For two years, Alexandra Silber played Hodel in the West End production of Fiddler On The Roof. But with the last round of applause for her last performance, it was time for her to bid adieu to the character with whom she identified for so long.
As it turned out, saying goodbye was hard. Silber kept wondering what happened to Hodel after she boarded a train bound for Siberia to join her fiancé Perchik. What was next in the life of this bold, smart and resolute young woman?
“I had a lot of unfinished business with Hodel. I [lost my father at] the same age as Hodel when she lost hers, when she got on that train. I was robbed of what I felt was a proper goodbye to my father,” Silber tells me in a Manhattan cafe.
And so was born her debut novel, After Anatevka: A Novel Inspired by Fiddler on the Roof. With its publication, the 34-year-old actress, singer, teacher and blogger can now list author to her list of accomplishments.
A serious and poignant historical fiction, the book opens where the musical ends. On the first page, readers find Hodel languishing in a filthy Siberian prison cell, determined to rejoin her earnest Russian intellectual fiancé.
As she waits to learn her fate, she reflects about the shtetl life she left behind — her older sister Tzeitel and her younger sisters Chava and Bialyeke, as well as her mother Golde.
Through these flashbacks, readers come to understand how Hodel and Perchik ended up living on the edge of the frozen, colourless world that is the Siberian labour camp Nerchinsk.
“There is no singing with mops in this book. That would be to water down the story and rob it of her strength and authenticity,” Silber said.
It was about four months into the London production that Silber felt the need for another creative outlet. So she started blogging about life as an American living in London, about raspberry jam and about her idol, Angela Lansbury.
After one evening performance, a literary agent approached Silber and asked if she’d ever considered writing a novel. The seed was planted and Silber went to work. She wrote between scenes, she wrote at night. There were times she wasn’t sure if anyone would ever read the book, or if she even wanted anyone to. Still, she says it felt good to give life to Hodel in this way.
Then, last year, she was back on Broadway, playing Tzeitel in Bartlett Sher’s Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof. And she thought perhaps it was time to bring the book into the world. She found a different agent and signed a two book deal with Pegasus Publishing.
She approached it in pieces. and committed at least an hour a day to the book, even if it was just to correct punctuation, usually with her cat on her lap.
Her second book, White Hot Grief Parade, a memoir about losing her father, Michael, to cancer, will be published next year.
“Eighteen is a particularly complicated age to lose a parent. You are self-aware, you are making yourself, but you are also not done with being raised,” she said.
“I still feel quite close to him. The biggest sadness I have is I would have loved to have known my dad as an adult.”
In After Anatevka, Silber’s father rises from the pages as Perchik. A civil rights activist and attorney, her father was a great believer in equality, she said. And, like Perchik, he too was deeply misunderstood by his father.
Indeed, Silber said she painted her grandfather into the character of Gershon, Perchik’s uncle and guardian.
“The book was my chance to create a fictionalised person of my father,” she said.
Born in Los Angeles, the Grammy-nominated performer grew up outside Detroit. Aged 21, she made her West End debut as Laura Fairlie in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman In White, and made her Broadway debut in 2011 in Terrence McNally’s Master Class.
Silber also identified with how Hodel felt about Judaism. “She is a person of faith, but not a follower of tradition. As someone who grew
up in a secular home, I connected with that,” she says.
“Judaism is unique in that it can enrich you culturally without ever introducing the concept of God. I came to my relationship with Judaism as an adult. It was a very chosen thing.”
Having immersed herself in Chasidic and shtetl life, Silber felt prepared to write about Hodel’s daily life in Anatevka and Perchik’s life in yeshiva. But the majority of the book takes place in Siberia – and Silber, whose Jewish ancestors were from the Russian shtetls, realised she had to visit it. She and a friend spent three months in Russia, visiting Moscow, St Petersburg and former gulag towns in and around Lake Baikal.
“In Siberia, Hodel discovers what she is made of, she becomes brave in a new way. She’s charged with purpose and her possibilities are endless.”
υ After Anatevka: A novel inspired by Fiddler On The Roof by Alexandra Silber, is published by Pegasus Books, priced £20.99. Available now