Omid Djalili: ‘I can relate to Tevye’

Omid Djalili: ‘I can relate to Tevye’

Brigit Grant speaks to Omid Djalili about Fiddler On The Roof, Jewish dancing and oversized restaurant menus

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

“To life, to life, l’chayim!” Omid Djalili is singing to me and clearly in his element.

Fiddler On The Roof  is the Jews’ greatest gift to the world,” he says with alacrity and thumps the table.

That this Iranian Baha’i stand-up is so impassioned about Fiddler can only be a good thing, as from next Thursday he will play Tevye, the poor milkman, at the Chichester Festival.

The responsibility of taking on this iconic character created by Sholem Aleichem is not lost on the comic and – “I know, I’m not Jewish’ is the phrase on repeat during our chat.

But what Djalili may lack in religious rights to the role, is more than compensated by his natural chein and koyek (that’s star quality and strength).

It could even be argued that entertainment has made him Jewish by default with his impressive interpretations of Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver and Mahmud Nasir, the adopted Muslim who discovers he is Jewish in David Baddiel’s film The Infidel.

Omid Djalili with Tracy-Ann Oberman star in Fiddler On The Roof
Omid Djalili with Tracy-Ann Oberman star in Fiddler On The Roof

“David told me he expects a cut from this,” jokes Djalili. “He also said it was about time, but I’ve always felt I needed to have more life experience as a parent before taking on Tevye.

I’ve been educated by my kids about what’s cool and what’s not and I’m genuinely interested in the discourse of young people. I like the way they challenge the older generation.

“Now with two sons and a daughter who is at the point of marriage, I can relate to Tevye as one father to another.”

With so many Jewish performers reluctant to publicly identify with their faith, Omid’s embrace of all things Jewish is refreshing, but there are things he had to learn ahead of appearing in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical.

“Take the dancing,” says Omid, who famously uses Iranian disco moves in his stand-up. “I am Semitic and assumed I could do my Middle Eastern thing, but I was wrong.

“The choreographer Alistair David has studied these things and arms must be straight for Jewish dancing, instead of slightly bent in the middle. So they knocked it out of me.”

Omid has also acquired a Jewish wife in the shape of actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, who is playing Golde.

“Tracy and the other two Jewish cast members have been very helpful,” he continues. “They explained the rituals of the Sabbath prayers and tried to sum up a general feeling about what it is to be Jewish.

“Tracy summed it up for me as: ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat’ and I get that.”

Omid also gets Tevye’s relationship with God. “I like the idea of a very personalised entity who gives him opportunities to test himself and and in the end I believe he passes those tests.

“But I was intrigued when my Jewish friends in New York asked if I would be saying the lines ‘God Be With you’ when Chava leaves with her non-Jewish Russian husband.

“Apparently, when Zero Mostel played Tevye on Broadway, he controversially refused to say them because he didn’t feel they were appropriate for an Orthodox person at the time. But I believe Tevye is an open-minded person and acceptance is a very pro-Jewish thing.”

As demonstrated Omid has always been very pro and even managed to win rabbinical favour with his sympathetic Fagin.

“I was having dinner in Covent Garden with you at the time,” says Omid.

“As you will recall, Rabbi Thomas Salamon, of Westminster Synagogue, came over and said ‘Mazeltov on delivering the most pro-Jewish Fagin I have ever seen.’”

Omid in the infidel
Omid Djalili in The Infidel

“We still text each other, but in Czechoslavakian which he loves as it is where he grew up and where I was part of an experimental theatre company for five years.”

Omid’s stories about his period as a surrealist actor in Eastern Europe are classic, but so are his stand-up anecdotes with Schmuck For A Night as the title of his most recent tour.

“I did a show in Hertford, which I think is about six miles from the Aviv kosher restaurant in Edgware. I ate there with a friend and the menus were so big they looked like telephone directories.‘They are not food menus,’ said the owner. ‘They are lists of all our patron’s allergies. Crustaceans, molluscs, Muslims, Other Jews, Jews who say they live in Stanmore, but really live in a toilet in Watford.’”

Pause for laughter, then he continues.

“When I got to Hertford, I asked the theatre manager if it was an ethnically diverse town. ‘What do you mean?’ he replied.  I mean are there many black people, Muslims or Jews?

“He paused and said: ‘I think there is one in Welwyn Garden City’. I then pictured one Jew on display in Welwyn, but had to drop the Jewish stuff in my act until I got back to London.”

Omid will not be dropping the Jewish stuff to play Tevye, although any crying generated by the story was done in rehearsal.

“No one wants to see actors blubbing,” he says, but appreciates how tough it is to say goodbye to one’s children and hometown.

“How do you deal with pogroms, being thrown out of a country, form relationships with people who live beside you, but attack you twice a year?

“Fiddler On The Roof asks all these things and is a universal story loved by audiences around the world.”

Yet in those gentler moments during the show, Omid has pondered over what he should do.

“I asked the festival’s artistic director Daniel Evans if during my daughter Hodel’s farewell song I should just sit there like a schmuck? ‘Yes, you sit there like a schmuck,’ he said. “It’s incredible that everyone is using Jewish vernacular.

“‘I’m schvitzing,’ says one. ‘What’s the difference between a schlemiel and a schlumuzuk’ asks another – and there wasn’t a single Jewish person in the room. It’s hysterical.”

As for his Tevye accent, Djalili is opting for something between “Stamford Hill and Highgate, and not rolling my r’s.”

The Chichester Festival won’t have heard anything like it, but Djalili’s milkman will definitely deliver.

Fiddler On The Roof runs at The Chicester Festival from 10 July to 2 September. Details:

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