Editor’s Note: To prepare for his role as Motel the tailor in the critically acclaimed Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” actor Adam Kantor traveled to Eastern Europe in search of the world of Sholem Aleichem. What follows is an account of his travels and how they’ve changed his perception of the musical and the world from which it arose.
Ah, Sholem Aleichem, I have something to admit to you. When I was 11 years old, I performed in my very first musical ever, “Fiddler on the Roof,” at Great Neck North Middle School, playing Mendel, the rabbi’s son, and I had no idea who you were. I had no clue that you were the grandfather of Yiddish literature — that without your great Tevye the Dairyman stories, “Fiddler” wouldn’t exist and I might not have caught that theater bug with which I am still joyously infected. What a shande! It is amazing, considering how close we are today, considering how — I am proud to tell you — I am playing your indelible character of Motel Kamzoil in the greatest musical adaptation of your stories on Broadway.
And Sholem Aleichem, I am so excited to share with you that not long ago, I returned from your Ukrainian homeland — your Pereyaslav, your Voronkov, and, wonder of wonders, I even found your “Anatevka!” You may ask: What was I doing in these cities in the first place? What on God’s green earth would convince a meshugeneh like me to travel halfway around the world to a land once filled with Jews and now almost completely populated by goyim? What was I looking for? I’ll tell you. I don’t know.
Believe me, I heard the warnings: “Why are you going there?” “There’s nothing left!” “You’d find more inspiration taking a subway to Brighton Beach.” But I suppose I was looking for the opportunity to find something, not mourn the inability to do so. I was determined. And find I did.
The first thing I found, before I even left, was this mensch who has a group called Yiddishkayt that I would follow through these lands. The mensch’s name is Robby Peckerar and his tour is called Helix. According to his website (Yiddishkayt.org), there would be 24 artists, activists and scholars exploring the former shtetlekh of Eastern Europe — towns all over Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia, where our people lived and thrived — from Minsk to Dvinsk and many towns in between. And, can you believe this excursion would happen during the summer between receiving the offer to perform in the Broadway production and beginning rehearsals? And would you believe, Sholem Aleichem, that just three weeks before this excursion, the group lost its 24th traveler and a spot opened up for me? Can you imagine? So bashert! But wait, there’s more…. Robby, knowing the aim of my research and my connection to “Fiddler,” offered me a post-trip extension to Ukraine, to the lands of your birth and upbringing, the villages of Tevye – Boyarka (“Boiberik in your stories), Pereyaslav and Voronkov (your bucolic childhood, your “Kasrilevke”), Kiev (“Yehupets”), and the towns in between, one of them formerly known as Antopl, or Antevka, or Anatevka. More on that later….
The three weeks were an abundance of discoveries, connections and findings. We were, like the great Ansky, ethnographic archaeologists digging up the culture of the ghosts left behind. We sorted through the rubble of ancient synagogues, read the poetry of their congregants aloud, found our ancestors’ graves, even found a few elderly Yiddish speakers! With all our experiences, I could write a book…if I were a writer. But since we don’t have so much time together, Sholem Aleichem, and because I am prone to meandering, I want to focus my story on the adventure that was finding Anatevka; finding You.
We had come to Boyarka, this village outside Kiev, because we knew you had lived there once, knew you had a dacha there, that surely you wrote some of your Tevye stories inside this dacha, and you changed the name of Boyarka in your stories to Boiberik — the town where Tevye goes door-to-door selling dairy products to the rich. So we wanted to find a piece of you! A piece of Tevye, and a piece of “Fiddler.” After all, “on the other side of Boiberik, not far from Anatevka, lives a Jew called Tevye the dairyman.”
Well how do you like it that this soon-to-become “lame tailor” found his way all the way from New York in 2015 to the very front step of your dacha in Boyarka/Boiberik?
And wouldn’t you know it, the nice goyim who currently live there let us into the yard to have a closer look. I do have to say, the young couple seemed not nearly as excited about their residence as we were. (In fact, I wondered if they had even read your stories.) However, you’ll be pleased to know that on the side of the house there’s a little plaque with your name on it. So we strolled around, enjoyed and touched the house. I could just imagine you sitting there working on your greatest creation — your Tevye, inspired by your real-life dairyman who went by the same name. I sat in your yard and imagined this Tevye as you might have seen him: on the street where you lived, going from one house to another selling milk, cracking a joke and chatting about the Talmud, dragging his cart (or his horse dragging it if it was a good day) miles down the road.
I also imagined your Motel, our Motel, going door-to-door selling his tailoring services, having walked from his nearby home in Anatevka, eager (desperate) for some more business, saving up enough to buy his very own sewing machine. Here’s a photo of Robby and me outside an abandoned old dacha imagining this scenario thoroughly:
We soaked it in, admiring the architecture of these old vacation homes that only the rich of Kiev could afford — “the biggest businessmen from Yehupets” as your Tevye says. I imagined you in your small dacha, dreaming of moving up to a larger one, like the impressive ones just down the road. As we began to leave this little haven, we heard beautiful choral singing. Following the music, we found ourselves outside a sky-blue painted wooden Eastern Orthodox Church on a small hill.
What else was there to do but go inside?
We found ourselves in the middle of a wedding ceremony, replete with a small unseen choir in the balcony above. A young bride, with blonde hair and eyes as blue as the painted church itself and wearing a sheer white dress and veil, stood beside her tall, handsome groom. Another pair, behind them, held crowns of gold and silver a few inches above the couple’s heads. There was a priest in a white cape in front of them, the couple’s parents standing to the side, and a hired photographer. And us. That’s it.
Perhaps this is where Tevye’s daughter Chava married Fyedka?
This 1901 church would have been a cocoon for the constable and his cohorts, who would have evicted your Tevye. Yet here we were, just beyond a century after you lived in this town, a century after the Russian Orthodoxy enacted pogroms against the Jews of the region, here we were, three Jews observing a wedding in this church, a church that heard the glass of Jewish homes broken just a stone’s-throw away. We were like flies on the wall. We were like ghosts.
It seems that scholars (or those who refer to themselves as such) agree that your Anatevka, Sholem Aleichem, is not a real place. It is a fictional town, they believe, perhaps based on an amalgamation of your villages outside Kiev. It is clear that in your stories, Boyarka clearly becomes “Boiberik,” Voronkov and Pereyaslav are your sources for “Kasrilevke,” and Kiev becomes “Yehupets.” However, Anatevka, as far as we know, has no direct modern-day namesake. It is entirely made up. And even it no longer exists.
In order to accept this notion, one must first agree to a concept of what makes a “real” town. Is it a sign that says “Welcome to Anatevka”? Is it a landmark, a building, a group of buildings, a style of architecture, a landscape, a body of water? If there’s one thing, Sholem Aleichem, that this Yiddishkayt trip showed me, it is how profoundly towns can change, how the seemingly all-encompassing identity of a place can, even overnight, become absolutely nullified. Borders shift and change before we can fully understand the ideologies that moved them in the first place. Even the earth itself can be altered by the dropping of a bomb. A town is an elusive idea created by the people who inhabit it or destroy it. Towns, like people, are ever-changing organisms, never permanently definable. No two shtetls are exactly alike.
Boyarka, for example, no longer exists today the way it did for you. Neither do Voronko and Pereyaslav. Certainly Kiev is entirely different. If towns are the people who inhabit them, so many have been mutilated, washed away and reborn as new entities. So really, none of these places still exists unless it’s summoned.
If Anatevka’s location wasn’t apparent on a map or in road signs or by word of mouth, we would recreate it ourselves, or revive its spirit through interacting with the people and the landscape. It takes a certain childlike abandon and an affinity for living in the imagined circumstance to do what I do as an actor. Thankfully, Robby and his associate Ben also have this spark of excitement over finding what’s not apparently there and scratching beneath the surface. So, in our own way, we traced the route near Boyarka that would have been Anatevka, and summoned its charm, its elements, even its people.
First we found Tevye.
There he was! Just on the path outside the blue wooden church in Boyarka, dragging his cart as he would have done on his way back home after delivering the dairy — panting and weary. Our guide asked him for some directions. He answered in Ukrainian, breaking through his tired veneer with an animated charm.
There seemed to be only one way to go. We followed the path that Tevye would have taken, the road leading out of Boyarka (“Boiberik” in your stories) and into slightly more rural areas. We ventured into a town called Tarasivka, about five kilometers from Boyarka. If one place were to be Anatevka, this would be it: close enough to Boyarka that Tevye could walk (or ride) between the two towns, and far enough that he (or his horse) might kvetch about it. Also, would you believe it, according to a local history book that our guide Nina brought, Tarasivka used to be called Antopol, which, according to Robby, might have been referred to lovingly as Anatopol. The suffix “pol” and “evka” might be interchangeable, making Anatevka.
Was Tarasivka your Anatevka? Who can say for sure? For the moment, we made it so. We drove around this dorf, this rural village, and took in the landscape, the houses and the people.
Since Motel would have lived in Anatevka (although I don’t know that he would have so readily done what I did), I thought it completely appropriate (and almost necessary) to be of the Tarasivkians as best I could, and immerse myself in their waters. Literally.
After drying off, we thought it best to get a bit closer to Tevye, who, as readers of your stories will note, lives not in Anatevka, but just outside of it. As we diligently searched the countryside around Tarasivka for dairy farms, or cows, or just plain dairy, we came upon an abandoned house. Again, as was our nature, we looked at each other and nodded, silently deciding to go have a look.
We decided, especially after finding a horseshoe outside the house, that there was no doubt about it: This was Tevye’s house. A horseshoe, Sholem Aleichem!
As we were leaving the abandoned home, we were severely chided by the next-door neighbor, an old lady in a babushka, who knew the woman who had lived and recently died in that home. She scolded us in Ukrainian, and rightfully so, that it’s not right to trespass onto a dead person’s property. I didn’t disagree, but appeased my own sense of guilt reminding myself that it was all for the sake of journalistic and artistic research! I hope you won’t think ill of me. We decided that our new friend was Yente. Digging myself further into an immoral hole of bad ethics, I snapped a photo of her in her doorway as we departed.
After a long day of finding, discovering and creating our Anatevka, we embarked on our journey back to Kiev. As I watched the Ukrainian countryside roll by, my eyes started to feel heavy and I began to drift off. All of the sudden, I was jolted awake. “A DAIRYMAN!” Robby yelled. The driver slammed on the brakes. In my exhausted state, somewhat delirious, I noted a dairy truck stopped on the side of the road with its proprietor about to get inside to drive away. Robby yanked the car door open, pushed me out and said, “Adam, go talk to him!” The man spoke no English, and I spoke no Ukrainian, but it happened. I said something to him, though I don’t remember what it was, and grabbed his hand with some deep and profound respect. He must have been completely befuddled. I mean, can you imagine? Why would this American leap out of a car in the middle of the road to shake the hand of a simple dairyman in Tarasivka?
Why would I do any of it? What did I get from it? How will this epic adventure shape my performance on Broadway? Or perhaps an even better question — will it? Again, my answer is the same: I don’t know. I don’t know, Sholem Aleichem. I’ve been busy reading and rereading your wonderful stories, as well as Alisa Solomon’s incredibly thorough and well-researched book “Wonders of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.” I’ve found lots of photos and articles about life in the shtetl, and realized that “the shtetl” is not a uniformly describable place. It is not something that is ultimately findable, in that it no longer exists and in that each one was entirely different. I’ve adorned my dressing room with photos of my ancestors, images from my trip to Eastern Europe, my grandfather’s prayer bags and my great-great grandfather’s transcribed cantorial music.
And most of all, I’m still processing all that was the three days of finding you and the 15 days prior that was Yiddishkayt’s sweeping historical tour of Eastern Europe. Here’s what I know: I learned a lot. I felt a lot. I have fuel for the fire, Sholem Aleichem. Eight shows a week for many, many weeks (God willing), and I have so much inspiration to fall back on. And I have you. I feel closer to you and to my ancestors, to your lives and our diaspora. The picture of who you were is becoming clearer and clearer, as your indelible characters are becoming so. I hope to continue on this path, the path I began at 11 years old. And, oh my, I realize how much time I’ve taken. I must be on my way, and you yours. Thank you for listening. Please do not be a stranger, and let’s speak with each other again soon, shall we? Until then, in God’s name, go, be well and continue to rest in peace!
Well, Sholem Aleichem, here we are. “Fiddler” has opened on Broadway, and it seems I am settling into what very well might be a long and healthy run in this musical. Sold-out audiences are cheering for your stories, and playing Motel is proving to be a deeply blessed experience for me. I’m still finding the ways in which the experience of finding YOU is finding itself in my performance. (There’s a lot of finding, no?) If I can be so bold as to try to begin to make sense of it all, at this point, I would say the following: I find you in the yearning.
I think about Motel’s run from the town of Anatevka to Tevye’s house when he hears the news of Tevye’s arrangement with Lazar Wolf for Tzeitel’s hand. How far he actually ran! How out of breath he must have been, yet how his adrenaline must have turned him into a kind of superman. And the doubt that he must have suppressed over that run. I think about the dachas he passed, the hills he climbed, the lakes, the babushkas… All watching him thinking, “Where is that little tailor running?” I put myself in these images, in the landscapes.
I think about Motel’s fear and reverence for God, and that internal conflict he faces in wanting to marry Tzeitel for love. In that, I imagine the ruins of the synagogues, particularly a fortress synagogue in Bykhov, Belarus, about 100 miles east of Minsk, which was so profound in its stateliness, its high walls, its imposing bimah, its foundational strength. How Motel might have prayed in that synagogue, and bowed his head and shook, in a state of deep davening, and felt the pride and shame of a lineage of generations of tailors before him.
Think about your tenacity, Sholem Aleichem, your industriousness, in pursuing success against all odds. Your doing whatever possible to make ends meet for your family…traveling to America several times, hocking your dramatic adaptation of your Tevye stories, needing to go on the one-too-many dreaded reading tours of your stories in order to make ends meet. The stress that must have caused! How proud you must have been to purchase your modest dacha in Boyarka, on the same street as all the biggest businessmen from Yehupetz. Perhaps it’s a similar pride to when Motel finally gets his first sewing machine. And yet…not enough. Surely you dreamed of owning one of those bigger beautiful houses, just as I imagine Motel dreams of living there with Tzeitel and their future family. And down the street in Boyarka, I think of that 1901 blue wooden church on the hill, and the fear that stems from it. Especially after the pogrom at the wedding.
I can more easily contemplate the simultaneous distance and proximity between Anatevka and Kiev now that I have traversed it: just far enough that an insular community could ignore modern ideals and maintain tradition, but just close enough that it’d be quite difficult.
Most of all, I think about our expulsion. In Bart Sher’s staging of this revival, a man (the same man who plays Tevye), begins the story by entering the stage in contemporary dress, looking at what seems to be the remains of something that once was. Throughout the opening sequence, he becomes Tevye in 1905 accoutrement, and the Jews of Anatevka emerge. I see myself in that image, as a man who went to Anatevka to find my roots, in an area where my ancestors were killed or displaced. Having traveled the distance, having been in those towns, having felt the energies of the small communities where everyone knows everyone and a town festival (like the one I saw in Pereyaslav) is a celebration of the highest order, I more deeply feel the “ripped-from-the-womb” despair of leaving a sort of Paradise, mixed with the resilience and hope that something better is on the way. I see myself now, more than I ever did before, as a descendant of immigrants. That is what it is to be an American, isn’t it? I am that man in the red coat. As are we all.
Adam Kantor is currently playing the role of Motel the Tailor in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”