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In 1959, however, Robbins took a trip in search of Rozhanka, the tiny Polish town where his father was born, and where Robbins recalled having spent a single carefree summer on his grandfather’s knee, unashamed, for once, of his Jewishness. By the time he thought to find it again, Jewish Rozhanka had long since been destroyed, and Solomon argues that wandering in search of that vanished shtetl is what primed Robbins to lavish such tenderness upon the fictional Anatevka.
Robbins threw himself into the project with his characteristic mania. He scoured shtetl histories and invited the show’s costume and set designers to his home for screenings of films like “Laughter through Tears,” hoping they’d absorb the sights and sounds of life in the Pale in 1905.
He interviewed his own father about his escape from Rozhanka, and warmed to the memory of his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandmother, whose “Jewish backward ways” he’d previously despised.
For local inspiration, Robbins crashed weddings in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, sometimes dragging along cast members disguised in Hasidic dress, to observe celebratory schnapps-fuelled dancing that enthralled him with what he termed its “virile ferocity.”
A closeted gay man who’d always felt ashamed of what he perceived as the weakness of Jewish masculinity, Robbins marveled as each “explosive foot thrust to the floor” seemed to him to assert a “strength [he] never knew.” In one attempt to bring Orthodox social mores back to the rehearsal hall, Robbins tried enforcing gender segregation during breaks — a policy he managed to enforce only for a few hours before the actors rebelled.
Some of the director’s more memorable clashes were with Zero Mostel, the loudmouthed and handsomely compensated star Robbins had come to view as indispensable, but whom he’d warily described in his journal as “crude, vulgar, but healthy and satisfied.”
Mostel, in Solomon’s analysis, “represented all that Robbins had repressed,” and Mostel seemed to know it, lording over Robbins his superior knowledge of Yiddish literature and Jewish customs. It was Mostel who insisted that Tevye would never neglect to kiss the mezuza when passing through the doorway of his home, and Mostel who persuaded Harnick not to cut the verse in which Tevye dreams of a synagogue seat by the Eastern Wall from “If I Were a Rich Man.”
Throughout the creative process, the team continued to make important changes to the script well into the show’s out of town previews in Detroit. Harnick wrote “Wonder of Wonders” in his hotel room, mining the Gideon Bible in his nightstand for mentions of miracles.