Chaim Topol died this week. He was an Israeli actor, born under the British mandate in 1935. While Topol acted in more than 30 films in Israel and the States, he was best known for the role of Tevye in the stage production and the film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof. Topol estimated that he had performed the role more than 3500 times, and I had the pleasure of seeing him bring Tevye to life on four occasions.
For many people, this means nothing. For others, echos of “Tradition” and “If I were a rich man” have already started to play in your head. Fiddler on the Roof is a watermark on my life, and Topol’s passing caused me to reflect on its impact.
I was 6 years old when my parents took is to see a stage production. . .and then the movie. We had the double LP set featuring Isaac Stern. “Sunrise, Sunset” was sung at friends’ weddings. Tevye’s jokes became ours, “and everything was de-splained!” I found the screenplay through the local library microfiche system and filled out the triplicate request to have it sent to me from another library. I discovered Shalom Aleichem, the Russian Jewish storyteller who created Tevye the Dairyman, and I combed through used bookstores to find his other works.
I can quote every line, sing all the parts, sigh at the right times, and even dance a few steps. But, the impact of the Fiddler was greater than the genius dialogue and heart-rending storyline. Here are three primary lessons that young Lisa learned from Topol as Tevye;
First, Tevye taught me the importance of culture to the community, the family, and the individual. My little village in Upstate New York was hardly a hotbed of cultural diversity, but my friend Tevye was Jewish, and his traditions became a window to a wider world where people did things differently than we did. He taught that culture was more than “How to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. . .” but that those things were also of value. Tradition!
Tevye demonstrated the importance of his faith in everyday life. While he tangled up the sayings of the Scriptures, he had the desire to stay close to the “Good Book.” Even his most famous prayer, “Would it be so terrible if I had a small fortune? If I were a rich man. . .” was driven by the desire to “sit in the synagogue and pray, to discuss the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day.” And regardless of the most painful pressure to compromise his beliefs, Tevye would not yield.
Tevye spoke to God as a man speaks to his friend. This, I believe, was the greatest lesson I learned from Tevye. In celebration, in suffering, in the middle of the night or in the middle of a pogrom, meeting friends, or saying farewell, Tevye looked to the sky and carried on a dialogue with the one he called “Lord.” He let his request be made known, he asked questions, sought advice, and even chuckled at some of the work he saw God doing. In all, he demonstrated a trust that his God would keep His promises. While Tevye and I would read the Scriptures from very different points of view, the expression of his faith, his dedication to it, his continual seeking of God was instructive and attractive.
Thank you, Topol, for sharing your gift of acting with the world! May your family come to know Life–Chaim–to the fullest.
I am guessing I am not alone in these thoughts. Would you share with me some ways you might have been impacted by the Fiddler on the Roof? And if you have never seen it, please, let’s change that!
Fiddler on the Roof and Tevya in particular taught me that a relationship with God could be informal, like a friendship, and that opened my heart to speak plainly with my Lord. It changed me. I remember wishing that all Christians could be like that.