This past weekend, Studio 360, a radio program from WNYC, ran the latest in its “American Icons” series. In the series, they run a story that digs into the creation of the piece of culture and then try to explain how it qualifies as an “American Icon” and how it is changed over time. For instance, in the installment about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the host looked into how the portrayal of Uncle Tom changed from one of sympathy to one of spineless compliance and betrayer–and why the term remains virulent while the actual readership of the novel has fallen off.
The latest installment is about “Fiddler on the Roof.” The piece explains how a series of stories about Tevye the Milkman, written in yiddish by Sholem Aleichem about a particular place and time and set of circumstances in the Russian Empire became one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time (once holding the record for longest running play). The piece makes the argument that the play was conceived around the idea of tradition, change, and generational struggle that became and remain particularly resonant with immigrants to the United States (note: the play concludes with the emigration to the United States). Thus, while the individual details and songs are those of Jewish life, the story is a universal one for the American experience.
Find the story (written and audio) here. If you like this story, I also recommend the documentary about Sholem Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness, which goes further into the author and his stories than does the Studio 360 piece.