This Production of Fiddler Embraces Its Jewish Identity Through Community Outreach

Special Features   This Production of Fiddler Embraces Its Jewish Identity Through Community Outreach Fiddler on the Roof owns its Jewish roots by partnering with Birthright Israel Foundation—just in time for Passover.
Marla Phelan, Alexandra Silber, Jenny Rose Baker, Melanie Moore, Hayley Feinstein, Samantha Massell and Sarah Parker in <i>Fiddler on the Roof </i>
Marla Phelan, Alexandra Silber, Jenny Rose Baker, Melanie Moore, Hayley Feinstein, Samantha Massell and Sarah Parker in Fiddler on the Roof Joan Marcus

In the Broadway community, we’re accustomed to activism. Broadway has supported gay rights, marriage equality and has been fundraising for years since the onset of the AIDS crisis. There’s Broadway Barks, which supports animal rescue efforts, and The Actors Fund, through which the entertainment industry takes care of its own. Activism is not something Broadway lacks.

However, there is a noticeably different kind of outreach tied to the show currently playing the Broadway Theatre. Since its opening in December, Fiddler on the Roof has made a concerted effort to mesh the show about Russian Jews living on the brink of the pogroms with today’s Jewish community at large.

“As producers, we’re always trying to find meaningful partnerships,” says show producer Jessica Genick. “Of course, it’s a way to get our message out there, but it’s really meaningful when it’s a good fit for us, and there are a lot of good fits for us within the Jewish community. I don’t think we’re afraid to own our Jewish roots.”

“When you have a show that’s all about Judaism and all about Jews, I think it makes so much sense to engage with all these other factions outside the show itself,” says Jesse Kovarsky, who plays The Fiddler. “I think that’s what keeps the show alive, and that’s what keeps us engaged as people. We like to do a lot of outreach as a cast.” Rock Center Café now offers a special “Fiddler Feast” menu, offering Jewish dishes like matzoh ball soup and brisket; the production partners with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum on Eldrige Street and others; the cast has participated in talkbacks with the MTA Diversity Council for Jewish Heritage and performed at the Jewish Community Center Street Fair and will perform from their own float in the Annual Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City on June 5.

Fiddler had been looking for a way to connect with Birthright Israel Foundation, the organization that has sent over 500,000 young Jews on a paid-for trip to Israel in order to connect to the Jewish homeland—including five young Jews from Fiddler’s cast. “We kept thinking about ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ the tradition of saying that every year, and then it hit us: tradition. That word just jumped out to all of us,” says Pamela Fertel Weinstein, Director of Communications with Birthright. (It’s tough to say that word without singing the opener to Fiddler.) Rather than send their typical “Happy Passover” e-card, Birthright and Fiddler joined forces to create a video card to their supporters, sharing the Birthright stories of the participants who now star in the iconic show.

The match was a no-brainer for Kovarksy, Samantha Massell (who plays Hodel), Marla Phelan (Villager/Dance Captain), Tess Primack (Villager and understudy for Tzeitl and Hodel) and Julie Benko (Swing and understudy for Hodel and Chava). Primack wore shoes she bought in Tel Aviv to her Fiddler audition; Benko wore a chamsa (traditional Jewish symbol) necklace that her boyfriend bought for her in Israel on his Birthright trip.

For Massell, Judaism and Fiddler have always been inextricably linked—a link that served her well during her Birthright trip. On her visit to the Western Wall, staff encouraged Massell to write a prayer on a slip of paper and place it in a crevice of the wall—a longstanding tradition for Jews who visit. “[At the time] I felt like I didn’t really have a right to put in a prayer because I don’t really practice,” says Massell in the video. “So I wrote down the lyrics to ‘Sabbath Prayer’ and folded it into a little square and put it in the wall.”

For Kovarsky, his Birthright trip helped him explore his Judaism, which now reverberates in his performance each night. “I believe Judaism is a religion of memories,” he says. “By being in Fiddler, I feel like we’re telling these stories of people who lived out their lives in 1905 in the shtetl. … I feel like I’m doing my part as a Jew by telling these stories.”

“When you can see five people who had such an incredible experience, that impacted them all differently but that they’re able to bring that connection to a show that is so relevant to the Jewish community for generations,” says Weinstein, “it was just so organic and special.”

“You hear those first few notes and that minor key, it’s that Klezmer-type music, and you’re automatically brought into that world,” says Genick. “I don’t think we’re afraid to identify ourselves in that [Jewish] way.” The ownership of these ties also educates audiences and everyone involved in the production—Jewish or not.

Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht, Jenny Rose Baker and Hayley Feinstein in <i>Fiddler on the Roof </i>
Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht, Jenny Rose Baker and Hayley Feinstein in Fiddler on the Roof Joan Marcus

“From the get-go we brought in scholars from Columbia University who studied the shtetl, and we also had a rabbi come in,” says Kovarsky. “We also celebrated Shabbat one evening as a whole cast [Jewish and non-Jewish] during rehearsals. It was really amazing to get to experience that as a collective group just to understand what the meaning of it is and what the feeling of it is.” No doubt that experience informs the cast’s performance of “Sabbath Prayer” eight shows a week.

“When we get to do ‘Sabbath Prayer’ onstage, there’s a really harmonious slow moment that doesn’t often happen in musical theatre or theatre in general, where you just get to stand onstage as a collective group and sing something really harmonious and beautiful,” says Kovarsky.

Still, the beauty of Fiddler is the connection to Tevye, and his story can deepen with Jewish involvement, but it does not hinge upon it. “[Fiddler] is definitely about the Jewish people, that is the origin,” says Genick. “But as much as it is about the Jewish experience, I also find that it is relevant to many other families.”

As more audiences want to see Tevye’s story (and in a sense their own) told onstage, reviving Fiddler on Broadway now seems a tradition in and of itself.

With every revival comes a renewal in understanding the Jewish people through theatre—not simply as investors or as the punchline to a well-timed onstage joke, but as a people with a story to offer. The more Fiddler owns its origins and identity, the more it strikes a chord; the more specific the more universal.

But a story is only as powerful as its reach, and the efforts behind this production—and its cast’s desire to share of themselves—are a welcome stretch.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.