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Back to Tradition

Yisroel Groweiss

Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor most famous for his portrayal of Tevye the milkman has found his way back to the energy of the shtetl

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

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Chaim Topol’s family could have been a case study for Fiddler’s plot — a poverty-stricken family in the Russian Pale, facing new dangers to tradition from without and within (Photos Ezra Trabelsi)

M illions of people across the world are familiar with the name Chaim Topol, or just “Topol” as he was known in his heyday. From Tokyo to Los Angeles, masses came to watch the Israeli-born actor perform the role of Tevye, the lovable dairyman and hapless star of Fiddler on the Roof. Virtually the only demographic unfamiliar with — and unimpressed by — his star role is the chareidi public he worked so hard to depict. Yet an aging Topol reveals that he’s spent some of his best hours bent over a Gemara, training his mind to follow the principles and positions of Abaye and Rava. As he straddles the dual roles of celebrated actor and spiritual explorer, he is also taking tentative steps toward the tradition that resonated throughout his most famous role.

The musical play that put Topol’s name in lights is based on a tale written by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. The storyline is a familiar one to many Jews with roots in Eastern Europe: a poverty-stricken Jewish family living in the Russian Pale of Settlement faces new dangers to tradition from both without and within. From without, the Russian authorities and soldiers bring a slew of persecution, pogroms, and eviction. From within, the winds of change from the Enlightenment and Communism threaten to topple the religious commitment of an entire generation. Tevye’s family suffers the full brunt of those forces, and his daughters, for the most part, sever their connection to their religion.

It’s ironically fitting that Chaim Topol was cast as Tevye. His family could have been a case study for Fiddler’s plot. Topol stems from a rich Eastern European chassidic heritage that was largely discarded somewhere along the way for the starry vistas of Zionism and then the lure of the stage and screen. But in recent years, the plaintive call of “Tradition!” has made inroads in his soul. The iconic actor has yet to make the leap to full observance, but there’s a definite flicker of religious awareness in Chaim Topol.

In the early days of the State of Israel, Chaim Topol was a source of great pride. An entire generation of Israelis drank in his performances. When I ask him to don his kippah and act out his Gemara study sessions for me, he demurs. “Not all the world is a stage,” he says, intentionally misquoting Shakespeare. “And Gemara’s not a game.” Then his inner actor finds a solution. “Instead of putting on a show, why don’t we learn for real?”

“Learning Gemara rejuvenates me. I hope I remain lucid the rest of my life, so I can keep learning”

He pulls out a knitted kippah, flips through the Gemara with a practiced finger, and turns to daf 21, amud alef, three lines into the sugya of Chanukah. “Amar Rav Huna,” the rich baritone fills his Tel Aviv apartment.

This isn’t a one-time spectacle. Topol has been learning Gemara with a steady chavrusa for decades; he’s covered large portions of Shas by now. “I’m no youngster anymore,” he says. “I’m already 82 years old. But I haven’t yet finished Shas. There are some masechtos I’ve learned a few times, and some I haven’t yet touched.”

It’s hard to reconcile the two Topols here in this room: the kippah-clad student of Judaism’s holiest texts, and the film star who embodied secular success for an entire generation. Topol admits that he’s something of a rare bird among his high-society friends. There aren’t too many veteran artists of his caliber who have such intimate knowledge of a folio of Gemara. Still, he says, the flavor of tradition has always been an ingredient in his life.

Topol, born in 1935 in Tel Aviv, is part of that generation that still had a direct link to the Judaism of yesteryear. His Yiddish, if you can judge from our small talk, isn’t bad. “My father didn’t want his Israeli-born son to speak the language of the shtetl,” he says. “But when he needed to talk privately with my mother, he’d whisper to her in Yiddish. I think if I would have stayed around the house longer, I would speak Yiddish a lot better today.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 690)

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