills-building.

It also taps into powerful emotions and memories that had been latent for a long time. Listening to a Gabby album in the early ’70s was not just about the melody.

Yiddish is making a comeback, not simply because more scholars are studying its rich traditions and more people are learning to speak it. As one music critic put it, “Fiddler” tapped into a part of him that he didn’t know he still had, as he swayed to the dances.

Something blue: Traditionally, something blue has to do with warding off the Evil Eye. Odds are, your wedding planner skipped over that part.

Jews and the Evil Eye. It was a Jewish custom to change your name when you were sick in a hospital so that the Evil Eye could not find you. It’s part of the curses, in Yiddish expressions to ward off The Eye, which my grandparents used all the time.

By the way, talking about sounds, Yiddish is an outstanding language for cursing. It sounds just right, like the tuba in that polka band.

So let’s keep it simple. For all of us right now, COVID-19 is the curse. Anything we can do to ward it off, deflect it or forget about it for a while is worth a shot.

Also because, virus-wise, given the La La Land we’re in scientifically and politically, as the punchline to an old Jewish joke goes, it couldn’t hurt.

You can get a taste of the New York Yiddish production here.

As Grandma Tzeitel says in “Fiddler”: “A blessing on your head.”

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

· 3 years ago

Fid Yid did not go to Broadway. It went from the Museum of Jewish Heritage to off-Broadway on 42nd Street and won a whole host of awards from Best Revival of a Musical to best Actor in a Musical with Steven Skybell and more. The Chinese may have canceled us, but the Australians have so far not done so, and are prepping for a September performance at the Sydney Opera House.Look it up. Myriad famous folks came for the incredibly beautiful and wonderfully staged performances--including notorious RBG. Red, not blue, is the color that chases away the evil eye. It's why Madonna and other kabbalists wear red strings. And you don't CHANGE a sick person's name. You add Chaim and Chaya  meaning life. Chaim for males, Chaya for females.To see bits of Fiddler in Yiddish and other good stuff produced by The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine, the oldest operating theater in the United States and the oldest Yiddish theater on the planet, visit www.nytf.orf. 

friedmanj · 3 years ago

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