O, how the mighty have fallen. With a heavy heart, a heavy hand, and tears in my eyes, I write this small tribute to a true lover of Israel, a lover of Jewish “TRADITION,” a gentleman’s gentleman, a kind and giving person, an actor who was graced with Divine Inspiration when he sang the songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and an artist of universal proportions, loved and respected around the world.
I first met Topol, 28 years ago just before the publication of my novel, “Tevye in the Promised Land” which brings Sholom Aleichem’s world-famous milkman from Anatevka to Eretz Yisrael with his daughters to become pioneer settlers of the Holy Land. Yisrael Goldberg, whose company Pirsumei Yisrael published the novel, gave me Topol’s phone number. I called the legendary actor to ask if he would read the manuscript before publication and maybe give me a blurb about the fictional saga for the cover of the book. His wife answered the phone. I explained who I was and what I wanted. “Haim,” she called. “It’s for you.” I can clearly recall the sound of his famous baritone voice over the telephone. For me it was a dream come true. Some three decades before, when I was an assimilated teenager in America, I saw the film of “Fiddler on the Roof” and experienced a cultural and religious epiphany. Tevye was the first Jewish hero I had seen in the movies. A shlepper of a hero, yes. A downtrodden victim, yes. But all the same, the character of Tevye was a giant figure of a Jew, a worrying, oppressed but courageous survivor, a valiant upholder of TRADITION who commanded the silver screen for two-and-one-half hours with his larger-than-life performance. The movie blew me away and Topol’s life-filled Tevye lit a spark in my soul. Call it a connection to Jewish Tradition. Call it an awakening of Jewish Pride. After watching the movie I was a different person. So for me, hearing Topol’s resonating deep voice over the telephone was a dream come true.
I told him my name and that I had sold a few original screenplays in Hollywood and New York before moving to Israel. After hearing my request, he gave me his address in Tel Aviv and asked me to send him the manuscript – a bulky envelope of over 500 pages. Two weeks later I answered our ringing telephone and once again trembled when I heard the familiar baritone voice. He said that he loved the novel. He congratulated me on what he termed an outstanding literary achievement. Happily, he gave me a quote for the book’s cover: “I thought I knew everything there was to know about Tevye, but reading ‘Tevye in the Promised,’ I kept turning page after page after page….” When I said that I wanted to make a film from the novel, he told me that he was flying to Europe to film a small role in a movie and asked me to call him in another week.
Two weeks later we met in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem. At first I didn’t recognize him. There was an elderly man sitting alone at a table but my glanced passed him by. When no one else looked like Topel my gazed returned to the beardless, distinguished-looking gentleman who was gazing at me with a twinkle. “Fishman?” he inquired. “Don’t let my white hair discourage you. It’s for the role I am playing in the film, and I have to fly back to Europe next week to finish the shooting.” He was 59 years old at the time and the question flashed through my mind: “How convincing will he look riding a horse, plowing a field, or pulling a wagon?”
As if reading my thoughs, he said: “Don’t be alarmed. The same way the make-up artist can make me look eighty, he can make me look forty as well.”
“A’Kitzur,” as Sholom Aleichem would say, “To make a long story short,” he said that he was willing to star in a “Fiddler Part Two,” but only until the point in the saga when Tevye reaches the Holy Land. “The arrival on the beach can be a film classic,” he said. “I can picture the scene in my mind. It’s the perfect place to end the movie.”
I felt flattered by his praise, but the thought of ending a sequel of “Fiddler on the Roof” upon Tevye’s arrival in the Promised Land with two-thirds of the story remaining untold was a very disturbing notion. For me, Tevye’s transition into becoming a pioneer settler ready to take up a rifle in defense of his family and homeland and chase after Arabs who attacked his kibbutz– that to me was the heart of the story, not merely his voyage to the Holy Land, no matter how cinematically it was told.
Obviously he read my startled reaction on my face. “Listen, Fishman,” he said. “I don’t know how long you have been in Israel, but there is a reality here that an artist has to face. I don’t want to make a movie that focuses on the conflict we have with the Arabs. You are obviously a very Zionist fellow and your rightest feelings come across clearly in the plot of your story. Politically, I am probably as rightest as you. While I don’t possess your religious fervor, just between me and you, there is no question for me that all of the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews. That being said, I can’t afford to become a spokeman for Gush Emunim. My dear friend, Efraim Kishon, wrote and directed the film “Sallah Shabati” which gave me my start as an actor. Because of his proud rightest views he was hounded without mercy by the left and he chose to move to Switzerland. Other very talented Israeli artists with rightest leanings met the same unfortunate fate. I keep my beliefs to myself and try to represent Israel in the most positive way I can throughout the world without getting involved in the war of political opinions. If there is any professional advice I can give you, if you hope to write books or make movies in Israel, stay away from political themes. Otherwise the champions of liberal democracy in this country will have you blacklisted for your too heartfelt Zionist views.”
Needless to say, Topol’s warning proved dishearteningly true in my later career and efforts to win budget financing from leftist-controlled Israeli film funds, but that’s a different story. During our first discussion in the Jerusalem Hilton lobby, he agreed that I could use his consent to star in a sequel of “Fiddler on the Roof” in my efforts to raise money for a production in Hollywood, but he warned me: “Don’t get your hopes up too high. When it comes to the situation in Hollywood, things are not very different from Israel. I think you will discover that the world is not ready yet for a film about a Jewish pioneer in the Promised Land who defends his family against Arab marauders. The world loves us when we are getting hit over the head by the goyim, but when a Jew stands up for himself and fights back, that’s going too far. Hollywood is filled with many influential Jews who are wonderful people but let’s face it, how many movies have Jewish heroes? ‘Gornisht vet nisht helfen,’” he said in Yiddish with a smile.
The next time we met was in the lobby of the Dan Hotel not far from his home in Tel Aviv. I filled him in on the unsuccessful efforts of an old Hollywood buddy to interest a big studio in a sequel to “Fiddler.” I myself was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm owing to the fact that “Fiddler on the Roof” had been, at the time, one of the biggest, all-time box-office successes of the movie business and the musical stage play of “Fiddler on the Roof” had enjoyed long-running and record-breaking performances the world over. “End the screenplay when they arrive at the beach in Israel and maybe you will have better luck,” Topol insisted once again. I suggested we try to raise the budget privately for a more modest independent production without a big Hollywood studio behind us but he rejected the proposal saying that a world-renowned and Oscar-winning film like “Fiddler” deserved a first-class production.
In an effort to persuade him, I told him that in continuing the saga of Tevye, in the story’s being a metaphor for the revival of the Jewish People in our time, he would enhance the honor of Israel and bring pride to Jews all over the world. With chutzpah I went on to say, “When you play a regular role in a movie like a detective or even as Shakespeare’s “Othello” on the London stage, you receive reviews as a fine actor, but the Tevye magic is missing.” He didn’t answer. Perhaps he felt it too. For me, for all of Haim Topol’s success and artistic greatness, for all of his unusual modesty and unspoken deeds of charity, I felt that his overall acting career was the “Greek Tragedy” of his life, never fully embracing his complete inner essence and allowing it to bring him to an even higher embracing of Jewish “Tradition, tradition…”
At the end of our meeting he invited me to attend a dress rehearsal for the musical revival of “Fiddler” that was in-the-making with Topol recreating the role he had made world famous. The rehearsal was held in an old and sadly neglected auditorium building. It was a very informal gathering of actors with the director taking them through several scenes as Topol sat patiently on the side of the stage waiting his turn. Dressed in his day-to-day attire and with the beard he was growing for the role, when he began to sing his robust version of the song “Tradition” the Shechinah entered the hall and everyone sat spellbound as we watched and listened to one of the greatest masterpieces of theatrical performance. Topol was simply born for the role of the milkman from Anatevka.
Afterward, his rendition of “If I were a rich man…” sent chills along my spine. Rabbi Kook writes about the level of Ruach HaKodesh (Divine Inspiration) which fills the being of the most gifted artists. When Topol performed, this celestial spirit radiated out from his soul and made the theater or movie screen seem to glow. Fortunately for us, we can still enjoy these moments of inspiration and greatness when we watch Topol on film. May his memory be for a blessing.