Jewish Currents March 1984 38:3 (416) pp5-6

Tevye in Berlin - East and West


"'We'll be at Uncle Abraham's!' 'We'll be at Uncle Abraham's!' Does everybody have to hear that--all the way to Moscow!?"

So screams Tevye to Golde in West Berlin's Anatevka, the most consistently sold-out production at Theater des Westens in the last five years. For political reasons that should be obvious, this line is conspicuously missing in the East Berlin production of Fiedler auf dem Dach.

There are other important differences. In the West's Anatevka, Golde remonstrates, "We're not in America yet." I the East, the line is "We're not yet there." And while West Berlin's Perchik, the radical student, seems modeled on Rudi Dutschke and his colleagues, whom most West Berliners regard as hotheads, the character is portrayed far more sympathetically in the East--as a visionary whose revolutionary work is described by his beloved Hodel as "the finest thing a person can do."

Fiddler has remained in the repertoire of East Berlin's Komische Oper since Walter Felsenstein first staged it there in 1971. Presented at least once a month, sometimes more often, the production has remained essentially the same over the years, with numerous cast changes and an inevitable, if regrettable, loss in spontaneity. However, the charm of the woodcut set and the fiddler's interludes--interpolated Yiddish folk tunes--has not diminished. (In fact it has been imitated in many West German productions.)

Fiddler's first presentation in German occurred in Hamburg in 1968. It was staged there, without interpolations, as Anatevka, by Karl Vibach, currently intendant (general manager) of West Berlin's Theater des Westens, and starred Shmuel Rodesnky. But Rodensky has gotten on in years since then, and the consummate Tevye of our day is Wolfgang Reichmann, the naturalized Swiss, Galician-born quarter-Jew to whom, all agree, the Theater des Westens largely owes the success of its production.

Reichmann brings to the role a human dimension rarely seen in other Tevyes: the "disease" he complains to God about humorously is poverty, not the tsuris he gets from his henpecking wife. And his grief over his daughter Chava's conversion and marriage to a Russian may be the most moving portrayal since Maurice Schwartz's in the film "Tevye und Seyne Taychter."

(That film, by the way, was shown recently on German TV as part of a series of Yiddish films made in Europe and America in the 1930's. The genre, extinct since the Warsaw Ghetto, has been experiencing a revival: the first musical film in Yiddish since World War II, made in Israel, had its European premiere at a packed West Berlin cinema last Oct. 16, under WIZO's sponsorship.)

Reichmann also very consciously integrates Yiddishkeit of all kinds into his interpretation: he even rewrote practically the whole translation, changing all those "verrückt"s to "meshuga"s, "Sabbat" to "Shabbes," "Passah" to ""Pessach" and so forth. His changes were in fact so extensive that the original (non-Jewish) German translator from the English threatened to sue. The theater settled for Reichmann's speaking mostly Yiddish in an Anatevka where everybody else (except the Lazar Wolf of Viennese actor Peter Heeg) speaks Hochdeutsch!

Although the situation was a bit reminiscent of Alexander Kipnis's singing Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera in Russian with everybody else singing in Italian, the audiences loved it. Even for an American, the sound of the work in a language so much closer to Sholom Aleichem's original produces a less witty but so much more haimish and profound effect than any mere entertainment.

A warm Vorwort appeared in the program signed by Heinz Galinski, Vorsitzender of the Jüdische Gemeinde (Jewish Community Organization), which is very important to West Berlin politically, despite the community's small size: 6500 Jews, over half of whom are recent immigrants from the U.S.S.R. And no matter how the Jews of Berlin think things might have been done differently (each one has his own very definite ideas of course--two Jews, three temples), all are very grateful for the tremendous success of the show there, fall-winter 1982 and, in revival, Oct., 1983.

Founded on Oct. 17, 1983, the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin is dedicated to "the revitalization of opera and music theater on Jewish themes and by Jewish authors and composers, which flourished in Berlin before the Second World War and was nearly extinguished by the Nazis." Its season will begin with a benefit concert of Yiddish songs collected and performed by Pavel Fieber, nephew of Harry Fischer, now retired and living in Orlando, Florida. Fischer headed the last Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin until 1939, when he was forced to flee for his life.

Fieber will also star in the European premiere in 1985 of Tales of Malamud (two operas, Idiots First and Karla, by Marc Blitzstein and this author, after stories by Bernard Malamud--see Editor's Diary, Mar. 1978) at the Jüdisches Gemeindehaus. The Gemeindehaus will in 1984 also host the Verein's European premiere, in concert, of Sima, an opera based on a story by the Russian Jewish exile writer David Aizman, first published in 1906 in Berlin.

Honorary members of the Verein include Dr. Galinski, the Viennese writer-composer Gerhard Bronner (who is preparing the German translation of Idiots First), the British composer Francis Burt (whose ballet The Golem was seen at Theater an der Wien last season, and the Americans Joel Mandelbaum (composer of the opera The Dybbuk), Jack Gottlieb (From Shtetl to Stage-Door), Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler, The Rothschilds), Hugo Weisgall (Athaliah, Nine Rivers from Jordan) and Elie Siegmeister (who has just been commissioned to write two more operas based on stories by Bernard Malamud).

The Verein's main project of the season, in April at the Gemeindehaus, is Growing Up Woman, a musical based on poems by the American (Jewish) poet Barbara Tumarkin Dunham, who was brought together with her American (Jewish) composer by a Russian (Jewish) shadchen. But that's another story....

DR. LEONARD LEHRMAN conducted Anatevka at Theater des Westens in West Berlin, where is Chief Coach and Conductor. He also is president of the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverin Berlin. He last appeared here in April, 1981 with "Hannah - A Jewish Feminist Opera."