When I arrived at Ohio University, I became a lot of people’s “first Jew.” That is, the first Jewish person that someone has met. I know this because when I mention my Judaism, people often tell me, “I’ve never met a Jewish person before!” and begin to ask me questions excitedly. I have learned to find a lot of joy in being a “first Jew,” but one such interaction stands out to me above all the rest. In one of my first days of being a college student, I mentioned to a new friend that I was Jewish. To this she responded, “Oh! I love 'Fiddler on the Roof!'”
This anecdote seems silly and did make me giggle when I experienced it. But, with the news of Chaim Topol’s recent passing, it has become a very touching memory. Topol – who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel – played the character of Tevye in the stage production and 1971 movie adaptation of "Fiddler on the Roof." For those unfamiliar with the play and movie, it tells the story of Tevye the milkman and his family. The story begins around 1905, with Russian pogroms on the rise while Tevye tries to deal with his daughters going against tradition. Tevye and his family struggle with these two realities and ultimately have to make the decision to leave Russia due to being terrorized.
"Fiddler on the Roof” is a testament to great theater, but also to the lasting lessons of the Jews who had to make difficult decisions in order for the next generation to have a better life. Tevye’s daughters are frustrated with the traditions of arranged marriage and so they stray away from their family’s beliefs to marry for love. Tevye does not want to leave the place that his family has lived in for over a century, but he cannot live a life of constant fear. The world, the story shows, is changing, and we have to change with it.
The story of "Fiddler on the Roof" comes alive with Topol’s acting. As viewers, you feel all the emotions he feels. You smile and laugh along with him when he’s happy, your eyes get misty when he’s sad. Through Topol, viewers are all transported to the Pale of the Settlement and attempt to grapple with the hardships, new and old, in Tevye’s life.
But Topol was much more than an actor or a singer– he was an enigma. He was a co-founder of the Haifa Theatre, won a Golden Globe for his performance in "Sallah Shabati," won another Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his performance in "Fiddler on the Roof" and was also nominated for a Tony. Later, Topol was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement for his work in founding Variety Israel, an organization that serves children with special needs, as well as his founding of Jordan River Village, a camp for Arab and Jewish children with life-threatening illnesses.
Clearly, Topol wasted no time in using his fame and influence to help others. His rise to stardom was just another way to bring joy into people’s lives, building off of his experience in Nahal, a performing entertainment troupe in the Israeli Defense Forces. Topol gave life to the story of Tevye and to all of his other roles in a way that earned him respect and admiration both in Israel and across the globe. Although his soul has passed on, his legacy as an entertainer and a righteous man will live on.
Hadass Galili is a senior studying political science pre-law at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Hadass by tweeting her at @HadassGalili.