Tevye's enduring popularity in Ukraine

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The writer Sholem Aleichem captured the life of Jewish shtetls a hundred years ago in his short stories about Tevye the Milkman. Those stories were the basis for the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Correspondent Brigid McCarthy reports on the enduring popularity of Tevye in Ukraine today.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is the World. A hundred years ago 3 ½ million Jews lived in the part of Europe that's now Ukraine. Most lived in villages or shtetls. The Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem captured shtetl life in his short stories about Tevye, the milkman. And those stories later were turned into musical Fiddler on the Roof. The shtetls are gone now, obliterated during the Holocaust, but as Bridget McCarthy [PH] reports from Kiev, every so often on the Ukrainian stage, the shtetl comes back to life.

BRIDGET MCCARTHY: In Sholem Aleichem's former hometown, there's an actor who owns the role of Tevye. Stupka is Ukraine's most famous living actor. He's 68 years old, barrel-chested and rumpled, and for the past 20 years, he's been playing the lead role in a hugely popular stage adaptation of Tevye the Milkman. He's seen Fiddler on the Roof. But there's not singing in Stupka's version, and very little dancing. It's much more faithful to Sholem Aleichem's stories, even if here the Jews speak Ukrainian not Yiddish. Like the stories, this stage version is filled with both humor and tragedy. In our little village, Tevye explains, Russians, Jews and Ukrainians live side by side. We each have our traditions. They have their priests, we have our rabbis, smart people by the way.

Ukrainians take their hats off when greeting someone. Jews keeps theirs on. But frankly speaking, what's the difference if we're all poor. Throughout the show, Tevye cracks jokes, pleads with God, and weeps when his daughters leave him. Bohdan Stupka says Tevye is a role that's especially close to his heart because he says, Ukrainians and Jews have a shared history.

BOHDAN STUPKA: I didn't actually play a Jew. I played a Ukrainian.

MCCARTHY: Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter, the writer Bel Kaufman told Stupka that of all the stage versions of her grandfather's stories she's seen, this one is her favorite. Earlier this year, she invited Stupka and several other cast members to New York to perform at the 150th Anniversary celebration of her grandfather's birth. Even though Sholem Aleichem was born in a shtetl, and his character Tevye is based on an actual Jewish milkman whom he met one summer in the 1890s, the story doesn't tell the whole truth about Jewish life in 19th Century Eastern Europe.

STUPKA: Tevye, the milkman, it's a very charging story, of course. It's very emotional.

MCCARTHY: Yevhein Milamyed [PH] is a Jewish Historian in Kiev. He grew up in what remained of a Ukrainian shtetl after World War II. He says the play, and Sholem Aleichem's stories present an idealized version of shtetl life.

YEVHEIN MILAMYED: And I remember the stories of my grandmother, who grew up in the shtetls about problems, etc.

MCCARTHY: Milamyed spends much of his time looking for fragments of this vanished culture, and much of what he finds isn't pretty. The shtetls of the 19th century were close knit, deeply religious communities, but they were also hungry, crowded and cold. Jews lived in these rural towns not by choice, but necessity. Under the laws of czarist Russia, most of them couldn't leave the Pala settlement, a swath of territory along the Russian Empire's western border. Major cities were off limits, so were most occupations. Jews couldn't own land.

MILAMYED: And in this closed world of the shtetls, their choice was very limited.

MCCARTHY: Then there were the pogroms, anti-Jewish riots and attacks in the Russian Empire. There was a surge of pogroms right at the time that Sholem Aleichem was writing his stories about Tevye.

MILAMYED: Pogroms were made by those ordinary people who lived and to communicate with Jews.

MCCARTHY: In Aleichem's version, Tevye's Ukrainian neighbors are pressured into pogroms by the Russian authorities, and even warn him ahead of time. But a pogrom does force Tevye and his family to flee just as a massive pogrom in 1905 drove Sholem Aleichem into exile. Between 1881 and 1914, nearly three million Jews emigrated from Russia. Most like Sholem Aleichem went to the United States. Today, there are perhaps 100,000 Jews left in the post-Soviet state of Ukraine. And even though Tevye occupies the stage, the history of the Jewish community here has been largely erased and forgotten. Yevhein Milamyed says most Ukrainians don't consider it part of their nation's history.

MILAMYED: Ukrainians and Jews, generally speaking, have different histories.

MCCARTHY: The Ukrainian government does make symbolic gestures now and then. This year, it dedicated a museum to Sholem Aleichem in downtown Kiev. It's on the second floor of a gleaming new shopping center that replaced a much older building where Sholem Aleichem once lived and wrote the Tevye stories. Irena Klemova [PH] is the museum director. She's trying to educate Ukrainians about this part of their history.

IRENA KLEMOVA: I often have to start the tours by explaining who the Jews are, the Pala settlement, the Yiddish language and shtetls. Ninety percent of the population knows none of this.

MCCARTHY: But on this date, the room is empty, and Klemova is standing in the dark. The museum has been closed since the end of September because there's no electricity. When asked why, Irena Klemova rolls her eyes with barely concealed exasperation.

KLEMOVA: Because of crisis, they say.

MCCARTHY: The government hasn't paid the electricity bill, so she shows us the collection of photographs, letters, and the large poster of Bohdan Stupka as Tevye with a small flashlight. Who knows maybe Sholem Aleichem would've found this amusing. This after all was a writer whose characters' dark, self-deprecating sense of humor helped them survive far worse. For the World, I'm Bridget McCarthy in Kiev, Ukraine.