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If Russia's invasion of Ukraine feels familiar, look to Broadway in the '60s

Actor Zero Mostel, center, who portrays Tevye in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," poses backstage with cast members after the play's opening performance at the Imperial Theatre in New York on Sept. 22, 1964. Maria Karnilova, who plays Tevye's wife, Golde, is at far left. Playing Tevye's daughters, from left, are, Tanya Everett, as Chava; Julia Migenes, as Hodel; and Joanna Merlin, as Tzeitel.
AP
Actor Zero Mostel, center, who portrays Tevye in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," poses backstage with cast members after the play's opening performance at the Imperial Theatre in New York on Sept. 22, 1964. Maria Karnilova, who plays Tevye's wife, Golde, is at far left. Playing Tevye's daughters, from left, are, Tanya Everett, as Chava; Julia Migenes, as Hodel; and Joanna Merlin, as Tzeitel.

Updated February 25, 2022 at 6:37 PM ET

"Why should we care about Ukraine?"

That's a question some commentators have been asking, and it's hardly new.

Here's a version from a 1964 stage classic that centered on people of that region.

"Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let the outside world break its own head."

It's a laugh line, but funny only in its delivery. Buried in a newspaper that's just been brought on stage, under "a story about crops in the Ukraine, and this and that," is the worrisome news that in a nearby village, "all the Jews have been evicted, forced from their homes."

A musical set in a town near Sholom Aleichem's birthplace

We are near the start here of Fiddler on the Roof, having just been schooled in the "Tradition" that governs the town and its people.

The musical, based on "Tevye and his Daughters" by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich — better known by his pen name, Sholom Aleichem — takes place in the fictional town of Anatevka, a more singable name for a town Aleichem modeled on the town of Boyarka near his birthplace in central Ukraine. And when the musical welcomes new arrivals, they tend to have traveled from the nearest big city, Kyiv.

Life in Anatevka is mostly peaceful – the musical centers on milkman Tevye's attempts to marry off his daughters — but there is a lurking danger represented by the presence of Russian soldiers.

Scenes from the 1964 stage production of Fiddler on the Roof, depicted here, echo contemporary images of families fleeing their homes in Ukraine this week as Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
/ New York Public Library
/
New York Public Library
Scenes from the 1964 stage production of Fiddler on the Roof, depicted here, echo contemporary images of families fleeing their homes in Ukraine this week as Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Pogroms for a century, then a revolution

In real life, Jews in the area had been the targets of pogroms for the better part of a century by the 1905 depicted in Fiddler.

Not mentioned in the show is that Imperial Russia was in the midst of turmoil of a broader sort – a political conflagration that would later be labeled the "First Russian Revolution." In January of 1905, Tsarist forces had opened fire on a peaceful workers' demonstration in St. Petersburg, and as news of that incident spread, so did unrest throughout the empire. When more than 170,000 workers in Ukraine went on strike, the Russian army clamped down hard.

In the musical, they do that by claiming the Jewish homes in Tevye's village for Russians and exiling all of the Jews. When an officer comes to tell the people of Anatevka they have three days to leave, the instinctive reaction of Tevye's neighbors ("we will defend ourselves") and the officer's mocking response ("against our militia, our army? I wouldn't advise it") can't help resonating today.

Nor can Tevye's furious, if futile, final words to the Russian soldiers before he becomes a refugee himself: "Get off my land. This is still my home, my land. Get off my land."

A people displaced, a history ravaged. Sholom Aleichem's tales of Anatevka were just fifty years old when they were musicalized as Fiddler on the Roof, but in another sense, they were as as old as time — a thing of "tradition" because history, sad to say, repeats itself.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.