The title is inspired by a 1902 monologue by Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish, Ven ikh bin Rothschild (If I were a Rothschild), a reference to the wealth of the Rothschild family, although the content is quite different. The lyric is based in part on passages from Sholem Aleichem’s 1899 short story "The Bubble Bursts." Both stories appeared in English in the 1949 collection of stories Tevye's Daughters.
The song is broken into four verses, with a bridge between the third and fourth and a chorus sung at the beginning of the song, and after the second and fourth verses.
Musically, it is written in a Jewish klezmer style.
Through the first two verses, Tevye dreams of the material comforts that wealth would bring him. Sung boisterously and comedically, Tevye first considers the enormous house he would buy and the needless luxuries he would fill it with, including a third staircase "leading nowhere, just for show," then the poultry he would buy to fill his yard.
Tevye switches his attention to the luxuries in which he would shower his wife, Golde, in the third verse. He talks of servants to alleviate her workload, fancy clothes for her pleasure, and mountains of food. The song is sung in the same boisterous, comedic style.
The music and vocals intensify during the bridge, when Tevye starts lamenting his place in the community as a lowly milkman, and considers the esteem and importance that wealth would bring him.
In the final verse, Tevye softens as he further considers his devotion to God. He expresses his sorrow that the long working hours he keeps prevents him from spending as much time in the synagogue as he would like, and how wealth would allow him to spend less time working and more time praying and studying the Torah, and finally asking God if "it would spoil a vast eternal plan" if he were wealthy.
A repeated phrase throughout the song, "all day long I'd bidi-bidi-bum," is often misunderstood to refer to Tevye's desire not to have to work. However, in an interview with Terry Gross, Sheldon Harnick said he basically made up syllables that he thought would give the effect of Chassidic chanting. The first person to play Tevye, Zero Mostel, then replaced the syllables Harnick had written with ones that Mostel thought would be more authentic.
Cover versions and translations
The Hebrew version lyrics (first released in 1965) are taken directly from the original Sholem Aleichem story. The title and chorus are "לו הייתי רוטשילד" Lu hayiti Rotshild: 'If I were Rothschild'.
In the Animaniacs episode "Pigeon on the roof", which is exactly a spoof of the film, the song was parodied by Pesto Goodfeather, entitled as "If I Were The Godpigeon".
In a World AIDS Day benefit, the original cast of Avenue Q and the cast of a recent Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof presented a 10-minute performance that was essentially a spoof of Fiddler and Avenue Q called "Avenue Jew"; Shprintze falls for Jewish-American Princeton, but Tevye forbids their union because he is a puppet, even when he tells Princeton he likes him. Princeton only says "I know, I know. If I were a human..."
The January 1973 issue of Mad Magazine featured a parody of the then-recent film adaptation of Fiddler titled Antenna on the Roof and recasting the characters as the affluent Jewish descendants of the original characters, living in a modern American suburb. The patriarch recites "If I Were a Poor Man", describing in ironic terms the problems of wealth.