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'Fiddler on the Roof' as it was meant to be spoken

Joel Grey directs a Yiddish-language version of the venerable musical

Steven Skybell stars as Teyve in National Yiddish

Steven Skybell stars as Teyve in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Photo Credit: ProperPix/Victor Nechay

WHAT “Fiddler on the Roof”

WHEN | WHERE Through Sept. 2, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place

INFO Tickets from $50; 866-811-4111, nytf.org

“To life, to life, l’chaim.”

Words known to every lover of musical theater, the inspirational message of “Fiddler on the Roof” sings of hope, health and prosperity in the face of impending doom. But when you hear them in Yiddish, “Zol zayn mit glik, Lechaim!” (It should be with happiness, to life) “people recognize the humanity and the similarity of their pasts and relate to it,” says Tony and Academy Award winner Joel Grey, who is directing the musical performed completely in Yiddish in the current production at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene in lower Manhattan. “You can’t kid yourself with the Yiddish being spoken.”

“It’s the language spoken that would have been spoken by those people at that moment, in that place,” says Jackie Hoffman, the Emmy-nominated actress with Long Island roots (she attended high school in Great Neck), who plays the lovable matchmaker Yente. “I think that makes it very special and more true, gives it more meaning.”

Associate director Matthew “Motl” Didner is more direct about the effect Yiddish will have on audiences: “It’s going to make them see it in a way they’ve never seen it before . . . they’re going to be finding things in the show that they didn’t know were there.”

Grey, Hoffman and pretty much everyone else involved were drawn to the production by the allure of performing the beloved musical in Yiddish (supertitles translate for those who need it). The language, a compilation of Hebrew, German and other Slavic tongues, is one that, as lyricist Sheldon Harnick put it on the first day of rehearsal, many of us know because it was spoken by our grandparents “when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying.”

Grey, whose father produced a Yiddish variety show called “The Borscht Capades,” says his mother wouldn’t allow the language to be spoken in their home. But Grey wanted to be on stage so his first exposure to the language came when his father wrote him a little ditty tracing his Jewish roots.

Hoffman, too, knew little Yiddish, though it’s one “my mother begged me throughout my life to learn so that we would have a secret language.” Yet, she thinks of Yiddish as “a source of humor and a source of comfort to me . . . I’ve always had just a love, a flair for it, but unfortunately I never studied it.”

“Fiddler” in Yiddish unfolds with majestic simplicity in the small Folksbiene theater. Using the Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman that was performed in Israel 50 years ago, the play continues the 104-season Folksbiene tradition of connecting generations through new work and adaptations.

With Joel at the helm, the theater was also able to attract a creative staff with major Broadway credentials. Beowulf Boritt, (“Come From Away”) did the spare but elegant set, and Ann Hould-Ward (“Sunday in the Park With George”) did costumes, an interesting mix of period and contemporary.

Beyond performing in a language so intrinsic to the musical’s history, of course, a more topical undercurrent hits home. “It speaks to those who are feeling marginalized,” says Joel, noting how popular “Fiddler” is all over the world. “I know what that show is about. I also know what it could be about,” he adds, “in this year, with immigration and people wandering all over the Earth . . . I think this could also remind us of how similar the times are . . . and how certain things have never been diminished. It’s sad but true.”

Steven Skybell who plays Tevye — and studied some Yiddish with his brother while growing up in Lubbock, Texas — says the musical, no matter the language, has “a greater immediacy than I think we ever felt it could . . . it’s not a history lesson pointing to 100 or 150 years ago. It’s happening right now.“

Hoffman returns to the power of language when thinking about the impact of this “Fiddler.” “It’s intense,” she says, and “it’s really glorious to hear it in this language and to hear these young, beautiful people speaking and singing in this language . . . it’s just kind of amazing. “ And, she notes, “people know the story by heart anyway, so you don’t even have to think, you can possibly not even have to look at the subtitles and know what’s happening.”

“Tog-ayn, Tog-oys” (Day in, Day out), sings the chorus in glorious harmony. But no need to read the translation overhead. In your heart, all you hear is ”Sunrise, Sunset.”

It’s all in the translation

“Translating is an art form in and of itself,” says National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s artistic director Zalmen Mlotek. Matching Sheldon Harnick’s rhymes and Jerry Bock’s melodies, says Mlotek, required translator Shraga Friedman to “alter the literal meaning of a line in order to preserve the emotional spirit.”

So “If I Were a Rich Man” is translated as “Ven Iklh Bin a Rotshild” (“If I were a Rothschild”). It fits perfectly with the meter of the song while calling to mind other well-known Sholem Aleichem stories, Mlotek says.

Similarly, “For Papa, make him a scholar,” from “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” is translated as ”Der tate, darf afa minyen” (“The father needs him for a minyan,” referring to the number of men required for a prayer service). And “Sunrise, Sunset” becomes “Tog-ayn, Tog-oys” (“Day in, Day out”). “Rather than the specific words,” says Mlotek, “she took another Yiddish expression. It’s a brilliant solution.” — Barbara Schuler

‘Tevye Served Raw’

Seems there’s room for more than one Tevye on city stages this summer.

The Congress for Jewish Culture is presenting “Tevye Served Raw,” which looks at what happens to the characters in “Fiddler on the Roof” after the musical ends. The performance will be done in English and Yiddish, with a cast lead by Allen Lewis Rickman, as Tevye, and Yelena Shmulenson as Tevye’s wife, Golde, best known as the Yiddish-speaking couple in the Coen brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man.”

The show runs through Aug. 14 at The Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St. Tickets, $38, are available by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or visiting at tevyeservedraw.com.

— Barbara Schuler

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