Since it first opened on Broadway in 1964, “Fiddler On The Roof” has been through more than a dozen major productions in New York and London. Even if you’ve seen more than one of them, or the film version or a regional or high school stage production, the chances are pretty good that you’ve never seen anything like the show now at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. This show tells Tevye’s story in its original Yiddish, which could be reason enough to see it. But for those of us in Verona, there’s another reason: One of the key roles is being played by a 2003 graduate of Verona High School.
Ben Liebert has the coveted role of Motl Kamzoyl, the shy tailor whose love for Tevye’s daughter Tsaytl helps her family to see that new ways can exist alongside the old traditions. And no, Liebert never spoke a word of Yiddish before landing the part.
Yiddish, for those who are not familiar with it, is a Germanic language that once was common among central and eastern European Jews. Before World War II, there were an estimated 13 million speakers of the language, including Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, who wrote stories about “Tevye the Dairyman” in it under the pen name Sholem Aleichem. Millions of speakers of Yiddish were killed in the Holocaust and those who survived often assimilated into languages like Hebrew and English. Today, there may only be 1.5 million Yiddish speakers in the world.
Despite their small numbers, they have occasionally been active participants in the new show, “Fidler Afn Dakh”. Over a pre-show dinner this past Sunday, Liebert related with a smile that, in one of the early performances, a theater patron corrected the pronunciation of one line by shouting it from the audience.
Liebert has been well trained to roll with episodes like this. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he has performed with the national touring company of “Wicked”, and in regional productions of “Avenue Q”, “The Little Shop Of Horrors”, “The Full Monty” and “Guys And Dolls”, among many others. He’s even been previously involved in a foreign-language show: As a new college graduate, he was sent to Germany to perform in a version of “Grease” that had the dialogue in German and the songs in English.
“Fidler Afn Dakh” is entirely in Yiddish, with translations into English and Russian projected on either side of the stage. And while Liebert was more or less on his own to learn his German lines in “Grease”, he and the rest of the “Fiddler” cast have been coached through every syllable by fluent Yiddish speakers. The show is produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and directed by Broadway veteran Joel Grey.
The Yiddish dialogue and songs make for an entirely new perspective on the travails of Tevye and the poor Jews confined–and persecuted–in a small area of western Russia in the years preceding the Russian Revolution. The requests made of God in the English-language versions of “If I Were A Rich Man” and “Sabbath Prayer” can seem jokey and meek; their Yiddish counterparts, “Ven Ikh Bin A Rotschild” and “Shabes Brokhe”, are serious and emboldened. The anguish in the exodus song “Anatevke” is palpable.
“Fidler Afn Dakh” opened in July and was supposed to run only through September 2. Its run has now been extended until October 25, which will give Liebert only a few short moments of downtime before he begins his next theatrical project, directing “Into The Woods” at Studio Playhouse in Montclair. There will be at least one other Verona reason to see that show: H.B. Whitehorne music teacher Brian Michalowski will be its musical director.
Photos by Victor Nechay/ProperPix