The Strange YouTube Afterlife of Sholem Aleichem

Curated by Sebastian Schulman


In 1901, the classic Yiddish writer Y.L. Perets wrote a now famous short story A gigl fun a nign (“The Migrations of a Melody”). The story traces the life of a Jewish tune as it is sung and played at every strata of society from the study hall to the street, taking on new meanings and layers in each iteration but remaining at its core the same simple string of notes. The works of Sholem Aleichem, and especially their American musical reimaging in Fiddler on the Roof, have been treated much the same way. In the almost 150 years since his writings were first published, Sholem Aleichem and his works have become boundlessly popular across the globe, infused with new qualities in every reinterpretation.

In the second half of the 20th century, the popularity of Sholem Aleichem’s works manifested itself perhaps most clearly in the countless theatre and film adaptions of the writer’s work that appeared all over the world. Today, Sholem Aleichem remains just as ubiquitous and beloved, still in the spotlight thanks to the internet and other digital technologies. One need look no further than the video sharing site YouTube to find hundreds, if not thousands of clips of all kinds that testify to the ability of Sholem Aleichem’s life and work to inspire new audiences. As the following exhibit of selected clips shows, the Yiddish writer and his oeuvre often act as a kind of blank screen, a canvas onto which amateur performers, professional artists, and even entire cultures can project their hopes and desires, their concerns and worries about themselves and the world write large.

The clips collected here can be organized into two broad categories, namely videos made in the United States and those made abroad.

Drawing mostly from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, clips from the United States range from professionally produced skits and music videos with pop icons including Stephen Colbert, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Gwen Stefani, to lovingly crafted amateur videos of spoofs, puppet shows, and local productions sourced from Sholem Aleichem enthusiasts. Whether serious theatre, playful satire, or something in between, these YouTube clips show the durability of the writer’s works as a window into the immigrant story in America, the struggle of its working class, the place of the Jews in American life, and the collision between tradition and modernity.

The clips produced in other lands and languages reflect, on the one hand, the universality of Sholem Aleichem’s themes, including the conflict of generations and the rise of romantic love. At the same time since Sholem Aleichem post-Fiddler is so often understood as a product of American culture, foreign-made clips also provide insight into how different societies view and perform Americanness. Just as Sholem Aleichem uses the figure of Teyve to show how the Jews of Eastern Europe feared and grappled with the changes brought before them from the outside world, so too do these videos shed light on the anxiety, ambivalence, and excitement that American culture brings as it has spread into foreign lands from Italy to Japan.

Of particular note are the Yiddish language clips, which, in their representation of the language’s most renowned writer and his works, wrestle with layers of nostalgia, authenticity, and representation. Media from Russia and East Europe, where Sholem Aleichem is very much a local figure, often explore the fate of the region’s Jews through the turmoil of the twentieth century, as well as issues of assimilation, religion, and violence.

The Videos

The Boundaries of American Jewishness with Stephen Colbert:

In this clip, irreverent comedian Stephen Colbert is caught off guard by a family sitting in the front row who have mistakenly ended up at his Late Show instead of at Fiddler on the Roof (or so we’re led to believe). In an effort to appease his guests, Colbert starts to sing the opening lines to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” when he is joined on stage—without warning—by the cast of the 2015-2016 Broadway revival of Fiddler. The sketch elicits a laugh for many reasons: the absurd element of surprise, Colbert’s over-the-top expressions, and, perhaps most importantly, for the playful crossing of boundaries throughout the scene. Colbert, who often over-emphasizes his WASPy non-Jewishness for comedic effect, is somehow both totally out-of-place and yet equally at-home on stage with that most Jewish of American musicals. In this scene, Fiddler has become a stand-in for Jewishness itself. The idea that Stephen Colbert could be a “Papa” in Fiddler’s chorus of bearded, forelocked men is seen as a hilarious proposition. And yet, as the clip suggests, anything is possible on the Broadway stage. That the reaction to this border-crossing is good-natured laughter rather than discomfort further signals that although Jews may remain in many respects a distinct and separate people, they are nevertheless at the core of American life.

Fiddler as a Message of Inclusion: The Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma City

In July 2016, Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre staged an innovative version of Fiddler on the Roof that integrated American Sign Language and a group of Deaf actors into the show. Experimenting with sound and movement, this production sought to make accessible the experience of musical theatre for an audience that would include both Deaf and hearing people. In other productions of Fiddler and indeed in Sholem Aleichem’s original Yiddish tales, the character of Perchik is often seen as the first harbinger of change, the one who introduces revolutionary ideas of women’s equality, workers’ rights, and the fragility of tradition to Teyve’s world. In the Lyric Theatre’s production, Perchik is Deaf and brings with him another set of challenges to the shtetl. Here he fights not only for equal rights on a broad scale, but also for the specific and full inclusion in society of Deaf people such as himself and, in this version, Teyve’s daughter Hodel as well. The themes we might see reflected in other productions of Fiddler about tolerance of the Other, the integration of Jews and minorities, and the limits of communal acceptance are thus expanded to include issues that Sholem Aleichem himself would have never considered.

Of Pop Music and Puppetry

This short video features an amateur production of “Tradition,” the iconic opening number from Fiddler on the Roof performed entirely by hand puppets lipsyncing to the 1967 Original London Cast Recording of the show. Although created in 2006, the shaky quality of this video gives the performance a flavor that feels like a home movie from several decades prior. Although none of the puppeteers are actually singing, the puppets convincingly mime four part harmonies, with each group—the Papas, the Mamas, the Sons, and the Daughters—singing perfectly on cue. A closer look at the other videos produced by this YouTube user reveals that Fiddler is in good, if unexpected company, alongside pop song parodies such as acapella versions of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and songs by U2, Tom Jones, Alanis Morrisette, Miley Cyrus, and others. The presence of “Tradition” in such a list belies the Fiddler’s status as a thoroughly American text and one so immediately recognizable that its parody can be enjoyed by the audience without any further contextualization.

Is That a Hasid on the Roof?

Produced by Jew in The City, an organization whose mission it is to dispel myths about Orthodox Jews and their beliefs through hip, humorous videos, this clip shows the reaction of four Hasidic Jewish men to the film version of Fiddler on the Roof. In the American Jewish imagination, contemporary Hasidic Jews—ultra-Orthodox followers of a movement begun in the late 18th century—are often believed to the bearers of an unbroken tradition, living exactly as their ancestors once did in Eastern Europe. Similarly, Fiddler, for all of its Broadway panache and loveable kitsch, is often also seen by some to be an authentic portrayal of Jewish life before the Holocaust. A more nuanced approach to contemporary Hasidism and to this musical reveal that both are of course thoroughly modern phenomena, reflecting different modes of Jewish cultural and religious expression in today’s world. The Hasidic viewers are unsurprisingly quick to point out how the film does not reflect their current lives and how many aspects of the movie, such as its approach to gender roles, seem alien and even offensive. Although the characters in Fiddler and in Sholem Aleichem’s stories do follow many of the precepts of traditional Judaism, the characters are not Hasidim in any way. Based on their dress, the men in this clip likely come from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic group, a more visible and open form of contemporary Hasidism based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Other Hasidic groups, such as Satmar or Bobov, lead a more insular lifestyle marked by the maintenance of a Yiddish vernacular. In their defiant separation from broader non-Jewish society and much of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, these supposedly “more traditional” communities resemble even less well the world of Sholem Aleichem and his characters, in which interactions between all kinds of Jews and non-Jews was a part of daily life.

The Fresh Prince of Anatevka

For anyone who’s ever been in a high school theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof, or any other play for that matter, you know that what happens backstage is just as memorable as the show itself. This Fiddler parody captures all the antics of life behind the curtain, masterfully put together with an inventive plot summary of the play. Unlike most Fiddler parodies on YouTube, however, this one stands out for its use of a melody that comes not from the show itself, but from the theme song of the 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Dancing around in costume amidst the makeshift dressing rooms of their school, these kids capture the spirit and passion of youth theatre and seamlessly blend pop culture references new and old.

Avenue Jew

Staged as a benefit for World AIDS Day in 2005, this video is coproduction of the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof with the cast of the popular satirical puppet-human musical Avenue Q. The video merges the music and plot of both shows using sly rephrasing of the plays’ lyrics to create a feeling of intimacy with the audience—if you get these punchlines, these jokes seem to say, then you’re one of us. Reflecting the political concerns of its day, the clip protests conservative views against same-sex marriage, which were then more prevalent on the national scene. The closing number of the video, “Everyone’s a Little Jewish,” seeks to form an explicit connection between the Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities through a common history of persecution and the shared culture of New York urban life. The song also underscores the transformative and inclusive nature of the acting world, noting that “in theatre you can be whatever you wish to be,” and that anyone can belong if you “embrace the Jew in you”. It’s worth noting that such a radical blurring of the boundaries of Jewishness undermines one of the central tensions in Fiddler and in Sholem Aleichem’s original texts, where intermarriage and ethnic mixing seemed the last straw in Teyve’s accommodations to the outside world. Yet here Teyve’s anxieties about her daughter “leaving the fold” and breaking with Jewish continuity are inverted. Instead of departure, here we have a flood of new arrivals to the Jewish community, who join in a joyous gesture of solidarity with the downtrodden.

To Life! A Wedding Surprise with Lin-Manuel Miranda

The musical Fiddler on the Roof has played an outsized role in the life of award-winning composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Before bringing home Pulitzers, Tonys, and a MacArthur Genius Award, Miranda performed in his sixth-grade production of Fiddler and cites the play as a crucial inspiration for the structure and plot for his own musical In The Heights. As we see in this video, Miranda brought a taste of Fiddler to his own wedding, staging a surprise rendition of “To Life” for his bride, starring their family and friends. In reflecting on the experience, Miranda notes that the song is the likely the only piece in musical theatre history performed by a son and his father-in-law where the two get along well. Incredibly, despite the professional level of the choreography and singing, this performance of almost entirely amateur singers and dancers took only a week to put together. Although Miranda grew up in a Puerto Rican family in the deeply Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, NY, his life has been suffused with Jewish culture. Miranda has stated that “all his friends were Jewish” in school. He was also a member of the Jewish acapella group The Mazeltones when in college at Wesleyan University, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Yeshiva University in 2009.

If I Were a Rich Girl, Gwen Stefani featuring Eve

Pop sensation Gwen Stefani and her frequent collaborator rapper Eve star in this 2004 music video. Sampling heavily from Teyve’s Fiddler solo “If I Were a Rich Man,” the video portrays these female singers as swashbuckling pirate queens on the hunt for fame and fortune. According to Alisa Solomon in her 2013 study of Fiddler entitled Wonder of Wonders, “If I Were a Rich Man” succeeds as one of the show’s most charming numbers in its ability to subvert the classic “I-Want” song that appears in so many other musicals. While songs of this type generally let the audience in on what desires motivate a given character, in Teyve’s song we hear the ironic daydream of a man we know will never attain his wealth and, in matter of fact, is motivated more by a wish to provide for his family than by the promise of riches. In a certain respect, Teyve’s plea is less about money and more about achieving the American Dream, a goal his descendants and his audience writ large have already accomplished. In Stefani’s 21st century reinvention of the song, the tune is no longer about security and well-being, but rather the endless accumulation of luxury and power. Almost as the afterthought, the chorus sneaks in a line that “lovin’ is better than gold,” although the consistent return to the list of extravagances and the refrain that “no man could… impress me” indicate that romance, in the fantasy world of these seafaring celebrities, is secondary to cold hard cash.

Teyva (1939)

This is an excerpt from the 1939 Yiddish film Teyva and comes to YouTube from the National Center for Jewish Film based at Brandeis University. Starring and directed by the famed Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz, Teyva is an adaption of the Sholem Aleichem story “Lekh-lekho” (“Get Thee Out”), which also become the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. In this clip, we see Teyve dramatically prepared to go into mourning for his daughter Chava, who has converted to Christianity in order to marry her beloved Fyedka. As scholar Anita Norich has observed, this is one of the most famous moments in all of Yiddish film. In deciding to begin his mourning after Havdalah—the ceremony which closes the Sabbath and starts the week—and thereby truncate the ritual from one week to one hour, the character of Tevye in this film underscores his ambivalence towards his daughter’s actions. For a Jewish audience in the 1930s facing growing concerns of assimilation and intermarriage, this depiction of uncertainty rather than outright rejection, argues Norich, is meant to comfort families in the audience who may be dealing with similar issues. Likewise, Schwartz’s decision to end the movie with Chava’s reconciliation with her father and return to Judaism (rather than the ambiguous conclusion in Sholem Aleichem’s original) is likely an acknowledgement of the era’s rising anti-Semitism and an attempt to reassure viewers in a world where Jewish life itself seemed under attack. Indeed, the outbreak of the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of Poland occurred while the film was being shot on Long Island.

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

oon 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.

Memorial Prayer: Sholem Aleichem in Russian

First staged in 1989, Ponminalnaia molitva (“Memorial Prayer”) is a Russian-language adaption of Sholem Aleichem’s Teyve stories written by celebrated Russian Jewish playwright Grigori Gorin. Not a musical, the tone of the play is much darker than Fiddler or other theatrical adaptations of Sholem Aleichem’s work, casting Teyve as a browbeaten Job-like figure for whom life is a series of increasingly difficult trials and tests. In this context, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is depicted as an exchange at once more intimate and yet much more antagonistic than anything produced for the American stage. Produced during the last years of the Soviet period, the piece reflects how the history of the Holocaust—a taboo subject in Soviet life and memory until then—was only just entering public discourse. The play is frequently staged in cities across the former Soviet Union, particularly, although not exclusively, in places with a significant Jewish population or where the echoes of a formerly vibrant Jewish presence are still felt. In these towns, the play is often produced in late summer as a memorial to the members of the Jewish intelligentsia who were murdered on Stalin’s orders on August 12, 1952. The three-hour production seen in this YouTube video comes from the Anton Chekhov Theatre in Pavlodar, a city in northeastern Kazakhstan.

Japanese Fiddler on the Roof

One of the most common ways Sholem Aleichem and his works have been received outside of the United States or the lands where Yiddish was once widely spoken is through translations of Fiddler on the Roof. Even the quickest search on YouTube will reveal videos and audio recordings of Fiddler translated into over a dozen languages, including Hungarian, Hindi, Serbian, Greek, Portuguese, and Mexican Spanish, to name only a few. While comparisons between these translations will likely reveal a plethora of difference on the level of text, most of the productions available on YouTube are staged with remarkable similarity. Costumes, sets, and even choreography in disparate lands resembles each other strongly, suggesting that Fiddler is seen as an authentic representation of American and/or Jewish culture, a text that is not to be alerted lest it lose its supposedly genuine flavor. Casting decisions also seem to be made in comparable fashion, as the roles of Teyve and Golde are again and again given to the doyennes and elder statesmen of these various national stages. Helgi Sallo, for instance, who played Golde in the 1990 Tallinn production of Fiddler, is a leading soloist in the Estonian National Opera and beloved actress and singer in her native country.

One of the more surprising international success stories for Fiddler is how immensely popular the show has become in Japan. According to urban legend, a Tokyo producer once asked how the musical could be American when its character was undeniably “so Japanese.” Indeed, according to Yoshiji Hirose, a Japanese scholar of Jewish literature based in Okayama, Fiddler and by extension much of Yiddish literature about shtetl life, bears a striking resemblance to the how the traditional culture of Japanese village is remembered and described. Of particular note, for Hirose, is the relationship between Teyve and his daughters, something, he states, that all Japanese people can relate to. This clip comes from a 2005 production of Fiddler in Tokyo.

If I Were a Rickj Wir: Teyve Sings in Plautdietsch

One of the most unexpected adaptions of a Fiddler song on YouTube has to be this rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man” sung in Mennonite Low German, or Plautdietsch, accompanied on ukulele. Plautdietsch is a German dialect spoken today by approximately 400,000 so-called Russian Mennonites and their descendants, whose communities exist primarily in South America, the United States, and Canada. It should not be confused with the language commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch, a closely-related tongue spoken by the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities based in the United States and the province of Ontario. The use of Plautdietsch in this video brings to the fore, perhaps unintentionally, the the high level of intelligibility between Yiddish and these German dialects. On the surface, the various components at play in this clip seem to be extraordinarily incongruous: a Hawaiian instrument, a Christian ethnolect, a song from a play based on Yiddish stories. However, it is remarkable how very American each of these artifacts are. Each are the products of immigration, assimilation, and cultural adaption by different groups and each has entered into enough into flow of American life to be featured in a YouTube video that has be viewed over 15,000 times.