The role of family

Guess what Eddie Cantor, Lee Strasberg, Walter Matthau, Joan Rivers, Kirk and Michael Douglas, Michael Bolton, Harrison Ford, David Copperfield, Peggy Lipton, Sean Penn, Jennifer Connelly, Robert Downey Jr., River and Joaquin Phoenix, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhall, and Seth Green share in common?

These entertainers are the descendants of tsarist Russian Jews, primarily from the Ukraine, who fled to America in the early 1900s in order to escape persecution by Cossacks. “Fiddler on the Roof” mirrors the likely beginnings of 2 million Russian-Jewish grandparents and great grandparents that immigrated to America between 1900 and 1910.

Maui actor Gary Shin-Leavitt also belongs on the list of descendents. “My grandfather, Max, immigrated to the United States from a little ‘shtetl,’ or village, called Wysokie Litewskie (pronounced Veesoka Litvosk), right about the same time as ‘Fiddler’ takes place,” said Shin-Leavitt. “My great grandfather, Eli, lived there his whole life. We came from poor peasant stock, with cows just a like Tevye. I see elements of Tevye in both my grandfather and my father.”

Just as Tevye had five daughters, Shin-Leavitt’s grandfather had five sons. The parallels among the families continue. “Chava, Tevye’s third child, completely upended the family by marrying outside the faith, so did my father when he married my mother,” he said.

One of the most beloved Broadway shows of all time, “Fiddler,” which opened in 1964, was the first American musical in history to hit 3,000 performances and held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical until it was surpassed by “Grease” in 1980. The list of legendary performers who have played Tevye include Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Chaim Topol, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Nehemiah Persoff, Alfred Molina, Harvey Fierstein and Paul Michael Glaser (aka Starsky), who played Perchik in the 1971 film version but is currently performing as Tevye in the United Kingdom. Additional “Fiddler” alumni include Bea Arthur, Bette Midler, Bert Convey, Austin Pendleton, Paul Mann and Adrienne Barbeau, who left her role as Hodel to originate the role of Rizzo in “Grease.”

Like many Jewish-Americans, Shin-Leavitt shares a link with Tevye and European anti-Semitism. “When my grandfather was a young man, he had received word that a pogrom (a politically motivated, violent, anti-Semitic riot) was planned for their village. He packed up and moved to America with his wife, Jennie. He later brought my great grandparents over to America as well. In the early 1930s, word had started to trickle into the U.S. that the Jews of Eastern Europe were again being aggressively persecuted. My great grandmother chose to go back to try and help her family escape. She was never heard from again, lost in the vast machinery that was the extermination camp system of the Third Reich.”

The classic musical set in 1905 is based on “Tevye and his Daughters” and other tales by Sholem Aleichem. The Ukrainian Jewish writer immigrated to New York City in 1909, where he became known as the “Jewish Mark Twain.” When Twain himself joked about the moniker, Aleichem responded, “Please tell Mr. Twain that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

My favorite Aleichem/Tevye quote is: “I know we are God’s chosen people – but once in awhile, couldn’t you choose somebody else?”

“This personal history makes my connection to Tevye all the more real,” says Shin-Leavitt. “It is my dearest hope that somehow I am able to convey a glimmer of my family, and their journey, in Tevye’s journey.”


* “The Play’s the Thing,” 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, opening today and running through March 2 at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Two playwrights, Turai and Mansky (Dale Button and Vinnie Linares), have brought the script of their latest operetta, along with their young protege, composer Albert Adam (Dylan Bode), to an Italian castle to show it to the show’s star and diva Ilona Szabo (Jennifer Rose). A farcical romantic comedy atmosphere ensues when compromising conversation is overheard; quick thinking is required to mend the situation and save the operetta. Cost is $22 with kamaaina discounts available for residents with Hawaii IDs on Feb. 20 and 27. For tickets or more information, call 463-6550.


* “The Tempest,” 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 21 through March 2, King Kekaulike High School cafetorium in Pukalani.

KKHS presents Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” directed by Chris Kepler. Set on a remote island, Prospero, a magician and rightful duke, plots to restore his daughter, Miranda, to her royal standing using illusion and manipulation. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students, available only at the door, one half hour before the show.

* “La Cage aux Folles,” 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 28 through March 16, at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku; music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein, based on the French play by Jean Poiret, directed by Alexis Dascoulias, choreographed by Kalani Whitford and under the musical direction of William Asher. Georges (Bob Wills) is the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin/Zaza (Steven Dascoulias) is his romantic partner and star attraction. Farcical adventures ensue when Georges’s son, Jean-Michel (fathered during a one-night fling), brings home his fiance’s ultraconservative parents to meet them. Tickets range from $17 to $28. To purchase or for more information, call 242-6969 or go online at