When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing)


When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964 it was an instant hit,1 beloved by Jews and goyim2 alike. Why? Because it was about the struggle between tradition (!) and modernity. Rather than dissipating, this struggle has only become more complex over time, as the past continues to churn through the present.3

Tevye: Of course, we don't eat like kings, but we don't starve either. As the Good Book says, "When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick."
The Rabbi’s son: Where does the Book say that?
Tevye: All right, all right! It doesn't exactly say that, but someplace, it has something about a chicken.

Tevye looks to his ancient texts for guidance, but when he repeats them they turn into something else that speaks to his own time and context. When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing) jumps into and extends this spiral.

Fiddler on the Roof was based on a series of short stories collectively titled Tevye the Dairyman (1894) and written by canonical Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose works are known for their evocative depictions of the Jewish shtetl4. The translation of Aleichem’s stories into Fiddler brought to life a deeply felt portrait of the American Jew’s journey from the old country to the new. Such journeys in the Jewish diaspora are well-put in the final stanza of poet Yehuda Amichai’s The Jews:

And what about God? Once we sang
“There is no God like ours”, now we sing “There is no God of ours”
But we sing. We still sing.

Using the framework of the Talmud5, When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing) interweaves various writings and re-writings of how to be Jewish and what it means to be Jewish today. With the script of Fiddler on the Roof acting as a contemporary iteration of Mishnah6, the exhibition stands as both a critical investigation into and a love letter to contemporary Jewish culture.

[Read full installation texts]

[1] See [https://web.archive.org/web/20040603205640/http://www.playbill.com/news/article/84588.html] for more on that original production.

[2] See [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-and-goyish/] for Lenny Bruce’s take on the meanings of these two words.

[3] Sounds crazy, no?

[4] Eastern European village.

[5] The Talmud is an ancient Jewish text—a record of the rules, arguments, stories and jokes by and around which Jews have lived across generations.  Very little goes uncontested in Jewish life, nothing stays still, and everything is written down.

[6] The central section of each page of Talmud around which the rest of the page revolves (learn more at [https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24367959]).


Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Latex-printed cotton and embroidery thread, 3’ x 5’ each. Typography by Unyimeabasi Udoh. Photo: Jonas Jessen Hansen.

A fiddler on the roof... (2018–19). Latex-printed cotton and embroidery thread, 3’ x 5’. Typography by Unyimeabasi Udoh. Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019).


Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Latex-printed cotton and embroidery thread, 3’ x 5’ each. Typography by Unyimeabasi Udoh. Photo courtesy of Jonas Jessen Hansen. 

Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Latex-printed cotton and embroidery thread, 3’ x 5’ each. Typography by Unyimeabasi Udoh. Photo: Jonas Jessen Hansen. 


Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Latex-printed cotton and embroidery thread, 3’ x 5’ each. Typography by Unyimeabasi Udoh. Photo: Jonas Jessen Hansen. 


The Big Win (2019) (detail). Acid-dyed, monotyped and hand-embroidered cotton quilt, 6’ x 7.5’. Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Photo: Jonas Jessen Hansen.


The Big Win (2019) (detail). Acid-dyed, monotyped and hand-embroidered cotton quilt, 6’ x 7.5’. Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Photo: Jonas Jessen Hansen.


The Big Win (2019) (detail). Single-channel video. Exhibition view: When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick (but we sing, we still sing), Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2019). Photo: Jonas Jessen Hansen.