“A Fiddler Afn Dakh. Meshugeh, neyn?” “A fiddler on the roof: Crazy, no?” These are the opening lines uttered by Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish now playing Off-Broadway, for the third time, at New York Stages. They also happened to be the first words I thought of when I was asked to cast the show.
The adventure started late in 2017 when the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), where I have worked since 2012, announced that we would be embarking on our biggest musical yet: Fiddler On The Roof. In Yiddish.
How were we going to pull off such an enormous undertaking? Despite my considerable experience as a casting director, the challenges of this one were daunting. Where would I find 29 Yiddish-speaking actors who sang and danced? I wondered what my dear late grandmother, who always wanted me to learn Yiddish, would have said if I told her I would be casting her favorite show (in Yiddish yet!). “Kenstdu es gloyben?” (Can you believe it?)
We received over 2,000 submissions, though we ultimately auditioned far fewer than that. The entire team, including director Joel Grey, was at every audition, and Joel’s presence was deemed to be an honor for every actor. To prepare, the actors received a seven-part audition packet that consisted of: a written Yiddish pronunciation guide; an audio pronunciation guide prepared by Motl Didner, the associate artistic director of NYTF and now Yiddish coach and associate director of the Yiddish Fiddler; excerpts from the script in transliterated Yiddish—and accompanied by the original English text written by book-writer Joseph Stein a recording of Motl reading the Yiddish, first slowly and then in real time, and a cut of a song.
A number of actors were called in for each role during the more than three weeks of auditions. As for Tevye, because of the size of the role, there were not many people available. The agent for an actor who had been in the 2015 Broadway revival called with an interesting bit of information: His client learned Yiddish a number of years ago between performances of another show. When Joel heard this story, he knew that Steven Skybell had to be Teyve. And, even though he was not a long-time Yiddish speaker, Steven’s Yiddish was impeccable. We now had our Tevye, and quickly lined up the other leads.
Time for the dance auditions.
The men had to learn to execute perfectly the famous bottle dance (never using Velcro), plus a piece of the “To Life” dance. And they had to learn a line to tempo prepared by Motl, one that tested their Yiddish pronunciation. The line was: “Vilstu farzhukhn mayn geshmakn tsimmes?” Which means, “Do you want to taste my delicious tsimmes?” (Tsimmes is a usually a sweet dish with fruits and carrots—ask Martha Stewart or a Hadassah member for the recipe.)
After offers were sent out, something amazing happened: Everyone accepted. Equity would allow only three days of Yiddish coaching before rehearsals, so coaches Motl Didner and Sabina Brukner (the daughter of Holocaust survivors) got to work and rehearsals were conducted in Yiddish right off the bat.
First night of previews was July 4, 2018: Sold-out audience. So much trepidation. But the audience loved it! We were kvelling (bursting with pride). Opening night: Sold-out audience. Celebrities, VIPS, and Yiddish mavens. They laughed, they cried, they were overwhelmed and awed. Were they thinking what I was thinking?
This iconic show, so beautifully done, was performed in the language of Sholem Aleichem. If only he, the Jewish Mark Twain, could see this show 124 years after he created Tevye the Dairyman. If only he could read the rave reviews. If only he could know how many times the show has been extended by NYTF, how many people were coming to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan overlooking the Statue of Liberty. If only those millions of Yiddish speakers who perished in the Holocaust could have seen this show so beautifully performed in their mameloshen (mother tongue). If only survivors like my grandmother could have lived long enough to see this.
The show extended several times at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and then transferred Off-Broadway to Stage 42, with Hal Luftig and Jana Robbins coming on as the lead producers. The show closed in January of 2020, just prior to the pandemic. What was next for the Yiddish Fiddler? We were all hoping for a tour and some international productions were in the works. But the pandemic stopped all of those plans.
However, during the pandemic, Steven became even more popular. He made too many appearances on Zoom to count. He Zoomed into people’s living rooms all over the world. And guess what else our Tevye was doing during the pandemic: learning Yiddish!
Steven said, “During the pandemic I started learning Yiddish on Duolingo as soon as it was made available; with my other languages I now have 2,140 days on Duolingo. Also during the pandemic I took several zoom Yiddish classes through the Yivo institute. My teacher was none other than my fellow castmate Mikhl Yashinsky, who plays Mordkhe in Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish. In addition to that, I also met with Zalmen Mlotek once a week on Zoom and then in person to learn a wealth of Yiddish songs from him. I now have around 100 Yiddish songs that I’ve been performing with him since the pandemic began.”
In addition, Motl brought his 15 minute Yiddish lessons into our homes via NYTF’s online programming, making sure to keep our language skills sharp.
Then in the summer of 2022, I got the best news. The show was going to have a revival in NYC at New York Stages! This time, with a smaller cast and a new vision from Joel.
It was back to the casting table for me. Working with Joel was more of a mechaya (joy) than ever. I was so grateful to have the whole creative team return. This time, more than ever, Joel stressed the relevance of this production of Fiddler Of Roof In Yiddish, noting this show is more important than ever given the rise in anti-Semitism and the conflict and crisis in the Ukraine, not far from where Anatevka would have been.
A smaller cast of 25 is now telling this story at New World Stages. Many actors are taking on new understudy roles and swings, learning many roles in Yiddish being ready to go on at a moment’s notice. Many actors from the original company are returning. Some could not because of previous obligations and other factors. We are thrilled to be welcoming several new faces into the company. The show will be even better this time round.
Many people are asking why bring Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish to NYC for a third time? Why now, when it is more difficult than ever to produce a show?
Visiting Anatevka again will not be the same as in 2018 but it will be built on tradition. Tradition! And resilience after a pandemic. These the themes of this musical.
What’s next for the Yiddish Fiddler after the seven-week run at New World Stages? Ver vayst? Who knows? Maybe some touring companies? The future is often as shaky as, well, a fiddler on the roof.
I do know I should have listened to my grandmother when she wanted me to learn Yiddish.