A Broadway classic has perhaps never been more relevant than now: that’s the message the cast of Fiddler on the Roof and the local Jewish community shared on opening night in Edmonton.
“Anti-Semitism has not gone away,” said Tammy Vineberg, Jewish Federation of Edmonton marketing and communications associate director, about how the fictional tale parallels real life.
The Broadway Across Canada tour of the 59-year-old Tony Award-winning musical opened Tuesday night at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.
The story, which takes place in 1905 imperial Russia, is set in what was known as the pale of settlement — a western region of the Russian Empire that encompassed parts of Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldova and other countries, where Jewish people were allowed to scrape out a meager living.
The show’s fictional village of Anatevka is located in what is now Ukraine and the story centres on Tevye, an impoverished milkman and father of five girls who attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family’s lives.
It ends with an anti-Semitic edict from the Russian tsar evicting the Jews from their village, foreshadowing how most of the Jewish population of the region would be forced from their homes and perish in the Holocaust a generation later.
When people arrive at the Jubilee for the production this week, they will be greeted in the lobby by an art piece called “Shine A Light on Antisemitism.”
It was produced by the Jewish Federation of Edmonton as part of a global effort to raise awareness.
“When they see all these tiles with all these different feelings, I hope they get the sense like, ‘Wow, there’s all these ways that anti-Semitism impacts someone,'” said Vineberg, who proposed the art piece and secured a grant for it in 2021.
Members of Edmonton’s Jewish community were asked to express how they have been impacted anti-Semitism by painting words or an image on a two-inch by four-inch tile.
The tiles were then arranged into the mosaic by Edmonton-area artist Lewis Lavoie.
Vineberg said responses to the piece at the Jubilee Tuesday night were interesting, as people realized it was more than just a beautiful piece of art.
“Even some people who had not seen Fiddler before saw that connection between the anti-Semitism themes in Fiddler and then seeing the mosaic.”
On Wednesday morning, two cast members (who are also Jewish) were shown the piece.
The artwork in the lobby showcases the modern-day struggles that are mirrored in the story set more than 100 years ago, said Elliot Lazar, who plays ensemble character Mendel.
“So many of the people that contributed to this mosaic are here likely as a result of the same circumstances Tevye and his family are in. I think that’s huge.
“You see the trajectory of their journey and the timelessness of the Jewish experience in all of its beauty — and also in all of the challenges that come with that.”
Lazar is from Winnipeg, went to a Jewish day school and said he grew up being taught his people’s history.
“You learn that it’s always been this way and it persists, which is frustrating. I feel like I had an idyllic growing up where it never felt unsafe to be Jewish. And unfortunately, in the last few years, I’ve been in locations and situations where I didn’t feel that way.
“It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating — but it’s also a challenge for us to rise to, as people, that we’ve gotten over this and we will continue to.”
Jonathan Hashmonay, who plays lead character Tevye, said he was struck by the sadness and anger contained within such a beautiful piece of art depicting a menorah.
“The duality of, you know, shalom, peace, tikvah, hope… right next to sadness, rejection — there was a sad face — but also so many Jewish symbols.”
Hashmonay spent most of his life in Israel and is a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
“It’s difficult to see people who are struggling so hard with something that, for me, has always been kind of a given, right? I grew up with always having Jewish people all around me, all the time.”
There has been a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric online and on social media in recent years, as well as attacks and threats that have forced synagogues and Jewish schools to increase security.
Hashmonay said it is frustrating to see people “who hate needlessly.”
“It’s always difficult,” he said of dealing with anti-Semitism. “Unfortunately, it’s part of the journey of being Jewish and being Israeli, specifically.”
Each year, thousands of Israeli high school students go on educational trips to Poland to visit Second World War death and concentration camps, where some six million Jews, including nearly all of Poland’s roughly three million Jews, were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.
Hashmonay said during his trip, he was standing in line at a store in Warsaw when he encountered a man who had Nazi symbols tattooed on his body.
At first, Hashmonay called it sobering — but he corrected himself to say it’s a part of life.
“That’s unfortunate, but it’s who we are,” he said with a matter-of-fact shrug.
“We struggle and we keep going despite all this hate, we continue to be leaders and prosper and grow — and delve deeper into our Jewish identity as well through this struggle.
“So yeah, it’s frustrating — but it’s part of life.”
Winston Churchill, who led the U.K. through the war, famously said “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and Vineberg echoed that sentiment on Wednesday.
“It’s always ongoing education. It starts with teaching our children, and then they teach their children,” Vineberg said.
“It’s important to not just focus on the Holocaust, but anti-Semitism as a whole — how it can impact the community.”
The mural wasn’t the only display of support at the Jubilee Tuesday night.
During the final bows, Hashmonay read a statement of support for the people of Ukraine and noted the story of Fiddler on the Roof is increasingly timely.
“Thank you all for joining us as we share this story,” he said before a standing ovation.
“This show is, unfortunately, becoming more relevant every day as the people of Ukraine are attacked and forced out of their homes.
“We dedicate this and every performance of Fiddler on the Roof to the people of Ukraine and the refugees seeking shelter from this horrible war. We honour their struggle and spirit with our final song and dance.”
For nearly a year, the people of Ukraine have been fighting back against the Russian invasion, which began in February 2022.
Fiddler on the Roof runs until Sunday, Jan. 8 at Jubilee Auditorium. Tickets are available online.
The artwork is also on tour: it was at the Alberta legislature in November and Vineberg said it’ll be on display at Edmonton city hall in mid-January and into February.