Dybbuk and Fiddler

Leonard Bernstein
S. Ansky
Sholem Aleichem
Marc Chagall

Artists from the Eastern lands of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth composed some of the most important musicals in American history. Leonard Bernstein (1918 –1990), born Louis Bernstein, was an American composer, conductor, pianist, and music educator. He was the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents who migrated to the United States from Rivne, Volhynia (now Ukraine). According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history”. As a composer he wrote in many musical styles, including ballet, movie and theatre, opera, chamber, orchestral and symphonic, choral, and piano. His best-known project is the Broadway musical West Side Story. The production is regularly performed worldwide and was made into an Academy Award-winning feature film. West Side Story is set in the mid-1950s in the Upper West Side of New York City, a multiracial, blue-collar neighborhood. The musical explores the rivalry between two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, the Puerto Ricans and the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

Bernstein also composed music to Dybbuk, a ballet produced by New York City Ballet that used S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds as its main source of inspiration. S. Ansky was a pseudonym used by Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport (1863–1920), a Jewish author, playwright, researcher of Jewish folklore, and cultural and political activist. S. Ansky was born in Chashniki, which is located in the former Vitebsk Governorate of the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk is set in the shtetl of Brinitz, presumably in Volhynia. The play centers around a young couple that are to be married according to an agreement made by their fathers before they were born. However, just before the wedding, the bride’s father breaks off the marriage and the groom dies instantly of a broken heart. Later, the groom takes his revenge when he enters the bride’s body in the form of an evil spirit called a dybbuk and possesses her. After rabbinical intervention, the bride is pressed to decide whether to marry a richer man or enter an otherworldly union with the ghost of the former groom. She chooses the latter to great dramatic effect at the final fall of the curtain. Whilst travelling through present-day Ukraine, Ansky had personally witnessed these exorcism-like ceremonies among the Hasidic communities of the region. Indeed, before the First World War, S. Ansky headed an ethnographic commission, which travelled through Podolia and Volhynia. He documented the customs and oral traditions of the local Ashkenazi Jews. The Dybbuk made its world premiere in Yiddish and was performed by the Vilna Troupe in 1920. The Vilna Troupe was one of the most famous theatrical companies in the history of Yiddish theatre. The group was established in Vilnius during the First World War. At that time, Vilnius was the key center of Yiddish culture in the world and was subsequently known as “the Jerusalem of the North”. The troupe also toured Kaunas, Bialystok and Grodno but also visited New York where it performed The Dybbuk at the city’s Grand Theater in 1926.

Fiddler on the Roof is another legendary Broadway musical deeply rooted in the culture of the Ashkenazi Jews of the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The musical is based on Tevye and his Daughters, a series of short stories written by leading Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). He was born and grew up in a shtetl in the Kyiv region and then moved to the capital of Ukraine. After witnessing the pogroms that swept through the country during the Revolution of 1905, Aleichem escaped from the city and migrated to New York City. The village of Boyberik, where Aleichem’s stories are set (renamed Anatevka in the musical), is based on the real small town of Boyarka, located to the south-west of Kyiv. The musical made its world premiere in 1964 and won worldwide acclaim. Several years later it was adapted into an epic musical comedy-drama film. The film gained great popularity and won three Academy Awards. If I Were a Rich Man, a show tune from the musical, became an international hit. The title of the song is inspired by a monologue by Aleichem in Yiddish, Ven ikh bin Rothschild (If I were a Rothschild). Today, Aleichem is venerated in the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth but also in the US and Israel. In 1997, a monument dedicated to him was erected in Kyiv. Many streets were named after him in cities such as Kyiv, Odessa, Vinnytsia, Lviv, and Zhytomyr. Ukraine even issued a postage stamp of Sholem Aleichem. In 2009, 150 years after his birth, the National Bank of Ukraine issued a special anniversary coin celebrating Aleichem with his face depicted on it. In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania operates a Jewish school named after him. In New York City East 33rd Street, between Park and Madison Avenue, is also known as Sholem Aleichem Place.

Four Seasons is a mosaic by Marc Chagall that is located in Chase Tower Plaza in the Loop district of Chicago, Illinois., Source: Shutterstock

The authors of the musical considered naming it Tevye, before landing on a title suggested by the various paintings by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) such as The Fiddler, Green Violinist, or Le Mort. Generally, his paintings inspired the original set design of the musical. Chagall was an excellent painter of Jewish origin who was born in Liozna, a shtetl near Vitebsk, present-day Belarus. It was also the hometown of Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 –1812), the first Rebbe of Chabad, one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism. Chagall created his own ‘marvellous realism’ style that was shaped by Jewish folk culture. Art historian Franz Meyer has argued that the magical character of his works is directly inspired by Hasidism, a mystical branch of Judaism that first appeared in the 18th century in Podolia. This tradition left a great impression on Chagall during his childhood and youth. Meyer writes that “For Chagall this is one of the deepest sources, not of inspiration, but of a certain spiritual attitude… the Hasidic spirit is still the basis and source of nourishment of his art”. Chagall lived in the US between 1941 and 1948. He settled in New York. He loved hanging around the Lower East Side, which was inhabited mostly by Jews from the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth. There he felt at home, enjoying Jewish cuisine, and reading the Yiddish press.

Members of the Dnepropetrovsk State Russian Drama Theatre perform “Fiddler on the Roof” , Dnepro, Ukraine, Source: Shutterstock  

The main protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof is Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman. The musical, apart from presenting the bitter-sweet life of a Jewish community in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, also shows the complicated social relations between Jews and Ukrainians living side by side. Tevye’s daughter Chava falls in love with a Ukrainian named Fyedka. When Chava eventually asks for her father’s permission to marry Fyedka, Tevye tells her that marrying outside the family’s religion is against tradition and forbids her from meeting with Fyedka. However, the next morning, Fyedka and Chava elope and are married in an Orthodox church. Chava tries to reason with her father but he refuses to speak to her and tells the family to consider her dead. Chava and Fyedka decide to leave for Galicia in Austria. Tevye still refuses to talk to her but when one of his daughters says goodbye to Chava, Tevye prompts her to add “God be with you”. Finally, Tevye and the rest of his family leaves Anatevka for America.