Why ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Star Topol Is Winning the Israel Prize

Actor Haim Topol occupies a special place in the Israeli consciousness thanks to two characters, Tevye and Sallah Shabati, who represent different but complementary sides of Jewish identity.

There are two major highlights in the film career of actor Haim Topol, who will receive the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and contribution to Israeli society on Independence Day (April 23). Each focuses on a different folkloristic character – one that represents polar yet complementary opposites in Jewish identity. The connection between these two points endows the actor with historical, cultural, social and even political uniqueness.

One of the characters is Sallah Shabati, whom Topol first played while in the Israel Defense Forces’ Nahal entertainment troupe, and then later in Ephraim Kishon’s eponymous 1964 film.

The second is Tevye the milkman, the Shalom Aleichem hero whom Topol played in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” written by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Topol starred in both the 1967 London production of the musical and the 1971 film version, directed by Norman Jewison.

That role made Haim Topol – who outside of Israel was known only by his last name – the only Israeli to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in a leading role (former Israeli Theodore Bikel had been nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film “The Defiant Ones”). Incidentally, the Academy Award – which we covet so much here in Israel – was connected with Topol more than any other Israeli actor: “Sallah Shabati” was nominated for best foreign film, while “Fiddler” received eight Oscar nominations overall, including best film and best director, eventually winning three.

Jewison’s movie won widespread praise, including from the most influential film critic of the day, Pauline Kael, who called “Fiddler on the Roof” the most powerful film ever made. (This was a year before her enthusiastic review of “Cabaret,” in which she did not mention Jewison explicitly, but, judging by her enthusiasm over the Bob Fosse film, one could conclude that the torch had been passed.)

The missing link

I don’t know whether Aleichem was a direct and conscious influence on Kishon’s work, but there is no doubt that Kishon’s humor flowed from both Middle- and Eastern European sources. The same was true when he created the character of Sallah Shabati. I won’t go into all the ideological issues that have accompanied Kishon’s film since it was first released, but I will note that one of these involved the question of an actor of Ashkenazi origin playing the role of an almost abstract symbol of the Mizrahi immigrant (the film does not mention, for example, from where Shabati and his family immigrated to Israel; Mizrahim are Jews of Middle Eastern origin).

Ashkenaziness, therefore, links the two key roles Topol played in his career: in the first case, it is absorbed into the Mizrahi character stuck in the immigrant transit camp [ma’abara in Hebrew], which, because of the huge success of the film, became a symbol for all migrant camps in the Israeli memory. In the second, it connects directly to a resident of the Russian village of Anatevka, which, thanks to the runaway success of the musical, perpetuated the essence of the shtetl in our consciousness (with a little help from Marc Chagall).

There are various connections between Sallah and Tevye: they both have identity issues in an environment that is foreign to them; they both have problems with their children, who are trying to become part of a social and cultural environment that is foreign to their father (Sallah has a son and a daughter who link up eventually with Ashkenazi kibbutzniks; Tevye has five daughters, each of whom gives him a different set of troubles); both Sallah and Tevye speak directly with God; they are both immigrants – Sallah is an immigrant at the beginning of the film, while Tevye becomes one at the end; and if “Fiddler” is a musical whose high points are musical, when Tevye expresses his uncertainties, beliefs and aspirations, Kishon included two musical segments in “Sallah Shabati” – including “The Old Messiah,” a rousing number led by Sallah. The second is “For You and Me,” sung by one of the film’s pairs of lovers, played by Arik Einstein and Geula Nuni. (It’s not surprising that, as a result of this abstract and symbolic treatment of the title character, Sallah, too, like Tevye, became the hero of a successful musical, produced in 1988 – this time starring Ze’ev Revah.)

These two characters, Sallah and Tevye – who blended into the figure of Topol, and whom Topol gave energetic, extroverted volume – turned the actor into a significant figure, almost symbolic, in the history of popular culture in Israel.

The mischievous sabra

To these two characters, another was added to Topol’s local film career, which was rather limited: that of the charming and mischievous sabra [native-born Israeli] whose adventures were documented in a number of films, beginning with Peter Frye’s 1961 film “I Like Mike,” Kishon’s “Ervinka” (1967) and Uri Zohar’s “The Rooster” (1971), in which Topol played a serial adulterer. And in “Again Forever” (1985), the only film that Oded Kotler directed, Topol played a crisis-stricken political wheeler-dealer who becomes embroiled in a scandal.

In this context, in which Topol creates the Israeli sabra as an emerging character – and not in a good way necessarily – we should also mention “El Dorado” (1963), Menahem Golan’s first film, in which Topol plays a young criminal moving between the crime world of Jaffa and a bourgeois, well-heeled Ashkenazi world in Tel Aviv. Topol’s performance in “El Dorado,” which also has a slightly abstract dimension due to its disregard for social background and ethnic origin, recalls other films in which Topol played the sabra, but also, because of its somewhat abstract dimension, also recalls “Sallah Shabati.”

Topol’s success in “Fiddler on the Roof” turned him into an international star. However, it’s hard to find a film on that global list of real importance, save one. In 1975, director Joseph Losey (“The Servant,” “Mr. Klein”) cast Topol as Galileo Galilei in his version of Brecht’s eponymous play. The film was impressive, but Topol’s performance showed that he tends to play his parts in a rather uniform way, and so his performance in “Galileo” was somewhat monotonous.

In fact, this tone suited Topol’s playing of larger-than-life characters: in Mike Hodges’ comic-strip adaptation “Flash Gordon” (1980), he played the role of mad scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov. He also played a lovable rogue by the name of Milos Columbo in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” (1981), one of the series in which Roger Moore played 007. If Sallah or Tevye had not made Topol’s name for him, Milos would have.

In his non-Israeli movies, Topol was a character actor without great distinction. One of the most unusual films in his career was the comedy “Follow Me!” (aka “The Public Eye, 1972), in which he played a conservative British accountant who suspects that his flighty American wife (played by Mia Farrow) is having an affair. Although ”Follow Me!” was based on a play by Peter Shaffer (“Amadeus”) and directed by Carol Reed (“The Third Man,” “Oliver!”), the result was weak and a failure.

Topol also appeared in two international productions shot in Israel. One was “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966), directed by Melville Shavelson (where he played an Arab sheikh, opposite Kirk Douglas, Senta Berger and Angie Dickinson). The other was J. Lee Thompson’s 1969 film “Before Winter Comes,” alongside David Niven and Anna Karina, and whose plot takes place in a refugee camp in Austria after World War II; Topol played a Slav translator.

In the 1980s, Topol appeared in the well-received TV miniseries “The Winds of War” (1983) and “War and Remembrance” (1988-1989). But it is Sallah and Tevye who are etched in the local consciousness, both in their similarities and contrasts, and their crossing of boundaries between here and there.

One may argue whether this is a significant enough contribution to history, society and local culture. Still, there is no arguing the fact that it is a contribution. Even the fact that Topol’s award is not in a more specific category, such as film or theater, but rather in the broader category of lifetime achievement and contribution to the state, contains a symbolism that adds to the “Topol” identity that has developed over the years.