A documentary by Max Lewkowicz. In English, Yiddish, Japanese, and Thai, with English subtitles. Rated PG
If you're the offspring of Irish, Italian, or Chinese immigrants, you may think you know your grandparents' world from stories handed down through the generations, your assumptions perhaps augmented by visits to the old country.
But how well can you ever really inhabit their lost worlds? And for the descendants of the millions of Jews who lived in Russia's Pale of Settlement and parts of Poland and the Baltic regions at the turn of the last century, there is no land of return.
Luckily, that lost realm was captured, in poetic and darkly humorous fables, by Solomon Rabinovich, who took the Abrahamic pen name of Sholem Aleichem.
In the New World, his stories were turned into Yiddish-language plays and even movies, further entrenching both memory and myth about the shtetls—unpaved Wild West towns in which farmers and merchants eked out a living when not facing pogroms and forced migration. (When Annie Hall asks Woody Allen's character if his grandmother collected recipes, he says, "No. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.")
What's most remarkable is that these tales got turned into a musical of enduring appeal, and in the early Beatle era no less. For this affecting doc, writer-director Max Lewkowicz compresses into a tight 90 minutes the saga of how Fiddler on the Roof was created, and why it continues to resonate with audiences in places as varied as Japan, Thailand, and inner-city high schools.
The theatre piece was a labour of love and sorrow for its makers, all of whom appear on-camera in archival footage, alongside participants past and present.
With book by Joseph Stein and songs by Jerry Bock (both of whom died in 2010) and Sheldon Harnick (now 95), the story of Tevye and his five daughters really came together—and almost fell apart—when volatile West Side Story director and choreographer Jerome Robbins took over.
For Robbins and others, the brutal realities behind heartbreaking songs like "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Far From the Home I Love" meant confronting harsh religious patriarchy and the inbred racism that led to the Holocaust.
Sure, it was only a musical, but it meant that the transcendent spirit represented by painter Marc Chagall's famous fiddler would have a permanent place to stand, and play.