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Fiddling Around With “If I Were a Rich Man”

Listen to four variations of this iconic hit

By Jewish Arts Collaborative

Published Feb 28, 2023


“If I Were A Rich Man” is one of those songs that are catchy and eternal. The joyous, biddi-biddi-bum, niggun-like melody of the original has become a soundtrack to a moment of time in the Jewish story, and is certainly reminiscent of the Jewish spirit across the ages.

It is hopeful, charming, funny, and sad at its core. We root for Tevye the Dairyman, and boy, do we all wish we were rich. Sholem Aleichem went even more specific, writing a Yiddish monologue titled “If I Were A Rothschild” – the song is allegedly based off that monologue.

In honor of Jewish theatrical icon Zero Mostel’s birthday, on this day (February 28) in 1915, we present four variations of one of Zero’s most memorable moments on the stage. Watch Zero Mostel perform at the 19th Tony Awards in 1965. Of course, many have played Tevye on the stage since Zero, and he did not play the role on the silver screen. Any way you throw it, when we watch Zero embody Tevye’s spirt in “If I Were a Rich Man”, we easily concur that he might as well be embodying all of us.

Zero Mostel (1965)

Chaim Topol (1971)

Katrina Lenk (2018)

Steven Skybell (2018)

We would remiss if we didn’t mention how “If I Were a Rich Man” has taken on a life of its own in pop culture: Gwen Stefani released her chart-topping single “Rich Girl” in 2002, that more-than-samples the Fiddler on the Roof track. As we are writing this, Fiddler is in it’s second run on Broadway with an all-Yiddish script. Although we are only sharing a few variations at this time, we will surely revisit this classic time and time again. Fiddler lives on.


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Which version of the song do you like the most? Why?


Many have pointed to Fiddler on the Roof as a universal story, despite it being so iconically Jewish. What aspects of the show (if you've seen it) or the song featured in this article feel universal to you? Do you relate to Tevye? (What would YOU do if you were a rich man?)

In translation

Does the feeling and/or meaning of the song change for you when it's in Yiddish?

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