NEW YORK — For two years Alexandra Silber played Hodel in a London production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But with the last performance, the last curtain call and the last round of applause, it was time for Silber to bid adieu to the character with whom she identified for so long.
As it turned out, saying goodbye was hard. Really 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 said over gazpacho and lemonade one afternoon 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 (whom Silber happened to play in high school).
Through these flashbacks readers come to understand how Hodel and Perchik ended up living on the edge of the frozen, colorless world that is the Siberian labor camp Nerchinsk.
“There are 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 said she felt the need for another creative outlet. So she started blogging. She wrote about what it was like to be an American living in London, she wrote about raspberry jam. She wrote about her idol Angela Lansbury.
After one evening performance, a literary agent approached Silber and asked her 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 Silber wasn’t sure if anyone would ever read the book, or if she even wanted anyone to. Still, it felt good to give life to Hodel in this way, she said.
Then last year she was back on Broadway, playing Tzeital 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.
At first daunted by the idea of turning out a few hundred pages of a manuscript, she decided to approach it in pieces. She committed at least an hour a day to the book, even if it was just to correct punctuation.
After brewing Scottish Breakfast Tea in “the cutest, most adorable tea pot,” she set to work. Usually, her five-year-old rescue cat Tatiana Angela Lansbury Romanov sat on her lap.
Her second book, “White Hot Grief Parade,” will be published around Father’s Day 2018. It’s a memoir about losing her father Michael Silber to cancer.
“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, sometimes I can almost smell 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 fictionalized person of my father,” she said.
Born in Los Angeles, the Grammy-nominated performer grew up outside Detroit. At age 21 she made her West End debut as Laura Fairlie in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Woman in White,” and made her Broadway debut in 2011 playing Sophie DePalma in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” opposite Tyne Daly. In 2013 came her Carnegie hall debut — she sang the role of Nina in “Song of Norway,” an operetta.
Silber also identified with the way Hodel felt about Judaism.
“She is a person of faith, but not a follower of tradition. And as someone who grew up in a secular home I connected with that,” she said. “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 hassidic life and shtetl life, Silber felt prepared to write about Hodel’s daily life in Anatekva and Perchik’s life in yeshiva.
‘I came to my relationship with Judaism as an adult. It was a very chosen thing’
But the majority of the book takes place in Siberia — and Silber soon realized trying to describe Siberia without having seen it was akin to describing life in Michigan to her London friends.
“The only thing that can capture the essence of a place is to be in the place. Like Hodel sings, ‘I must go, I must go,’” said Silber, whose ancestors were Russian shtetl Jews.
After getting the necessary visas and government permissions, she and a friend spent three months in Russia, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg and former gulag towns in and around the Lake Baikal region. They had no translator, but after she a few weeks she picked up enough phrases to get around.
“Look, I’m an actress and I can do charades,” she said.
While many of these towns have grim histories, Silber said saw them as places of hope. She saw them as places where people blow out candles over birthday cake, gather for dinner and watch the sun set.
There was, she said, something of Hodel in this land of extremes.
“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,” Silber said.