Tevye in Tel Aviv? An Interview With Tzvi Fishman
Illustration: Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof by Graphic House, New York - ebay [Public Domain] via Wikimedia
Popular author, filmmaker, and blogger, Tzvi Fishman, has come out with two new sequels to his novel, “Tevye in the Promised Land.” Busy at work on the fourth volume of the series, Tzvi took time to speak with me in his Jerusalem home.
Before we talk about the new books in the “Tevye in the Promised Land” series, tell us what made you write the original novel?
I saw the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” when I was 20. At the time, I was a completely assimilated American Jew. Because of my almost non-existent familiarity with Judaism, the movie blew me away. It was the first time I saw something Jewish on the Big Screen. Like everyone else, I fell in love with the character of Tevye. When I came on aliyah, I felt bad that he was still stuck in the diaspora, so I wrote the novel, “Tevye in the Promised Land,” which brings him and his daughters to eretz Yisrael, where they become pioneer builders of the Land.
If I remember correctly, it wasn’t your first novel. Share with us a little about you writing background.
You could say that my writing career started in high school. I attended a very prestigious New England boarding school called Phillips Andover Academy. It was a very competitive, success-oriented institution. One of the few Jews at the school, I found myself totally out of place.
I sought refuge in the photography darkroom and in writing short stories. Among a class of 200 graduates, 70 were accepted by Harvard and another 50 by Yale. I decided to spend my four years of college in the dark, watching movies at the New York University Film School.
In addition to learning how to make movies, I started to write a novel. Dell Publishers bought the book, a family saga about a Jewish family that turns a Caribbean island into a booming tourist haven. Then I wrote a screenplay that became a successful movie with some of America’s leading stars.
What’s the name of the film?
“Law and Disorder,” which starred Carroll O'Connor of Archie Bunker fame. I moved to Hollywood and sold another three scripts before Hashem (G-d) came into my life in a miraculous fashion and lifted me out of my fantasy world. He opened my eyes to understand that there was a dream far more meaningful than madly chasing after the American dream of fame and success — the age-old Jewish dream of Returning to Zion. You can read all the details in the autobiography I wrote last year.
I moved back to New York City in the early stages of my t’shuva and taught screenwriting for a few years at the New York University School of the Arts. A song of The Doors became my mantra as I struggled to escape the web of my American identity: “Break on through, break on through, break on through to the other side!” For me it meant breaking on through to the Promised Land. “Break on Through” became the name of my radio show, when Israel National News first started to broadcast from the Eretz HaTzvi ship at sea.
After finishing the manuscript for “Tevye in the Promised Land,” you published the novel in Israel. Why not with Dell Publishers in New York?
I tried. I sent the manuscript to my literary agent, and he sent it out to a list of publishers. They all had the same response: “Too Jewish.” Imagine a book editor calling a James Clavell novel about Japan: “Too Japanese.” What they meant was that the world is ready to love a Jew like Tevye when he is getting hit over the head by Cossacks and when he shrugs in impotent resignation when his daughter intermarries. But in the liberal world of NY publishing, the time hasn’t come for a Tevye who fights back. As a producer once said to me in Hollywood, “I’ll never make a movie where the hero is a Jew.”
In your two new novels, “Arise and Shine!” and “The Lion’s Roar,” Tevye becomes a leader of the underground rebellion against British forces in Palestine. Not every reader is going to like the change from beloved milkman to passionate freedom fighter.
In building a new life in the Promised Land, Tevye is forced to undergo a profound personal transformation, just like the Jewish nation itself underwent a miraculous transformation from being an oppressed and lowly people in alien gentile lands to becoming a powerful independent nation in its own eternal homeland.
In your preface to “Arise and Shine!” you call the blend of history and fiction, “Histortion” and “Fictory.” Did you invent this literary mix?
Not at all. There a dozens of historical novels. Homer employed the technique. So did Shakespeare, and Tolstoy in “War and Peace.” In modern times, several of the novels of Herman Wouk and Leon Uris are based on modern history. The movie “Forrest Gump” is another example of the style.
Why did you decide to write a series of novels, and not end with Tevye’s heroic exploits in the Hebrew Brigade at the end of the first novel? I understand you plan to write another two volumes, bringing the Zionist adventure up till the War of Independence.
B’ezrat Hashem (With G-d’s help). I decided to write the sequels because
Zionist history continues. In addition, hundreds of people asked me when I was going to publish a sequel. It took me 20 years to get around to resuming the saga, but I am glad that I did. Raising seven children in Israel, I discovered that the story of Modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel had been taught for decades from a leftist point-of-view.
For instance, most people assume that Ben Gurion started the Irgun-Haganah, when, in fact, its first commander was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. And many pivotal events of Zionist history, for example, the truths behind the Arlozorov Murder and the sinking of the Altalena were purposefully distorted and even falsified in order to fit the propaganda of the political Left in their Bolshevistic efforts to maintain control over the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Israel).
In volume three of the series, “The Lion’s Roar,” it’s pretty clear that Ben Gurion is cast in the role of the bad guy.
I’d call him an anti-hero. After all, the Almighty chose him to be a key player in the establishment of the State, even though his methods weren’t always the most kosher. But, yes, in terms of drama and plot structure, in telling a suspenseful story, you need heroes and villains.
our novels are certainly filled with exciting, larger-than-life characters. You succeeded in making the key personalities of Zionism come alive on the page.
When my children studied for their bagrut high-school exams in Modern Israel History, I realized how shallow the curriculum was, and how often distorted, even after rightist governments in Israel began to head the Education Ministry. The fact that many streets and parks in Israel are now named after Revisionist heroes only occurred after the Likud rose to power.
For years, the heroes of the Irgun and Lehi were portrayed as thugs, rather than the great freedom fighters they were in the battle for Israeli independence. Even when new textbooks were written which portrayed figures like Jabotinsky, Avraham Stern, Abba Achimeir, and Uri Zvi Greenberg in a positive light, it was done in a superficial fashion, without highlighting the great passion of their personalities and the depth and breadth of their vision.
I tried my best to capture their towering spirits and their love for the Jewish people and eretz Yisrael. Also, in the case of Rabbi Kook, history books and textbooks mentioned him now and then, but they ignored the central role he played as the guiding light behind the entire revival and rebirth of the Hebrew nation in Zion.
There’s quite a lot of romance in the two sequels, “Arise and Shine!” and “The Lion’s Roar.” What’s the reason?
Everyone enjoys a good love story. As a novelist, I have the obligation to spin an entertaining yarn. There was a lot of romance in “Tevye in the Promised Land” as well. Love is an important part of life.
Also, through the ups and downs of romance, readers come to know characters in an intimate fashion. In his writings on “Shir HaShirim,” Rabbi Kook says that dealing with the subject of love in literature is an important way to unlock the mysteries of man’s psyche. Of course, he stresses, that it must be done in a kosher fashion without the drunkenness and unbridled passions which love can often stir.
How much of the romantic encounters in the novels dealing with Arvraham Stern and Ben Gurion are based on truth?
I did a great amount of historical research in order to paint a convincing background canvas. Both Stern and Ben Gurion were prolific letter writers, so there is plenty of material from which to draw. Of course, Stern didn’t marry Tevye’s granddaughter — that’s where creative freedom enters the picture, in order to keep Tevye’s family in the heart of the saga.
You have also incorporated the poems, songs, and ideological writings of the era as forces that tangibly influenced the rebirth of the nation and even fueled the rebellion against the British.
The written word can be as powerful as tanks. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Avraham Stern, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Abba Achimeir, and many other leaders of the revolt understood this. Their writings show the great depth of their characters. The members of the Stern Gang were very far from being gangsters, as the British Mandate Authorities and the socialist political parties and newspapers tried to portray them.
They were fierce idealists filled with a sacred, national vision, ready to sacrifice everything for Hebrew independence, even when they were hunted and betrayed by their brothers on the Left, who clung to a misguided course of appeasement and concession toward the British, until even they realized that settlement and economic development weren’t enough to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, but that armed struggle was required as well.
Indeed, it was refreshing to read a book with an unabashed rightest point-of-view. Aren’t you afraid that the political left in Israel will boycott the book?
Let them boycott the book. Though Rabbi Kook’s writings drew fierce opposition from religious zealots of the old school of thought, he stressed that the truth must be told, even if there are people at the moment who are not able or willing to understand it.
A few years ago, you directed and produced a feature film, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman,” starring Israel’s all-time box office champ, Yehuda Barkan. When can we expect to see a movie or a TV series based on the Tevye novels?
Either when the mashiach (messiah) comes, or when the Likud starts acting like the rightwing is in power. Still today, government funding to produce Israeli films remains in the hands of the liberal Left, just as it was in the beginnings of the state when Ben Gurion was in power.
I applied for a grant to turn “Tevye in the Promised Land” into a TV series, but the government-sponsored film funds rejected my proposal. “Too Zionist.” “Too patriotic.” “Too national-religious.” If I did a film about Tevye immigrating to America, I probably could win a film grant for that, especially if one grandchild had a same-gender partner and another married out of the faith. In the meantime, Baruch Hashem, we have the series of books. I’m very thankful for that.