Any Jew with thespian tendencies must have been in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at some point. My stint came in my freshman year of college, when I played Chava, the middle daughter of Tewi, the main character of the show.
never working on a climactic scene
I will never forget working on the climactic scene of the show. When Chava tells Tevi that she intends to marry Feydka, a Russian Gentile. Tevy turns his back on Chava, rejects him and in one final plea, she pleads. “Father !!!” It’s a moment that could have easily smashed college melodrama. If the father I appealed to had not made the grief feel so real. I was privileged to be on stage with an exceptionally talented college senior named Steven Skybell.
SkyBell at the New York Theater Folksbean’s All-Yiddish
“Fiddler” would become a major part of Skybell’s career. Now a veteran Broadway actor, Skybell starred as Tevy in New York Theater Folksbean’s all-Yiddish “Fiddler” production, which opened to rave reviews in 2018 and closed abruptly at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As pandemic restrictions ease and theaters revive, the musical is set to reopen Off-Broadway on New World Stages on November 13 – Skybell back in his trademark role.
Judges at a Retreat for the Rohr Jewish Literary Institute
I first saw Yiddish “Fiddler” in 2018 before the pandemic. But 35 years after our walk in college as co-stars. Skybell’s deeply affected performance, seemingly. Presented in seamless Yiddish, left me in tears. I congratulated him backstage. But he was not seen again until June 2022, when he was asked to perform for judges and fellows at a retreat for the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute. The retreat convenes the winners, finalists, mentors and judges of the Institute’s Literary Prize for Emerging Jewish Writers. (I am a fiction judge.)
Skybell, it turns out, kept its Yiddish quest alive after “Fiddler” closed in 2020, delving into the language’s rich musical tradition. He used that learning to create a stimulating, 75-minute concert. In which Old Country songs were turned into timeless snapshots of anguish and excitement.
Skybell is a longtime employee of the Foxbean Theater in New York.
Since the start of the pandemic, Skybell has been carefully researching, translating and rehearsing Yiddish songs in close collaboration with Zalmen Moltek, the long-serving artistic director of the Folksbyn Theater in New York. During this particular concert, Mlotek, an authority on all things Yiddish, helps explain a song’s backstory, sometimes with Skybell on the piano.
Starting a Yiddish Immersion Program
In Skybell’s post-concert interview with his older brother, Joseph Schiebel, (a novelist and 2011 Rohr Choice Award winner who uses a different surname spelling), he recalled. That’s how the pandemic forced him and his “fiddler” to isolate. Unlike many of us, SkyBell didn’t opt for the sourdough starter kit. Instead, he started a Yiddish immersion program.
as one of the very few Jews in Lubbock, Texas
For Skybell, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas as one of very few Jews, the show clearly triggered an impulse to reconnect with heritage and history. He left Tevy behind. but chose to trace the ensemble of Jewish musicians, not the character’s vocabulary. Which has gone largely unheard and unshared.
Worked as Music Director of the Production
During the COVID lockdown, Skybell asked Mlotek to study and sing together in Zoom sessions. Mlotek, 71, had enough experience and pedigree to serve as his guide: the son of two famous Yiddish artists, he once dazzled Leonard Bernstein with his conducting skills. Most recently, he served as the music director of the Yiddish “Fiddler” production. where he and Skybell became friends.