Whose Fiddler is it Anyway? Or, How to Say Tradition in Yiddish

Soon after Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, a Hebrew-language production was staged to great acclaim at Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theatre. Inspired by its success, a Yiddish translation was soon prepared by Shraga Friedman and performed at Habimah, in a run produced by Giora Godik. As a Yiddish translation of the archetype of the American Jewish musical produced by Israel’s premiere Hebrew-language theatre company, Fidler afn dakh (as the musical is known in this language) opens a host of complex questions about authenticity, ownership, and authority. Is a Yiddish version of Fiddler somehow closer to Sholem Aleichem’s original stories? Does a Yiddish version of Fiddler lose some of its universality when carried over into a Jewish language? Is this version, now in the language of the shtetl itself, less or more nostalgic for the imagined past it presents? And who is the intended audience for a musical in a language that most Israeli theatre-goers (and YouTube users, for that matter) can’t really understand?

While the answers to these questions deserve a fuller treatment than can be provided here, it’s worth noting that the use of Yiddish does indeed increase the specifically Jewish content of the show’s lyrics. The song “Tradition” in this version, for instance, is glossed simply as “Torah,” implying that the citizens of Anatevka live their lives according to the precepts of Jewish religious law rather than the more amorphous collection of customs that the word “tradition” might infer. Similarly, at many points in the Yiddish version of the show, characters are able to incorporate the actual language of prayer and scripture into their song and speech, texts that are only obliquely referenced in the English original. With a new production of Fidler afn dakh coming in summer 2018 to the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York, the time to explore this uniquely complicated (re)translation of Fiddler is newly ripe.