For this #MotelMonday post, I’ll get very close to Motel Kamzoil, the tailor, without actually hitting him. Instead, we will, by the end of this post, arrive at Moyshe The Tailor.
Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, was born in 1918 as Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz to immigrant parents. From an early age, Robbins tried to “cancel out” an identity he did not want: his Jewish heritage. He even went so far as to write that, “I didn’t want to be a Jew … I didn’t want to be like my father the Jew … I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated, hidden in among the boys, the majority” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 88).
In 1924, at the age of six, Robbins traveled with his mother, sister, and two cousins to his father’s birthplace, Rozhanka, Poland, where his grandfather still lived. Later in life, Robbins recalled that, “In Rozhanka, he felt no shame about being a Jew. He sat on his grandfather’s lap, cuddled against his chest, and this ‘figure with a long white beard … who I loved a lot and who I knew loved me’ sang Yiddish songs to him…” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 91).
Thirty-five years later, in 1959, Robbins tried, unsuccessfully, to revisit Rozhanka. Perhaps this was because the Rozhanka of his childhood was now part of the Soviet Union, not Poland, and so the driver he hired couldn’t actually take him to the shtetl, or perhaps it’s because the driver accidentally took him to one of the other villages in Poland called the same name but spelled differently. Regardless, the “tiny town with dirty streets and kerosene lamps” that Robbins called “my home, that I belonged to” was no more. It had been invaded by the Germans in January 1942, then was retaken by the Russians, then lost to the Germans again for good. Once this happened, “All of Rozhanka’s Jews” were forced out and sent “to the ghetto in nearby Szczuczyn. The following April, the ghetto was liquidated, its captives sent to the slaughter” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 91).
In Fiddler on the Roof, the town of Rajanka (as it’s spelled in Fiddler) makes an appearance as the topic of a short conversation early in the show:
Talking about news, terrible news in the outside world … terrible.
What is it?
What does it say?
In a village called Rajanka, all the Jews were evicted, forced to leave their homes …
For what reason?
It doesn’t say. Maybe the Tsar wanted their land … maybe a plague …
May the Tsar have his own personal plague.
Why don’t you ever bring us some good news?
I only read it. It was an edict from the authorities.
When he tried, and failed, to find Rozhanka in 1959, Robbins was not yet familiar with the stories of Sholem-Aleichem or the fictitious town of Anatevka in which Sholem-Aleichem’s stories are set. Even still, Robbins, who “recalled those days [in Rozhanka] with a wistfulness not found in any of his other reminiscences of childhood” “now knew how the shtetl had become a figment of memory and imagination,” and so he promised “to give the shtetl ‘a new life on the stage'” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 93). Is it any wonder, then, that the lost shtetl of Rozhanka, which so affected Robbins’ life, is the first town where Jews are forced out in the world of Fiddler on the Roof?
Rozhanka’s influence on Fiddler didn’t end with that small mention in the script, though. Given the scope of devastation visited upon Jews and Jewish settlements during the Holocaust, the Rozhanka Robbins had visited as a child wasn’t the only “nothing” village left behind after World War II; indeed, almost all traces of Polish Jewry were erased during the Holocaust. Out of that terrible tragedy, however, grew a movement to preserve and protect the memories of those who survived the Holocaust: the creation of yizkerbikher. Defined by The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe as “a vast body of memorial books commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust, primarily from prewar Poland” that act as “substitute gravestones for martyrs who never received proper Jewish burial” (Jonathan Boyarin, “Yizker-bikher), yizkerbikher “take a similar form and tone no matter which of the hundreds of shtetls is memorialized” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 92). Solomon goes on to quote the end of Rozhanka’s yizkerbukh:
Oh, Rozhanka, my shtetl, so prized
I see you now more vivid than ever
Oh, when into my thoughts you arise
You awaken longings without measure …
~Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 93
Having read just those four lines from Rozhanka’s yizkerbukh (I can’t find the full text anywhere online), there is no doubt in my mind that the song “Anatevka” is really just a short, musical yizkerbukh for the imaginary town of Anatevka in Fiddler:
A little bit of this
A little bit of that.
Someone should have set a match to this place years ago.
A bench, a tree.
So, what’s a stove? Or a house?
People who pass through Anatevka don’t even know they’ve been here.
A stick of wood. A piece of cloth.
What do we leave?
Underfed, overworked Anatevka.
Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?
Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,
Where I know everyone I meet.
Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
I belong in Anatevka,
Tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka.
Dear little village, little town of mine
Rozhanka, the Holocaust, yizkerbikher … With all of these ideas floating around, you may ask, how can this post possibly count as a #MotelMonday entry, and how does it relate back to Moyshe the Tailor as a substitute for Motel the Tailor? I’ll tell you … I don’t know!
Actually, here’s how it all relates: the same year that Robbins spent a summer in Rozhanka, the tiny town of “120 Jewish families” and “forty Christian families,” the local Zionist youth group there produced several plays: King Lear, The Way to Buenos Aires, and Moyshe the Tailor of Goldfaden (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 91). Information as to when throughout the year those plays were production is impossible to track down on my short timeline for these posts, but it is within reason to believe that young Jerome Robbins saw the Yiddish play about Moyshe the Tailor and remembered it later in life while working on Fiddler. Granted, Sholem-Aleichem’s story titled “Modern Children” already talked about the relationship between Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel and Motel, the tailor, but it’s fun to think that, in some way, Robbins was influenced by a different tailor in a Yiddish play many years before Motel Kamzoil ever entered his life.