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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Fiddler’ back story opens Jewish Film Festival

Dan Webster

Of all the annual movie events that Spokane offers, the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival is one of the best. Following is the preview of the festival that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Every year the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival presents a lineup of movies that explores the whole of Jewish experience, from life in today’s Israel to studies of the religion’s ancient roots.

And that tradition will continue on Thursday, Jan. 30, when the 2020 version of the festival opens with the documentary “Fiddler: a Miracle of Miracles,” which will play at 7 p.m. on the campus of Gonzaga University, at the Jepson Center’s Wolff Auditorium.

Two more narrative films will follow at 7 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Saturday’s feature “The Light of Hope” is a Spanish, Catalan and French production with English subtitles, while Sunday’s offering is “The Unorthodox” (a feature rendered in Hebrew and Yiddish, also with English subtitles).

“Fiddler: a Miracle of Miracles” should interest any fan of Broadway musicals. Directed by Max Lewkowicz, it documents the creation of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” from its inception to its continuing popularity not just among Jewish patrons of the arts but among varied populations around the world.

That inception came courtesy of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose stories about life in a Jewish village in Russia at the turn of the 20th century had been staged dramatically in 1919, produced in a 1939 film titled “Tevya” and as a 1950s Off Broadway musical.

It took composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick to come up with the basis for what would turn into one of the hit Broadway musicals of all time. Bock and Harnick, teaming up with Joseph Stein – who wrote the book – producer Harold Prince and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, formed the team that – along with the great Zero Mostel as Tevye – created the work that, after opening on Sept. 22, 1964, would run for 3,242 performances and win nine Tony Awards, including best musical, score, book, direction and choreography.

Lewkowicz’s film documents all this through interviews with Bock, Harnick, Stein and Prince – Robbins and Mostel having died long ago – along with much more. Not only does Lewkowicz detail the working habits of Bock and Harnick in particular – including using actual recordings of Harnick playing a first version of what would become the song “If I Were a Rich Man” – but he goes deep into the history of the very geographical spot that inspired Aleichem’s original stories.

And he argues that, in a most essential way, “Fiddler on the Roof” is a story of female empowerment – as Tevye, the father of five daughters, is forced to weigh his affection for his girls against their growing sense of independence as it conflicts with the religion in which they were raised.

Most of all, Lewkowicz shows how even though “Fiddler” – both the original musical and the 1971 Norman Jewison-directed movie – is primarily a Jewish story, it still manages to speak to audiences across both generations and national boundaries.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. As playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, whom Lewkowicz also interviews, says in his own Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton,” “We’re immigrants. We get the job done.”