Fiddler, which was the most successful show on Broadway in the 1960s, now encapsulates how American liberal Jews like to imagine that their Jewish ancestors always were: poor and oppressed.
And yet the extensive documentation of Jewish history suggests that the late Czarist Fiddler era was an anomalous spell. For most of European history, Jews tended to be prosperous, well connected to the power structures, and politically conservative.
Ironically, the Fiddler on the Roof portrait of Jewish history was so popular view that it undermined Fiddler’s own composers Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock when they tried to follow up their hit with the 1970 megamusical The Rothschilds.
Since audiences were so enraptured with the humble Tevye singing “If I Were a Rich Man” (originally, “If I Were a Rothschild”), Harnick and Bock figured nobody could resist a musical version of the most famously rich family in history. They mounted a spectacular production of The Rothschilds starring Hal Linden, Jill Clayburgh, and Robbie Benson.
But after a decent run on Broadway and a couple of Tony Awards, the musical has vanished from popular memory. After all, this tale of extravagantly rich and powerful bankers wheeling and dealing with Prince von Metternich seems more like an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory than an appropriate lesson for the general public.
Yet The Rothschilds may have been more representative of Jewish history than Fiddler…