Fiddler on the Roof and Pogroms
Updated: Jan 14
“Tevye, I have this piece of news I think I should tell you as a friend. … I’m giving you this news, because I like you. You’re an honest, decent person. Even though you are a Jew. … We have received orders that sometime soon this district is to have a little unofficial demonstration.” — Russian Constable, Fiddler on the Roof
Pogroms – violent riots aimed at the massacre or persecution of a particular ethnic or religious group – were, unfortunately, well known to both Feiga Shamis of Feiga’s Choice and Teyve’s creator Sholem Aleichem.
Sholem Aleichem was a prominent Yiddish author and playwright from what was once the Russian Empire, today Ukraine. Born Solomon Rabinovich in 1859, Sholem Aleichem wrote a series of stories called Tevye the Dairyman. It is upon these that Fiddler on the Roof is based.
Sholem Aleichem is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Yiddish literature and sought to raise its status in the literary world. His goal was to write the “truth” of Jewish life. He wrote with tenderness and humor and became famous worldwide, often greeted by crowds when he travelled.
“His persona is that he’s this man of the people,” says Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. “That’s not who he really was. He was a highly educated, urbane, well-traveled individual who spoke Russian at home with his children.”
In the early 1900s, Sholem Aleichem’s home was Kiev, a cosmopolitan city with a Jewish population of about 10 percent. Beginning in April 1905, the Russian Empire experienced a wave of pogroms that stretched to the middle of 1906. Nearly 700 towns were hit by pogroms, many of them reportedly premeditated and incited by government officials.
October 31st, 1905 marked the beginning of a three-day pogrom in Kiev. The day after the release of Russia’s October Manifesto, a precursor to the Empire’s first constitution, reactionaries took to the streets. What followed was described by historian William Fuller as “an orgy of looting, raping, and murder chiefly directed against the factories, the shops, homes, and persons of the Jews.” Sholem Aleichem and his family fled their largely Jewish apartment building and holed up in the Imperial Hotel.
In her book Wonder of Wonders, Solomon describes how Sholem Aleichem wrote in a letter about his initial relief at seeing armed soldiers on the street, believing they would help. “And they really did help,” he wrote, “but not us. They helped loot, beat, plunder, steal. … In front of our children, they beat Jews to death – women and children – and shouted, “Money! Give us your money!’”
When it was over, some 100 Jews were dead, and Sholem Aleichem did what many others then did – he left for the United States. There, he continued his prolific writing. Between November 1905 and January 1906, he wrote a series of about 40 “pogrom letters” for the daily paper Yidishes tageblat. In 1914, his pogrom experience influenced his Tevye story “Get Thee Out,” where a beleaguered Tevye is seen packing his belongings as he prepares to leave his home after an official “ethnic cleansing.”
Fiddler on Broadway
Fifty years later, those Tevye stories became Fiddler on the Roof. The production hit Broadway and for ten years held the record for the longest-running musical with more than 3,000 performances.
“Fiddler was the first work within popular culture to present the shtetl to a wide-ranging audience that included non-Jews,” says Solomon. “It carried quite a burden, so it’s been looked to as an authentic representation.”
And while Fiddler presents a rather sentimental and idyllic version of Jewish life within what was then the Pale of Settlement, where the majority of Jews in the Russian Empire were allowed to live, the creators of the musical did attempt to tell a “Jewish truth.”
“The writers and producers did extensive research into life in the Pale from ritual practices to weddings and holiday celebrations,” says Solomon. “They read extensively and looked at pictures. They wanted to make it as accurate as possible, and they tried to be attentive to the specifics of the history.”
And while pogroms during that time tended to be an urban phenomenon, they were not unheard of in small towns such as the fictional Anatevka, nor was it unusual for residents to receive forewarning. The timing of Anatevka’s pogrom was dramatically unfortunate – abruptly ending the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel.
Fiddler on the Big Screen
Solomon says Norman Jewison, producer and director of the 1971 film version of Fiddler, attempted to add even more realism. During his research, Jewison interviewed an elderly couple then living in Israel about their pogrom experience in which they recalled the slashing of feather pillows. Jewison added that to the film’s pogrom scene and made it longer and more violent.
“A lot of Jewish study scholars tend to chuckle when they hear ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” says Jewish historian Natan Meir of Portland State University, “because it is of course a simplification of what Jewish life was like in Russia. To the extent that we kind of strip away some of the nostalgia and get to what Sholem Aleichem originally meant to write, it is very much, obviously an artistic rendition, but something that is very, very truthful about the struggle to maintain a Jewish identity.”
The Next Wave of Pogroms
Sholem Aleichem died in the U.S. in May of 1916 – before the next and more violent wave of pogroms erupted in his former homeland.
“I usually refer to those pogroms as massacres,” says Meir. “We lose some of the ferocity of the pogroms of the post-WWI period when we don’t call them massacres, because that is really what they were. The extent and the horrific quality of those encounters were really quite different from what we see in the Russian Empire in either 1881 or 1905.”
The post-WWI period was to bring violence such as the Jews there, including Feiga Shamis and her family, had never seen before.
Visit our Facebook page to see the 1971 film’s pogrom scenes.
Dekel-Chen, Jonathan (Editor), Gaunt, David (Editor), Meir, Natan (Editor), Bartal, Israel (Editor), Anti-Jewish Violence: Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History, Indiana University Press, 2010
Meir, Natan, Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859-1914, Indiana University Press, 2010
Solomon, Alisa, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, Macmillan Publishers, 2013