Parts of my childhood forever echo with the voice of Chaim Topol.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell with you, look up a friend who’s into great musicals. Ask them who this Topol guy is. And then prepare to be listening for a long, long time.
“You mean you’ve never seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof’??”
Many actors have inhabited “Fiddler’s”: lead role of Tevye, the Russian Jew whose traditional world is beginning to pull apart. Many of them have been fantastic. But if you saw the movie, if you owned the soundtrack album like my parents did (or played it a zillion times like I did), then Topol is almost certainly the Tevye that lives in your mind and heart. A measured pace. A wry humor. An unmistakable voice.
And now, like so many other greats, what we have left are the memories.
It’s easy to get pigeonholed in television and film. Adam West became Batman to such an extent that he spent much of his remaining career playing Adam West. Leonard Nimoy wound up writing a book “I Am Not Spock” … and then later a sequel that embraced the inevitable, “I Am Spock.”
Topol lived in an unusual variation of that world. He got to spend a career doing many other things, some of them light years away from his small-town milkman. (Literally, in the case of his role in “Flash Gordon.”) But he always came back to Tevye, a role he played on stage again and again. By the time he made his last bow in 2009, he estimated he’d played the role over 3,500 times and still loved it.
An unusual case indeed. But then, “Fiddler” is a very unusual show.
Spoiler alert for the newcomers- it’s not a happy-ending musical, except in the broadest sense. At its heart, it’s a story about the struggle between identity and change, in times when “the way it’s always been done” has to find ways to adapt. Tevye’s own daughters make choices that force him to reexamine who he is and what’s important to him time and again. And after all the choices and heartbreak, a change that’s bigger than anyone ends up shattering the community, erasing the village that’s endured so much for so long and forcing its former inhabitants to start again in a hundred different places.
It’s powerful. Heartwrenching. And oh, so familiar.
Old expectations turned upside down? A world that looks less and less familiar every day? Families trying to adapt to each other, either strengthening or shattering in the attempt? All of it resonates pretty strongly these days, and these last few years especially. As the internet joke goes, it’s a time when “normal” is just a dryer setting.
But if our change-filled world resonates with Tevye’s mythical village of Anatevka, maybe some of the lessons do as well.
Tevye’s best choices are always the ones that take someone in instead of shut them out. The one time he closes the door on someone asking for acceptance, it tears his family apart. And when he finds a way to re-open that door just a crack, it adds the smallest bit of hope even as his world is scattered to the winds.
Maybe that’s what kept Topol coming back to the story. It certainly keeps drawing me. And if enough of us can reach out with love to each other, even while we’re still trying to figure out who we are and where we belong … maybe that can be enough.
“I do what I can,” Topol once said of the children’s charity work he did in his later life, “otherwise it is a waste of fame.”
Do what you can. With what you have. With all the love you have in you. There are worse ways to spend a life.
And if you can make a little time in it to watch “Fiddler” as well, so much the better.