The first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof was almost twenty years ago. Then, I was a middle schooler at an arts camp in North Carolina, dabbling in theater improv while taking my first music composition class. Seeing the show was a field trip to a community theater production. I remember the overcrowded, rustic lobby and Tevye, alone on stage, giving monologues next to a cart in front of a vast twilight blue backdrop.
Then, I had no connection to the story, had not learned about anti-Semitism, and did not grasp that the Jewish people existed beyond stories from ancient Hebrew scriptures. I never became a musical theater geek, and it was a decade before I had any desire to visit the Holy Land.
Today, I witnessed one of my music theory students wordlessly evoke the emotion of Tevye’s talks with God. As she perched on various structures on stage, I remembered her speaking a couple of semesters ago about her first experience of improvising on her violin and recalled the splendor of her recent project for the Intro to Composition course.
This viewing of the musical has been filtered through a several years of investigating ancient and contemporary Jewish history and culture in books, concerts, Israel, and my dissertation. Tevye talks to God the way Abraham did. My feet have danced the Israeli folk steps of this production’s choreography. The score evokes the klezmer and cantorial singing I studied for an instrumental trio I wrote during graduate school. Every song in this musical was familiar to me except Perchik and Hodel’s “Now I Have Everything.”
In between middle school and professorship, I had another encounter with Fiddler on the Roof. While leading a musical theater club in 2013 at Wayside Tompkins Park Senior Center as part of Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide, I chose two songs from this show for my elderly cast. Like me, several of the seniors had seen a TV broadcast of the 1971 movie version. After singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “Sunrise, Sunset” for the center’s audience, one remarked that she never imagined she might perform something like what she saw on TV. Although I have spent this millennium preparing and making space for myself and those around me to make music, it is still hard for me to believe that now I am able to devote most of my time and energy to doing so.