The decision to cancel a performance of Fiddler on the Roof on kol nidre – the evening of Yom Kippur – might seem like a no-brainer, and that’s what the producers of the current Broadway production have done. They announced last week that there will not be a performance on October 11 in order to give company members who observe Yom Kippur “the ability to do so.” That hasn’t always been the case with Fiddler (nor with other Broadway shows that feature Jewish characters and actors). In fact, in the fall of 1965, a year into Fiddler’s original run, a theater columnist for the New York Post chided the show for staying open on Judaism’s highest holy day despite the misgivings of Luther Adler, who had replaced Zero Mostel as Tevye. As Wonder of Wonders notes, “the contest between shul and showbiz for the soul of an American Jew on Yom Kippur is a sturdy emblematic one, driving the plots of works going as far back as The Jazz Singer and the melodramas of the Yiddish theater.” The newspaper column set off a flood of mail to the original producer, Hal Prince, complaining, as one missive put it, that running on Yom Kippur made “a mockery of the traditions the show celebrates.”
But Prince held firm. Canceling would be unfair to people who had purchased tickets far in advance, especially those from out of town, he replied in letters to the protesters. “The Imperial [theater] is not a Temple; it’s a theatre, and Fiddler makes more friends for the Jews than Yom Kippur does,” he wrote.
A year later – after an actor who had come into the show as a replacement for Tzeitl went to the press to complain that she’d been fired for calling in sick on the High Holidays – the letters to Prince were more voluminous and vituperative. By that point, Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur in 1965 had enshrined taking the day off as an essential assertion of Jewish identity, even for those who were not religiously observant. Nonetheless, the show went on with no impact on ticket sales or attendance.
Now, more than half-a-century later, there’s little debate among Jews about not working on Yom Kippur – nor about the sanctified status Fiddler itself has come to occupy as an ambassador for Jewishness.
In place of the performance on October 11, the current producers are adding one on Monday, October 10, Columbus Day. Increasingly known Indigenous People’s Day, this should be observed as our secular, national Day of Atonement.