Chaim Topol: 9 September 1935 – 9 March 2023

Photo: Chaim Topol as Tevye the Dairyman, in Fiddler on the Roof, 1971

500 words / 2 ½ minute read

As he used to explain, after his wife Myra died, the warm and generous Greville Janner (Lord Janner of Braunstone) would entertain his guests in the House of Lords dining room.  Not only was it a treat for a mere mortal to enter those hallowed halls, but Greville always had fascinating guests round his table.

In 2007 Martin and I were  invited to one of Greville’s dinners.  As we met the other guests, Martin suggested that I sit next to one.  And so I found myself seated next to one of the greatest characters of Jewish folklore:  Tevye.

I had just presented a course on the history and development of the Holocaust to an American college, and had asked the students to watch a film before the course began, my favourite film on the Holocaust, Fiddler on the Roof.  No, the film is not about the Holocaust, it is about what the Holocaust totally destroyed – a people, a culture, a language, a world and way of life embodied in the word “shtetl”, a word that was uttered by those who once lived there, in the quiet tones used when speaking of the dead.

Would Sholem Aleichem, the pen name of the Ukrainian-Jewish author Solomon Rabinovich, have been pleased with the way Topol brought his Tevye the Dairyman to life, not only in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film based on the Broadway play, but in live productions around the world?  (Even in Japan, as Topol told me at dinner, which surprised him that the play had such a universal appeal.)

Topol’s Tevye is a man caught in a world changing before his eyes, a world where love is more important than figuring out how to get through the day and still have something to eat.  A world where poverty dictates a drab existence which could be punctuated by spiritual light and hope for peace, security, beauty, wisdom, if not in this world then certainly in the next.

Though Tevye’s world is on the cusp of great changes, he is at heart a Jew, living by Jewish standards, feeding those even poorer than himself, wanting to educate his children, dreaming of being able to spend time in study with those more scholarly than he is, planning to see his children continue his Jewish heritage, religion, values.  He put his faith in God (whom he knows on a first-name basis) to protect his family and help them find security.

I knew that Topol is not Tevye – I learned that night that in fact Topol was his surname and Chaim his first.  But his voice was the same, his face was the same (minus the beard), and I felt like I knew him.  So to learn that Topol has died feels like a huge loss.  Though an Israeli, with Tevye’s help, he brought Jewishness to the world, in its complexities and its beauty.

Would Sholom Aleichem have been pleased with Topol’s Tevye?  Oh to be a fly on the wall when they meet in Heaven!

Read: The Holocaust

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