When my father, “Fiddler on the Roof” playwright Joseph Stein, died in October 2010 at 98, my eulogy began with an anecdote from a few years earlier, when he’d fallen ill en route to from New York to Connecticut.
“How do you feel?” asked an EMS guy.
“Not so good.”
“What hurts you?”
“It hurts me that George Bush is president.”
The line drew a roar from the crowd, his people, New York theater folk, as reliably progressive a bunch as any outside a university campus. It was my parting gift to a man I’d loved greatly and, over the previous decade, since moving to the right, had argued with incessantly. Though almost preternaturally cheerful, my father couldn’t fathom how any thinking person, let alone one who’d imbibed politics at his knee, could have ended up a — well, he never actually used the word, though he once reported the reaction of a friend, one of Broadway’s better-known composers, to something I’d written: “When did your son become a fascist?”
I understood his worldview far better — a communist in young adulthood, he’d been a proud progressive ever since — but I found him no less frustrating. In other respects he was thoughtful, even wise, but I marveled at his refusal to acknowledge the damage today’s left was inflicting on the country we both loved.
To the contrary, having lived to see Barack Obama elected, my father was delighted with the drift of things. A few months before he died, he confided, only partly joking, what few others on his side would be honest enough to admit, assuming they were astute enough to grasp it: “I never moved; the Democratic Party came to me.”
I love “Fiddler,” and am intensely proud of my father’s role in bringing it to the world, but it was only as a conservative that I realized how fully it reflected his worldview. He’s there not only in Tevye — his playfulness and sardonic optimism, his habit (so irksome to Golde, as it could be to my mother) of kidding around even when the occasion calls for the utmost seriousness — but in the young revolutionary Perchick, in many ways the noblest character in the piece.
Perchick: In this world, it’s the rich who are the criminals. Someday their wealth will be ours.
Tevye: That would be nice. If they would agree, I would agree.
One of the odder ideological back-and-forths we had involved his abiding contempt for business and businessmen. “You make them sound,” I laughed, “like the little guy with the monocle and top hat in Monopoly.” For once, he didn’t smile back. “Exactly, that’s just who they are!” Knowing how much he’d have enjoyed it, I regret that he didn’t live to see Occupy Wall Street.
My parents, of course, never cared that, like Tevye’s rebellious daughter Chava, I dated out of the faith. The only remark on the subject I ever heard from my father was “Why don’t you ever bring home a black girl, so we can show how liberal we are?”
After I moved rightward, we could get into it about almost anything — Giuliani or the Clintons, Rush Limbaugh or the New York Times, global warming or race. One of our ugliest fights involved the Duke lacrosse scandal, set off by a kid at another table in the restaurant in a Carlton College lacrosse T-shirt.
Then there was Israel. My father, who’d once never have brooked a word against the Jewish state, was now just as adamant that in its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel had turned away from a reverence for justice that, for him, was the essence of Jewish identity.
Still, even knowing his feelings, I was caught short at “Fiddler’s” 2004 revival by a change he’d made to the dialogue. It occurs when the Jews have been expelled from Anatevka, and Yente is asked where she’s going. She’d long replied: “I’m a matchmaker, no? I’ll arrange marriages, yes? Children come from marriages, no? So I’m going to the Holy Land to help our people increase and multiply.” But since those lines might have been taken as endorsing Israeli settlement policy, Yente’s now going to the Holy Land because “I just want to go where our foremothers lived and where they’re all buried. That’s where I want to be buried — if there’s room.”
Toward the end, we fought less. For different reasons — he for the fun of it, I because so much of it was new — we were both eager to talk instead about the old days: his start in radio, the many showbiz luminaries he’d known, the early years of TV comedy, the ups and downs of his many shows.
So it’s unfortunate, if oddly appropriate, that our last exchange was an unpleasant one. It was a few weeks before the 2010 midterm elections, and sitting up in his hospital bed, he asked, “If you lived in Delaware, you wouldn’t vote for that idiot Christine O’Donnell, would you?”
“Well, Dad, I’m afraid I’d have to.”
As, disbelieving, he began furiously objecting, a nurse shooed me from the room to perform some tests. The next time I saw him, he was in a coma.
That’s why I prefer to remember another episode, from shortly before. He’d fallen down a long flight of stairs, and was to have surgery the next day, when the phone on his bedside table rang, and I picked up. It was his close friend Carl Reiner. “I heard what happened,” he exclaimed, more excited than alarmed. “It should be in the Guinness Book of Records! I told Mel (Brooks) and he said, ‘It’s impossible; no 98-year-old could possibly fall down 14 steps backward and survive!’”
I tried handing the phone to my father but he demurred, whispering that he was too tired. Still, knowing his old friend would cheer him up, I held the receiver to his ear. He listened as Carl repeated what he’d told me. “Tell Mel,” he replied wearily, “that not only is it possible, there are several people to whom I’d highly recommend it.”
Harry Stein is a contributing editor to City Journal, from which this article was adapted. He is the author of “Why We Won’t Talk Honestly About Race” and the comic novel “Will Tripp, Pissed-Off Attorney-at-Law.”
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