“Every ethnic group on Earth shrugs its shoulders and has a special relationship with God and
is philosophical about things and wants its kids to marry the correct person in the correct
way.”

That’s all true. It’s also why the story and the stage musical, which opened in 1964, is so
outrageously popular and enduring. It’s relatable. Two thumbs down for the illustrious Mr.
Ebert.

“Exactly,” says Max Lewkowicz, the Montreal-born documentary filmmaker, speaking from
his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It’s not a Jewish story. It’s universal.”
Lewkowicz is the director of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a lively, thoughtful new doc which
tells the origin story of Fiddler on the Roof. The film makes its world premiere on Wednesday
at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Vancouver distributor Pacific Northwest Pictures recently
picked up the Canadian rights to the documentary, which is slated for a Canada-wide release
on Aug. 9.

When reviewer Ebert wrote about the roots of the Fiddler story, he was referring to Tevye the
Dairyman, a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem about small-town Jewish life in Czarist
Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Originally written in Yiddish, the tales revolved around
a good-willed Ukrainian milkman and his troublesome daughters of marriageable age. Anyone
with even a passing familiarity of Broadway show tunes is aware that Tevye was not a rich
man.

The deeper story is “camouflaged,” in the words of Lewkowicz, whose 2016 HBO documentary
Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro uncovered the exploits of a camera-toting
combat infantryman in the Second World War. “Fiddler on the Roof is not what it seems,’ he
says. “Below the surface, what so many people relate to around the world is the basic elements
of the human condition.”

Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is so titled because of the miraculous following the
musical has achieved since the original Broadway production opened at the Imperial Theatre
on Sept. 22, 1964, Before that premiere, financial backers and media wags were skeptical of the
musical’s prospects, reasoning that it was too ethnic to find a mainstream audience. Upon
seeing a tryout version of Fiddler at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre, a Variety critic savaged the
musical: “None of the songs are memorable,” he sniffed.

As it happened, if that critic had invested money in Fiddler instead of panning it, he would
have been singing a different tune – as in, If I Were a Rich Man. In their book Broadway: The
American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon wrote that the production (starring
Zero Mostel, and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins) earned $1,574 for every
dollar invested in it.

Grabbing nine Tony Awards, Fiddler had the first musical theatre run in history to surpass
3,000 performances. It spawned five Broadway revivals and, as mentioned, the Jewisondirected
film, which starred Israeli actor Chaim Topol and took home three Academy Awards.
Besides the gaudy box office and juicy backstage stories – Mostel loathed Robbins, we learn –
Lewkowicz was interested in the musical’s soul.

“I still cry when I see it,” he says. “So do a lot of people. I wanted to find out why.”
The Norman Jewison-directed film version of Fiddler on the Roof took home three Academy Awards.

Using archives and interviewees (including 93-year-old Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiddler
on the Roof), the documentary weaves a contextual chronology from 1905 and the violent
persecution of Jewish people, to the societal upheaval of the 1960s to the relevant human
struggles – refugees, women’s rights – of today. Themes covered include family values and the
loss of traditions and cultural identity.

On a personal level, Lewkowicz was affected by the relationship of the milkman and his three
daughters who resist the Matchmaker, Matchmaker tradition of arranged marriages, no matter
how darn catchy the song is. “I look around today, and I see how woman are taking control of
their lives,” Lewkowicz says. “As a father of two daughters, that part of Fiddler really gets to
me.’

Tears, toe-taps and biddy-biddy-bums too. Maybe the success of Fiddler on the Roof wasn’t
such a miracle at all. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles premieres on May 8 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (May 2 to 12).

Read more here.