Columns - 2004

    Cellist on the Roof

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    A cellist on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, near a little village called Atlanta, you might say that every one of us would expect to see a cellist on the roof after you learn of the much bigger differences between Fiddler on the Roof and the original stories of Tevye the Dairyman.

    This is not to say that Fiddler is unfaithful to its source material. For a musical -- many of which, including Damn Yankees, Oklahoma!, and countless others, are based on novels lost in relative obscurity -- it does a good job.

    I doubt that I need to do much to acquaint you with Fiddler on the Roof. If you've never seen it onstage, the movie version is unusually faithful to the stage show. If you've never seen either, you need to get out more.

    Either way, you might not know that it's based on a series of stories written by Sholom Aleichem about Tevye the Dairyman.

    The stories, of which there's fewer than a dozen, were written over about twenty years in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They're in the form of letters written by Tevye to Sholom Aleichem, in which Tevye tells his tales.

    While not as common today, several time-honored writings from that period took this format to tell stories. For example, though its likely a coincidence due to their diverse geographies, Bram Stoker wrote the original Dracula novel in that period entirely in the format of journal entries by the characters, news articles, and such.

    There's far more to the stories than you learn of in Fiddler. Of course, to fit into a musical shorter than Angels in America, the stories needed to be abridged. Also, Fiddler is already sad in places, and has a hopeful but not particularly happy ending. But the original stories are, in places, far more tragic.

    And there's even more fundamental differences. For instance, in Fiddler, Tevye bemoans having five daughters. In the original stories, he has seven. Tevye meets Lazar Wolfe at his house, instead of at a bar. Tevye had a good relationship with the non-Jews in the area, mainly due to interaction during his deliveries.

    Arthur Conan Doyle, another writer of that era, felt that Sherlock Holmes was distracting the public from his other, more serious writings. So Doyle killed off Holmes but, due to popular demand, eventually brought him back from the dead for more stories.

    Similarly, Sholom Aleichem essentially ended the story of Tevye more than once. In one story, Tevye emigrates to Israel. Then, in another, Tevye's family is driven from their home near Anatevka.

    So, to entice you to read the originals, here's a comparison of some story elements, to show you just how interesting the differences can be.

    The first two stories are rather unrelated to the events of the musical. In the first, Tevye picks up two women that are lost between villages. ("Picks up" as in "gives them a ride"... the stories aren't THAT different.) It turns out they're part of a wealthy family who rewards Tevye well for bringing them home.

    In the second story, Tevye loses that small fortune by becoming "partners" with a distant cousin who suddenly appears (and subsequently disappears) with a "can't miss" business opportunity.

    The next four stories revolve around Tevye's four oldest daughters. Unlike Fiddler, which focuses on the three oldest, there's even an original story devoted to Shprintze, the fourth eldest. When you read of her fate, you'll see why it wouldn't have made the show any lighter in tone.

    Unlike Fiddler, which makes the stories of the three daughter seem almost simultaneous, the story of each daughter was originally years apart. Tzeitel's match to the butcher Lazar Wolfe and eventual marriage to Motel the tailor is rather faithful to the story, even down to Tevye playing on Golde's deep superstitions to appease her about breaking the agreement with the butcher.

    Hodel's eventual association with Perchik, the radical, is also relatively faithful. Tevye's admiration for Perchik is a bit more apparent in the original even than the musical allows.

    The stories drift farther from here on. Fiddler leaves Chava as a small subplot, though the most dramatic. The differences range from the insignificant to the drastic.

    Fyedka, the Russian who Chava runs off to marry in Fiddler, was originally named Chvedka. After marveling at many people butchering character names so badly that even Lazar Wolfe (himself the most mispronounced) would be proud, I can only imagine that people would have still more trouble getting Chvedka out cleanly.

    But the more drastic change is the ending. In Fiddler, Tevye declares Chava as "dead to us" after she marries Fyedka. But at the end of the show, Tevye shows a quiet good wish to her and her future. In the original story, he never speaks to her again. One day Chava tries to catch him on the road to speak to him, but he rides on, leaving her in tears.

    Tevye goes on at length after this point, wrestling inside over his love for his daughter and his responsibility to his faith. He even sometimes goes near where he knows Chava lives and hears how she is doing, but never approaches. Even in future stories he has this internal conflict, but never lets it show except in his letters to his friend, Sholom Aleichem.

    In Fiddler, the two youngest daughters are small child roles with relatively little to do. In the original, Shprintze has an entire story of her own. A wealthy, though youthfully eccentric man is invited over by Tevye for dinner one day. Unknown to Tevye, every day thereafter he visits Shprintze. They become close, until one day he disappears.

    Tevye is brought to the family's house to learn that their family has removed the man and his mother to a far city. They believe that Tevye tried to have Shprintze, who they questioned was even his real daughter, seduce the man for his money. After this, Shprintze is so distraught at the man's disappearance that she eventually drowns herself in the river.

    So, as you can see, the stories are a bit different. They still carry the same rich flavor of Tevye's humor and perspective. And they're not full of dreariness as a couple of these examples might imply.

    So what other lesson can we learn today from Fiddler on the Roof? While admiring a strong, resilient tree, there's added value in investigating and understanding its roots.

    Doug Brook is a technical writer in Silicon Valley who thinks the opening music would sound really cool on a cello. He is directing Fiddler on the Roof this spring. For more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.