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How 'Fiddler on the Roof' has become its own...‘Tradition!’

One woman's passion for the most popular Jewish musical

Fiddler Lecture image
Jan Lisa Huttner, with her Shalom Aleichem figurine.

September 22, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Broadway performance of Fiddler on the Roof

But first, in August, Jan Lisa Huttner will present her new lecture on the musical. The talk will be part of Chicago YIVO Society's 2014 Summer Festival of Yiddish Culture. (Light Opera Works, in Evanston, also is staging a revival in August to honor the musical's milestone.)

Since "My Fiddler: From Grodna to Brooklyn" is her sixth annual presentation on the subject, she says, "The topic is: Why has all this mattered so much to me?" She will explain her personal reasons for spending so many years transfixed by all the sources, synergies, and subtle nuances of this great theatrical classic.

Her previous talks have covered the female characters in the story, like Yente and Hodel, and the musical's choreographer, Jerome Robbins. She has also covered the musical extensively on her blog, Second City Tzivi (titled after her Hebrew name), as well as JUF News and other publications.

She explains her lecture's subtitle, "From Grodna to Brooklyn" by-how else-telling a story. "That's what my Bubbie used to say when I'd ask, 'Where are you from, Bubbie?' She'd reply, 'I was born in Grodna in Russia-Poland.' That always made me laugh. Where is that? Since this is my personal story, I'd like to stick with 'Grodna,'" she adds, noting that it has been spelled every way from "Grodno" to "Hrodna" over the centuries.

Huttner's interest was sparked, she says, not by the stories themselves, but by Chagall's painting of a fiddler on a roof, titled The Green Musician. She began to investigate all aspects of the Fiddler story, from early Yiddish films, to the stage musical and the movie version thereof… from the source, Shalom Aleichem's Tevye stories, to the author's own life.

She is especially mindful of the differences between the short story, stage, and film versions, noting how they shift the story's focus on various characters and even its overall message. For one, Huttner asserts that the main character is not Tevye, whom she relegates to narrator status, but his daughter Hodel, who is "the only one to leave Anatevka, and is not driven out." For another difference, Yente is not even in the original stories. Her conclusion? "There is no one Fiddler."

Huttner also remarks on the events in the world, especially the Jewish world, during the various incarnations of the story. The 1939 Yiddish film version, for instance, was released "in the shadow of Kristallnacht." Further, the Tevye stories themselves reflect the changes in the life and times of their author. The eight stories are published together now, but were in fact written over a span of 20 years. 

Huttner notes that she has been studying Fiddler for 15 years now, reading everything from performance reviews to scholarly analyses to biographies of all major artists involved. Not surprisingly, she notes that her own perceptions of the tale have changed over time, due to events in her own life and deepening familiarity with the plot, characters, and background. She summarizes this revelation by quoting the movie itself: "The more I looked, the more I saw." 

"MyFiddler: From Grodna to Brooklyn" will be given three times: on Aug. 13 at the Northbrook Public Library; on Aug. 14 at the Harold Washington Library; and Aug. 19 at the Wilmette Public Library. Huttner blogs on Fiddler and other Jewish films at

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