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Norman Jewison

A behind the scenes moment in the documentary with director Norman Jewison (right) and Chaim Topol in the role of Tevye on the set of Fiddler on the Roof.

By Melissa Arnold

The long-anticipated spring Port Jefferson Documentary Series kicks off Feb. 28 with Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, a homage to the beloved movie musical.

There is something visceral about Fiddler on the Roof. Whether on stage or on screen, it has a way of gripping your emotions and stirring up memories like few other musicals can.

Based on the story Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof opened in 1964 and became the first musical to run for more than 3,000 performances. The epic, three-hour film adaptation came along in 1971, and quickly earned accolades as the highest-grossing movie of that year.

Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel)

Nearly 50 years later, filmmaker Daniel Raim set out to document all that he could about the film through the eyes of its cast and crew. Along the way, he explored what Jewish culture, faith and family ties mean to him in the present day.  

The finished product, “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” is narrated by actor Jeff Goldblum and presented by Zeitgeist Films.

“I brought a lot of curiosity into my exploration of Fiddler on the Roof,” said Raim, who lives in Los Angeles. “It wasn’t just about what makes [director] Norman Jewison’s film so great, but what Norman Jewison’s personal and spiritual journey was like in the process of making it.”

Raim’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and his parents met in Israel, where he moved as a teenager. While there, he attended an art-focused high school and, upon graduation, began to make documentaries for the Israeli Defense Force during his required time of military service. He later returned to the United States and attended the American Film Institute.

As for Fiddler on the Roof, Raim recalled watching it for the first time at his grandparents’ house.

“My great-grandparents died in the Holocaust, and when I was watching Fiddler with my grandparents, a portrait of them hung on the wall. My great-grandfather was a kosher butcher and a rabbi, and my grandfather took me to synagogue and taught me about their values,’ he recalled. 

“I was so moved watching it with them — it felt like I was looking at a realistic portrait of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia in 1905, what life might have been like for my great-grandparents’ generation as they wrestled with changing times and anti-Semitism. I had a very specific connection to it and began to ask questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? How did my family live? It made it very meaningful to me.”

Ironically, director Norman Jewison wasn’t Jewish at all. Despite this, he had a deep desire from early childhood to learn more about Jewish culture, especially as he faced harassment because of his last name.

Neva Small (Chava)

It took Raim more than 10 years to complete the film as he traveled the world interviewing the cast and production team. The 88-minute documentary offers an intimate, heartfelt peek inside the memories and creative process of Chaim Topol (Tevye), Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Michele Marsh (Hodel) and Neva Small (Chava), among others. The film also includes behind-the-scenes footage and thoughts from production designer Robert F. Boyle, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and renowned composer John Williams.

Raim made a point of showing just how much effort and research went into developing the Fiddler film, so that it could be as authentic as possible. Norman Jewison and John Williams traveled to Israel for a research trip before production began, where Williams pored over Yiddish archives and music. In the documentary, Williams shares what he learned about different types of music that were meaningful in that era and culture, and about the importance of the fiddle in a musical and historical context. 

Similarly, producer Robert Boyle had to research what life was like in a shtetl, or small Jewish community. It was a difficult process, as the shtetls were targeted and destroyed during the Holocaust. Despite this, Boyle was able to faithfully recreate a Jewish painted synagogue based on the very little information he could find.

The attention to detail and commitment to authenticity is only part of what makes Fiddler on the Roof so enduring, Raim said.

“I think the appeal of the stories by Sholem Aleichem, up through the Broadway musical and the film, is that their themes and issues are universal — the breaking down of traditions, the relationships and tensions between family members,” he said. “Everyone can relate to it. You have these beautiful narratives with complex, fun characters, and it can be both joyous and heartbreaking. And then for Jewish audiences, it’s almost like an origin story that they can see themselves and their families in.”

While many in the film industry faced life-altering changes during the pandemic, Raim used his downtime as the final push to complete the documentary.

Michele Marsh (Hodel)

“At the start of the pandemic, I began to collaborate with Michael Sragow, who was the co-writer, co-producer and lead researcher, and producer Sasha Burman. The three of us worked together over Zoom during the lockdown. I thought, now is the time to pull out the juiciest archival footage and interviews I’d ever shot and start working on and shaping them. I really feel like thanks to the pandemic I could really focus on this film, and I was blessed to be able to continue filming original interviews in 2021.”

Production was completed this past December, making the Port Jefferson Documentary Series one of the first showings with an audience. 

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series began in 2006 with a group of friends around a dining room table. The series has since won the title of Best Film Festival on Long Island for six consecutive years.

“When I screen a film, I need to experience an emotional connection before I share it with my board members, and one doesn’t need to be Jewish to appreciate Fiddler on the Roof,” said Barbara Sverd, co-director of the twice-yearly Port Jefferson Documentary Series. 

“Why is it so successful? I think it’s because it’s about average, everyday people trying to make a living, trying to keep old traditions alive, trying to fit into an ever-changing world they may not understand and leaving the Old World behind for an unknown future. But its broader message is about hope, faith and acceptance,” she said.

“We are proud to present Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen as a sneak peek before its theatrical premiere and as a welcome back to our Long Island audience. It’s the first in our upcoming Spring Series, and we are thrilled to have director Daniel Raim as our guest speaker by Zoom.”


Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen will be shown on Feb. 28 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson at 7 p.m. A conversation with Daniel Raim via Zoom will follow, where audience members can ask questions and share their thoughts. All tickets are $10 and are available online or at the event (cash only). In accordance with Theatre Three’s policy, masks, vaccination cards and a photo ID are required to attend. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.