Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, is beloved by all who have the chance to be embraced by his sweet nature and boisterous spirit. Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who played the character in the 1971 film adaptation as well as the musical, has much of the same effect.
Large audiences are in agreement — he won a Golden Globe for his role in the film and was nominated for an Oscar that year. Topol actually embodied him so well, he played Tevye more than 3,500 times from 1967 until 2009. He reprised the role in 1990 on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony as a result.
With his recent death last Wednesday at the age of 87 after battling Alzheimer’s, many are mourning the vibrant man.
The first time Topol was cast in the role was before he turned 30. At the time he had to age himself up, so it was slightly harder to move and had to dance with a bit of a hunch. The last time he played Tevye, he was 74 and had to work to go in the opposite direction. He knew the role inside and out, to the point that Topol and Tevye are now forever joined. His work spanned countries, decades and mediums.
What many may not know about Topol, is that he was also a passionate Torah scholar. According to his friend Avraham Borthstein, he finished Shas, or the entire Talmud, twice.
This is a huge feat. He explained that Torah study “changes you and the life you live.” He studied Gemara for 45 years, learning with a partner every single week. It fostered the energy that fueled everything else he did. He was so committed to it that he stuck with it no matter what else was going on. “Wherever I am in the world, in London and New York too, I’ve always found someone to study with,” he shared.
“Young people are only concerned with what is happening now,” he once said. “They have no idea whatsoever of what was happening just a generation or two ago. The only vital, living culture that has survived for thousands of years is that of Torah Judaism and the Gemara. The fact that religious youngsters study it today exactly as it has been studied since it was first written is proof that there is something deeply compelling about it. For me, it is a source of continual revival and constant rejuvenation.”
He combined his passion for entertainment with his Jewish values in a way that went above and beyond. He co-founded a year-round camp for children with serious illnesses and disabilities in the lower Galilee. He raised tens of millions of dollars in order to do so. In running this camp, he transformed lives. He took children who had everything taken from them and made them laugh. He gave them the opportunity to sing, dance and experience happiness in a way they may never have elsewhere.
“They reach higher levels of happiness than we, as healthy people, can ever reach,” he shared. “Why? Because any pain we feel is not nearly as great as theirs.”
We recently sat down with one of Topol’s friends, Avraham Borshtein, who is the head of the Klezmer Association in Jerusalem and met Topol five years ago, before Topol finished the Talmud for the second time. As a Klezmer musician, Borshtein also performs Fiddler On The Roof, so he wanted to meet the man who made Tevye a household name. Borshtein and his friend tracked Topol down in the phonebook and asked for a meeting. Topol was happy to oblige. Their friendship formed from there.
When and why did Chaim start learning Talmud?
Chaim learned Torah for 45 years. About 20 years ago, a good friend of his died—Officer Rechavam Zevi was murdered in a terror attack—and after his death, Chaim began to learn more. He learned with his close friends and with a Torah lecturer by the name of Rav Beli. Chaim paid for the rabbi’s taxi there and back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv every week. Though Chaim was traditional, not fully religious, Chaim’s father was an Orthodox Jew. They were very poor and lived in a single room, and Chaim’s father didn’t always have money to buy two challahs for Shabbos.
How did Chaim’s Torah learning impact how he conducted himself in life?
After Sallah Shebati, the film that made Chaim Topol famous (where he played a 50 year old Mizrachi man at age 29), he flew to an event abroad, and met one of the biggest film producers in the world. The producer, who was Italian, was excited by the young Topol, and offered him the opportunity to star in one of his films. Topol refused—why? Because he had already committed to act in an Israeli producer’s local film. The Italian producer was in shock. He asked him, “Are you insane?! You’re equating the money, respect, reputation, and fun that comes with starring in a global Hollywood film with a local Hebrew film produced in a tiny new country in the Middle East?!” But Chaim Topol stood strong in the face of this test and honored his commitment to play Arabinka.
Immediately after this, he received an invitation to audition for what would come to be the most well known, timeless film in the Jewish world, Fiddler on the Roof, which is based off the story of the great Jewish writer Shalom Aliechem. When Chaim arrived in London, the taxi driver asked him multiple times if he was the Chaim Topol from Sallah Shabtai. “Yes, that’s me,” he said. When he arrived at the audition, they asked him why he came. He responded, “I received an invitation from you.” The directors were shocked, “You’re the young 29 year old who played Sallah?!” He said he was. “You don’t need to audition!” they exclaimed. “You have the part!”
Why didn’t we hear more about Chaim over the years, while he was alive?
The Israeli media were reluctant to support him because he was traditional in his Jewish approach and had a right wing worldview.
Any closing stories to leave us with?
News broadcaster Gali Tzahal once asked him, “How is it that of all the talented actors, they chose you specifically?”
Topol responded to him, “It’s just like how from all the talented broadcasters, they picked you to be the broadcaster on this show.”
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