Would Tevye Be Feeling the Bern?

In the ever-expanding category of Fiddler’s use as a mark of Jewishness (as if an old Brooklyn accent weren’t enough), a Capitol Steps parody of Bernie Sanders presents the socialist candidate as Tevye, singing a tweaked version of his iconic tune, “If There Are No Rich Men.” The jokes in this sketch are squishy: ageist, too easy, aiming low: Bernie can’t figure out how to work his VCR; he quotes Groucho and attributes the quip to his favorite Marx Brother, Karl; he doesn’t see past the borders of Vermont. (“We could feed the world on pint at a time with our surplus Chunky Monkey stash,” he sings, explaining how Ben & Jerry’s will help stanch world poverty.) Capitol Steps could learn a few things from Sholem-Aleichem about comic irony.

Sholem-Aleichem’s original Tevye has a better grasp on income-gap issues than the Capitol Steps’ version of Bernie does. Some of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics for “If I Were A Rich Man” derive from the second of Shoelem-Aleichem’s nine-story Tevye cycle, written over a 20-year period, “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune,” a story not otherwise dramatized in Fiddler on the Roof. In this story, Tevye’s distant relative Menachem Mendl, a bungling financier, persuades Tevye’s to invest 100 rubles – everything he has – in a scheme he promises will pay colossal dividends. Taken in by Menachem Mendl’s fast-talk, Tevye imagines a house with a real tin roof with ducks and chickens and geese in the yard, among other images we can sing along to, thanks to Bock & Harnick’s adaptation. But earlier in the story, Tevye also thinks about opening a school for poor children, and building shelter for homeless people. He knows from poverty. “My wife,” he says, praising Golde, “is such a wizard around the house that she can bake a noodle pudding from thin air, make soup from a fingernail, whip up a Sabbath meal from an empty cupboard, and put hungry children to sleep with a box on the ear.”

So would he be voting for Bernie? Hard to say. “The more troubles, the more faith,” Tevye concludes at the story’s end, suggesting he just might buy into the notion that material success is all a matter of individual pluck and good fortune, rather than of structural inequities. “The bigger the beggar, the greater his hopes,” he says.

On the other hand, there’s Sholem-Aleichem’s comic monologue “If I Were A Rotchshild” – which is not a Tevye story though its perfectly-scanning title has been used in translations of “If I Were A Rich Man” into Hebrew and Yiddish Here’s the great Shmuel Rodensky singing it in the first Yiddish production of Fiddler in 1965:

This story offers a monetary suggestion more radical than anything Bernie Sanders has uttered: Not only would the speaker of the monologue eliminate war if he were Rothschild by providing sufficient security for all, he’d even do away with money itself. “For let us not deceive ourselves,” he notes, “what is money anyway? It is nothing but a delusion, a made-up thing. Men have taken a piece of paper, decorated it with a pretty picture and written on it, Three Silver Rubles. Money, I tell you, is nothing but a temptation, a piece of lust, one of the greatest lusts. It is something that everyone wants and nobody has. But if there were no more money in the world there would be no more temptation, no more lust.” Try that on our current Congress.

One of the few bits of surviving audio of Sholem-Aleichem reading his work is this wax-cylinder clip of “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothschild.” The energy and drama in his voice are so warm and captivating. If only all the grating political chatter sounded more like this.

hat-tip: Debby Simon