“It was only supposed to be for six weeks,” Steven Skybell marvels of the nearly two year-run of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. Even with the beloved Oscar and Tony Award-winning star Joel Grey directing, this all-Yiddish musical with English super-titles might have been nothing more than “a Summer curiosity,” Skybell says.

Instead, the niche production that modestly aimed to sell out 299 seats at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in the Museum of Jewish Heritage became the off-Broadway darling of the season. The show immediately received critical acclaim, began to attract A-list celebrities, and soon moved uptown to Theatre 42, a house double the size of Yiddish Fiddler’s original home. 

It was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, and has proven popular with an incredibly wide audience.  91% of the 792 people who rated Fiddler on Show Score gave it four and a half to five stars. Speaking of stars…they’re just like us: they love Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish! Meryl Streep has seen it. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his wife, Vanessa. Mikhal Baryshnikov. Bette Midler. Carol Burnett. Billy Crystal and his wife, Janice. Barry Manilow. Ben Vereen. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Itzchak Perlman. Topol, who played Tevye in the movie. The original Tsaytl, Joanna Merlin. The original Motl, Austin Pendleton. Alan Alda. Jake Gyllenhaal. Hugh Jackman. Those are just a few of the names Skybell mentions before sharing some of their encounters:

“Christine Ebersole, the Tony Award-winning actress, who is not Jewish, through her tears, said she didn’t understand a single word of it; ‘but it’s the Bible.’ She was deeply moved. And the great Mandy Patinkin saw our show and addressed the entire company afterwards. He broke down several times, trying to tell us how moved he was by our performance. He also urged us to recognize that we’re doing something very special here and something this special doesn’t come along all that often.”

As usual, Mandy Patinkin is right! This humble, moving, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking, and, ultimately, heartbreaking production won both the prestigious Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for “Best Revival of a Musical.” As for Steven Skybell, who stars as Tevye and says “This Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof has been the best experience of my life…” Well, he very deservedly won the coveted Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical. 

Receiving the 2019 Lucille Lortel award for outstanding lead actor in a musical, Steven Skybell thanked “the Reboyne shel Oylem. G-d on high. He’s one of the major scene partners I have in this play.”

“I love playing Tevye. There is a part of it that  actually doesn’t feel like acting, or pretending. I have pictures of many of my grandparents’ grandparents in the dressing room and I feel like doing this play honors their lives, and memorializes how they may have lived and died. It connects me to them.”

Skybell accepted the Lucille Lortel Award and thanked “the Reboyne shel Oylem. G-d on high. He’s one of the major scene partners I have in this play.”

He also said: “I haven’t had this many Jews to thank since my bar mitzvah. This show is definitely a labor of love, equal parts labor and love, and has become for me a dream come true. A dank! Thank you!”

He’s actually been preparing for this his whole life. Steven Skybell grew up in Lubbock, which he says was the closest thing to a shtetl “because everybody knew each other.” He starred in every play at Coronado High School and in many at the Lubbock Theatre Centre. He spent summers honing his craft at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, a magnet for gifted and talented performers like himself, and it was there, at 17, that he first addressed G-d as Tevye and asked: “would it spoil some vast, eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?” 

As an undergrad at Yale Drama School, when he was 22, Skybell gathered all of Tevye’s courage to ask his stage wife Golde: “Do you love me?”  

He then had a long hiatus from Fiddler, while finding Broadway success for years in Wicked, a star-studded revival of Pal Joey, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and The Full Monty among many other shows. Off-Broadway, he appeared in Camelot, Babette’s Feast, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, and Antigone in New York, for which he won an Obie Award.  

Steven Skybell is what many would call “an actor’s actor” and his “Acting Shakespeare” class, which he teaches at his alma mater, the Yale School of Drama, as well as at Juilliard, NYU, and Fordham University is legendary. Skybell is such an accomplished interpreter of Shakespeare that he was one of only two Americans chosen to be part of the inaugural company of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1997. Theatre cred doesn’t get much higher than that. Ah, but he’s not just a stage actor. Steven Skybell has been in films and on hugely popular television shows like Chicago P.D., Sex and the City, and, of course, Law & Order.

Interlochen Arts Camp posted these pictures of their famous alum on Facebook with the caption: 1979/2018

In 2016, Fiddler beckoned again, this time from Broadway! Skybell played the lovelorn widower, Anatevka’s wealthy butcher Lazer Wolf, to Danny Burstein’s Tevye. But G-d has a vast, eternal plan and He wasn’t done having Steven Skybell talk to him night-after-night as Tevye. Not yet. Evidently, not until they talked in YIDDISH! And now, finally, THIS show, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, which Steven says is “a delight beyond compare for me.”

When asked to compare his interpretations and portrayals of Tevye as he, Steven, has personally matured and taken his own spiritual journey, Skybell is willing to go deep.

Fellow Texan, Carol Burnett

“It’s inverted,” he begins. “My interpretation has inverted. When you’re 17 years old and playing Tevye, you’re concerned with the things that make him old. The voice, the posture, the walk. That has been a shift for me. Now, I don’t have to play him tired, I AM tired! I am ALL those things. In fact, I’m probably older now than Tevye would have been, because his eldest child is only 19. Now, I’m struck by his resilient youthfulness. He is buoyant. His spirits rise again and again. Tevye is beaten down throughout the play and he manages to laugh. That’s his buoyancy.”

But there’s much more to what’s changed in Steven Skybell’s understanding of and identification with Tevye.

“I had these meaningful experiences playing Tevye as a teenager and a young adult, and I was always desirous of playing him as his age dictates. But now I bring my love of Judaism, my love of learning. Look,” he says, “I’m not a Shomer Shabbos Jew, though I play one onstage.”

Director Joel Grey spontaneously and enthusiastically kissed Steven during the recording of the cast album as Bruce Sabath, who plays Lazer Wolf, was still recording.

It’s a quip he immediately follows with an earnest share: “My family has come to it later, and I yearn for that. I can’t be observant and I struggle with that, and Tevye struggles, and that’s where we intersect now.”

“This Yiddish Fiddler brings a lot more authentic Judaism, it has Talmudic references. In the Broadway version, Tevye always talks about ‘The Good Book’. I love that we call it ‘Die Toyrah’ and that Tevye cites the Medrash Rabba! He’s less of a buffoon, he’s had some learning and he really would love to sit in the synagogue all day and pray. At one point, in our Yiddish version, his daughter Hodel even calls him a Talmud Chacham – and I smile at that because Tevye would like to think of himself as that, as a learned Jew.”

“At the end of the play, when Tevye says goodbye to Tsaytl and she has her baby in her arms,” Skybell says, “I take a moment to bless the baby, because Tevye would. I don’t say the whole thing, but I say it out loud, enough of it that everyone knows what he is saying and doing. I always thought of the ‘Sabbath Prayer’ scene, which, in our play is ‘Shabes Brokhe,’ as Kiddush. There’s challah on the set and, originally, the set decorator wanted it uncovered so that everyone knew there was challah on the Shabbos table. But they wouldn’t do that! Tevye’s family would not have the challah uncovered before or during Kiddush! I said ‘If we’re going to uncover the challah, we’re not doing it without a bracha! So, I say the bracha onstage.’”

Cultural Context Matters
It is significant that in these same two years that Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, which is unquestionably the “Jewiest” version of Fiddler to have ever been performed, is so successful off-Broadway, the majority of hate crimes in New York City are those targeting Jews. Religious Jews, specifically. Jews who wear beards like the one Steven Skybell sports. Religious Jewish women who cover their hair like the characters in the play and Orthodox Jewish friends of Steven have also been targeted.

In June, the New York Police Department announced that nearly two-thirds of hate crimes reported this year have been Anti-Semitic. The NYPD received 176 hate crime complaints from January 1 to May 19, constituting an 83 percent rise over the corresponding period last year, The Wall Street Journal reported based on police data.

A picture of the rock used to attack Rabbi Avraham Gopin, together with images of his bloodstained clothes (Pictures: Twitter/AJC)

That number then rose alarmingly from 176 hate crimes between January and May to 311 hate crimes between January and September 2019. 135 more hate crimes in just a few months. Here are just a few examples: 

On Tuesday, August 27, in broad daylight, someone yelling anti-Semitic slurs threw a gesunde paving stone at a 63-year-old Jewish man who was working out in the park. The brick missed its target and the father of ten confronted the guy who had thrown it at him. A fight ensued, during which the Jewish man was repeatedly punched in the face and beaten with the paving stone. By the time help arrived, his clothes were soaked in blood, his forehead was injured, his nose was broken, and he had lost two teeth. Two days later, on August 29, a 34-year-old Chassid was sitting in traffic in Crown Heights about 5 p.m. when someone chucked a hunk of ice at him through his open window. The ice hit the man in the face and injured his eye. A group of young men was seen running from the area just after the assault, police said. The NYPD released surveillance photos of the men. No arrests have been made. On August 31, an assailant hit a Jewish man with a belt outside a synagogue. 

Meanwhile, every performance of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish was packed. 

Reports of hate crimes targeting the Jewish community are surging in the subway, according to police statistics, a troubling trend that mirrors what’s bubbling outside of the transit system.

NYPD numbers show that as of October 20, officers had logged 42 hate-crime complaints involving anti-Semitic acts in the subway this year — a 162% increase over the number of incidents reported through that date in 2018.

Speaking at a UJA event in early October, Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, who heads the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, said that 163 of this year’s reported hate crimes have targeted Jews. He recounted a partial list of anti-Jewish hate crimes that had been reported in just one week:

  • Two Jewish men had their hats knocked off by a group of teens.
  • A separate group of children broke the windows of a Brooklyn synagogue during the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
  • Also during the holiday, a third group of kids harassed a Jewish woman, pulling off her scarf and wig.

“Although the proximity is ridiculously close, those are not the same three groups of children,” he said. “I would love if one person in New York City committed all of my 311 hate crimes and I could lock up one person and make it go away. For the most part, I’m dealing with 311 random individuals of very diverse backgrounds committing these hate crimes against different people.”

The Skibelski family in Suwalki, Poland
This portrait hung in all our homes growing up and is now in my dressing room at Yiddish Fiddler. My brother Joseph was so intrigued by this photo that it inspired his successful first novel, A BLESSING ON THE MOON. 
In 1998, The New York Times Sophisticated Traveller magazine commissioned an article by Joseph about Poland and he asked me to accompany him to Suwalki to walk its streets and see if anything of our family’s presence remains.
As part of the emotional and spiritual journey that Joseph and I shared to find our ancestral home and heritage, we learned Yiddish together by phone every day. That means about 18 years before Joel Grey was hired to direct this for the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, my future “scene partner,” G-d, was preparing me to play Tevye in his original voice, in Yiddish. A dank! Danken Gott!

The Skibelski family in Suwalki, Poland
This portrait hung in all our homes growing up and is now in my dressing room at Yiddish Fiddler. My brother Joseph was so intrigued by this photo that it inspired his successful first novel, A BLESSING ON THE MOON. 
In 1998, The New York Times Sophisticated Traveller magazine commissioned an article by Joseph about Poland and he asked me to accompany him to Suwalki to walk its streets and see if anything of our family’s presence remains.

As part of the emotional and spiritual journey that Joseph and I shared to find our ancestral home and heritage, we learned Yiddish together by phone every day. That means about 18 years before Joel Grey was hired to direct this for the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, my future “scene partner,” G-d, was preparing me to play Tevye in his original voice, in Yiddish. A dank! Danken Gott!

Molinari said the criminal behavior doesn’t appear to be coming from members of high-profile extremist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the far-right marchers who demonstrated two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The national narrative is not the narrative we see here in New York City. There aren’t roving bands of white supremacists.”

That there is any “narrative” at all is appalling. 

Maybe that’s why this Yiddish Fiddler is landing so deeply now, resonating differently than its lighter-hearted Broadway predecessors, which went for laughs and aimed to please the crowds with a “10 o’clock number,” the highlight of every Broadway show, and offend no one.

Act I of Fiddler on the Roof always ends with a violent pogram disrupting Tsaytl and Motyl’s wedding. That’s nothing new. But in Yiddish Fiddler, in New York, in 2019, Steven Skybell, as Tevye, is violently assaulted. His face is a mask of horror, confusion, betrayal, and utter tragedy. Everyone knew that Jews in other towns were being beaten, killed, or, if they were lucky, just forced from their homes…”but nothing like that has ever happened in Anatevka!”

“The pogram is very real in our production,” Skybell warned me a few days before I went to the play. “You’ll see there’s an aspect to it that makes it profoundly shaking. We handle it like any other stage combat experience in the theater, you have to keep a cool head and make sure the moves are right; but, in the aftermath of it, the feeling is palpable both on stage and in the audience.

That feeling is of your heart being ripped out. 

Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt conceived a deceptively simple design for this production: the entire play is enacted before a crumpled, shmattedike backdrop with the word Torah spelled out in Hebrew. As Tevye is being attacked by one or two thugs, other ruffians are creating chaos among the wedding party and their guests. Director Joel Grey has done such a masterful job of staging chaos and terror that you genuinely don’t know where to look. Then, in what appears to hurt Skybell’s Tevye more than the violent disruption of his daughter’s wedding, more than the cruel betrayal of their Russian neighbors assaulting them in their moment of joy, more than the beating he is taking, one thug impulsively charges for the backdrop, attacks it, and rips the word Torah. The innocuous, modest, nothing backdrop — all it had was Torah — is destroyed. The symbolism is too much, but it’s just right. 

The evening I saw Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, there was an audible, collective gasp at that moment.

Surely, I was not the only one shivering when Steven Skybell stood up, his face at once full of horror and pain, then transformed into determination and perhaps resignation. Act I ended, the room went dark, and then the lights were on and it was a minute before people headed to the lobby for a drink or outside for a quick smoke. No one’s phone came out right away. We were 499 people processing what we all just experienced: art imitating life. Very, very well.

I asked Steven about the elephant in the living room, about the cultural context. 

“Judy, this is a hard thing for me to say, or express, but when 9/11 happened — I remember that morning so clearly — and one of my first thoughts was ‘it’s not safe to be a Jew.’ And I felt that if such a thing could happen on American soil, then anything can happen to the Jews once again. I think the rising violence and anti-Semitism in the US is very alarming, but not unexpected.”

We dove deep again. I said I have always been troubled by Fiddler; I find it a morally complex work. People project their own religious journey onto the play. It’s a good canvas. No; it’s a good mirror. 

“Everyone feels like they know Fiddler. ‘I know Fiddler!’ Joel Grey? He knows it BETTER. He knows it deeper,” Skybell praises his director and then tells an interesting “process” story:

“When Chava goes to Tevye with the nice non-Jewish guy she intends to marry, she doesn’t ask his permission and she knows she won’t get his blessing. Joel gave me a piece of direction for that scene. He encouraged me to really lay into her and be a monster to her! But,” Skybells says, sharing the vulnerability of every actor: “you run the risk that the audience is going to hate you!”

He smiles as he says “but audiences talk about that moment. It’s so powerful. Tevye’s rage. ‘This is a line you cannot cross!’ And, look, I’m not observant, but the fact that at Tsaytl’s wedding, the men start dancing with the women, IMMEDIATELY after that, the Russians come in for the pogrom. That, to me, is not coincidence. It’s interesting and tells a story. You can read from that that the transgression has been made and there is a negative result. Sure, the Russians were going to make a pogrom, we know that. But the timing?”

Skybell’s point in the form of a question hangs in the air. Then he says:

“A Holocaust survivor who came to the play asked afterward what I thought about the ending. Did I think the play ends positively or not. He thought not. For me though, in the last scene, when Tevye is pulling his cart off to a new world and he sees the Fiddler…and the Fiddler looks to him, the question is ‘Is this goodbye? What is this?’ In this production, I take a moment. And then I give the Fiddler a gesture with my head, as if to say ‘Come with us.’ That, to me, is a very meaningful moment and it shows Tevye’s buoyant spirit! So, I think it ends well.”

There is a pause and then Skybell says: “I mean, you have to ask yourself ‘What is the Fiddler?’ He’s not G-d. Maybe he’s Tradition. Maybe he’s an emblem of what it is to be a Jew. Because of who we are as Jews, we may have been thrown out of town, but we’re not leaving Judaism behind because of that. That’s a positive message: that we can take our identity with us wherever we go. We will be Jews wherever we are. Even if the Torah isn’t the backdrop of our lives, if our Jewish background isn’t perfect, whatever the Fiddler signifies, Torah is inside us.”

Putting it All Together
I used to love jigsaw puzzles. I love taking things apart and putting them back together in a different way. 
I learned how to quilt in 2006 while playing Dr. Dillamond in Wicked on Broadway. One of the dressers, a gentleman, was quilting in the hallway and I asked him to teach me. I had so much downtime between scenes that I brought my sewing machine to the dressing room and was able to sew during the show. (While doing Tevye I don’t have that kind of time! I have hand projects that I do on the train.) 
When you spend so much time channeling other people through performance, you’re using your mind and all your senses and your body. Acting is a workout. Quilting uses other muscles and thought processes. It forces me to put the show aside and focus on this and that puts me right back into STEVEN. Working on a quilt connects me to the idea of the piece – like the one I made for my brother Joseph out of the suit he wore to our father’s funeral. That quilt is called ‘Kaddish’ and, while working on it, I thought about the ideas expressed in the Kaddish memorial prayer. And I thought about my father and about my brother, because he was the one I was making it for. And sometimes… sometimes, I just get involved in the smallness of stitching. 
I found I love the tradition of quilting and love the beauty of it. I love the texture of the fabrics. I’ve never considered myself a visual artist with paint or pencils, but I love painting with fabric.
I love every aspect of making a quilt – from choosing the fabrics to cutting the fabric to sewing the fabric, pressing the pieces, and putting it together.  Even the final hand stitching, the binding on, is a pleasure for me.
I’ve made about 50 quilts in the past 13 years and have won awards for some of them. One of my favorite pieces is a quilt I made of a Shakespeare quote:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child.”
– King John

That won an Honorable Mention.
…Well, we think Steven Skybell is an honorable mensch who has done an outstanding job of putting it all together: Lubbock, Judaism, Theatre, a relationship with G-d, and his relationships with family and friends. He has pieced together a meaningful life within this vast eternal plan and, if creative fulfillment and love are riches, he is a wealthy man!