This week I traveled almost 6,000 miles and over 100 years back in time to the small village of Anatevka, Russia—the setting of the classic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. In reality I was at Pioneer High School in the Blossom Valley district of San Jose, California. I was there to see my father perform the role of Lazar Wolf, a widowed butcher in Anatevka who longs to wed the daughter of Fiddler’s protagonist, Tevye the milkman. Before I go any further, I must address this amazing name: Lazar (pronounced like laser) Wolf. Badass! He sounds like a Bond villain that also tours with Skrillex. Lazar is a real Russian name; an abbreviated form of Lazarus, the man who famously rose from the dead in the New Testament at the behest of Jesus Christ. I’m sure Lazarus’ wife was irritated to no end: “I can’t even get him to take the trash out, but for Jesus he gets up after being dead for four days?”
Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of a father learning to let go of the tradition of arranged marriages and permit his daughters to marry the men of their choosing. The times they are a changin’ in Anatevka: Young people are taking control of their lives, and their loves. To make matters worse for Tevye, Russian thugs are constantly subjecting his Jewish community to violent harassment. If you haven’t seen the play, spoiler alert: Things do not go well for the Jews in Anatevka. They are eventually forced out of the city, and many leave the continent altogether.
Fiddler on the Roof is a play dear to my heart, and of course my father’s as well. He and my mother took my sister and I to see the play when we were young. We watched the movie on videocassette and listened to the soundtrack on vinyl. Like old Woody Allen films, Fiddler on the Roof was a huge part of my cultural upbringing, and a real connection to my Jewish heritage. When Gwen Stefani cribbed the lyrics and melody from Fiddler’s “If I Were a Rich Man” for “Rich Girl,” I was the only one of my friends who knew she wasn’t just appropriating Japanese culture with her Harajuku girls, but Jewish culture as well. Fetishizing Asians while nodding to the shtetl? Who knew Gwen and Woody had so much in common?
As I watched my dad on stage, I thought about how important the play is to him—probably more important than to anyone else in the cast. He was thrilled. Not only is he getting to act, but for the first time, in his 70s, he got to perform a role in his favorite musical of all time—one with which he has such an intimate relationship. His family tree has roots in Western Russia, and we even have a distant relative named Lazar, the name I hope to one day give my firstborn son: Lazar Wolf Harris. He’ll probably end up as a DJ with a neon green mustache or a hitman in outer space, but I figure with a name like that, he can’t lose. One way or another, he’ll be a biddy-biddy rich man. Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum.