Almost a week after seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, the songs were still in my head.
I have felt a connection to history since I lived near the Slovak-Ukrainian border in 1993 while teaching English. At the time I wasn’t sure where Fiddler was playing, but I knew it wasn’t far from where I lived.
When a friend couldn’t go, she invited us to watch the show. My husband and I gladly accepted the invitation. A day later, he and our daughter were talking about the “Fiddler” production, which our daughter had already seen in Florida. She had loved the story of Tevye trying to uphold his Jewish traditions despite all the hardships he, his family, and his community faced. She said the cast dedicated each performance to the people of Ukraine.
Until that moment I didn’t realize that the village of Anatevka, where Fiddler’s story takes place, is a real village in Ukraine. At the same time, my husband and daughter said: “I wonder if Daria has seen “Fiddler” before.”
To explain: we met Daria Antonovska almost a year ago. She is a sophomore at LSU and serves as President of the Ukrainian Student Union. Last year I contacted them a few weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine.
When she answered the phone last year, I explained that I wanted to do a story about the Easter preparations of local Ukrainians. I knew from my time in Eastern Europe that they had special Easter traditions, largely anchored around the amazing eggs they decorated for the holiday.
She was gracious and explained that I was correct in my memories of special Easter customs in Ukraine, but she could not help me because she was Jewish.
We both had a good chuckle.
She was able to put me in touch with other Ukrainians about the Easter eggs, but I have a soft spot for people going to a new country and invited them to dinner. Since then it has become a part of our lives.
We decided to invite our favorite Ukrainian to “Fiddler” and managed to get another ticket. She loved it and said she had never seen the musical, but had read the stories about Tevye written by Scholem Aleichem many times. “Tevye the Dairyman” is what she called the books that Aleichem originally wrote in Yiddish about Jewish life in a Ukrainian village around the turn of the century.
On our way to the show we found out that this day was Daria’s first visit to New Orleans with perfect spring weather. In keeping with the “Fiddler” theme, we invited her to an Israeli meal before the play. When we went to the theater she told us that she had never seen a musical.
Sitting there next to Daria made the experience more special than words alone can express. The story ended against the backdrop of Imperial Russia’s Ukrainian Jewish diaspora. After the curtain, the actor who played Tevye stood in the middle of the stage and explained that the show was dedicated to the people of Ukraine.
Both Daria and I cried.
As we left the theater, Daria told me that although she had read the Tevye stories so many times before, she had never put them together like this. She said the story revolved around the big issues in her life – discord in Ukraine and anti-Semitism.
A few days later, the “Fiddler” experience and the themes of the show were still front and center for her, too.
“We don’t have that kind of show in Ukraine. We have operettas, but not this one. I didn’t know they would actually sing,” she said. “It’s a very familiar story to me – happening in my own country. To see it interpreted in this way was touching and moving.”
She was amazed that a story she knew so well had a meaning she had never realized and could touch to her core.
“It was a very deep experience,” she said. “I am sure that I will think about this adventure for a long time – actually my whole life.”
I am grateful to my friend for the tickets. I am grateful to my daughter for the idea of inviting Daria. I am grateful to the stars that aligned to bring a friend into our lives and that we were able to share something so special.
“If I were a rich man”, it couldn’t have been better.