The Director and Choreographer of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and His Ambivalent Jewish Identity

October 29, 2019 | Terry Teachout
About the author: Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.

During his long career, Jerome Robbins distinguished himself as one of America’s foremost choreographers for both classical ballet and Broadway musicals. For most of it, he tried to hide three facts of which he was ashamed: that he had “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1953, that he was a homosexual, and that he was Jewish. Robbins’s best known work, however, might be the quintessentially Jewish Fiddler on the Roof, which—like several other plays—he directed as well as choreographed. Terry Teachout writes:

If anything, Robbins had even more equivocal feelings about his Jewishness [than about his sexuality]. Born Gershon Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918, he was the son of a Russian émigré who spoke with a heavy accent and wanted the boy to follow him into the family business (Harry Rabinowitz was a corset manufacturer). Longing for acceptance by his WASP peers, Robbins was ashamed of the fact that his father, for all his assimilationist aspirations, was still as unmistakably Jewish as the people of the shtetl in which he had grown up.

Robbins’s self-hatred grew more pronounced when he joined Ballet Theatre. . . . “The feeling of being a fake (Jewish),” he recalled in 1976, “prevented me from ever achieving the relaxed gentlemanly attitude.” Instead, he decided to make ballets of his own in which he could shake off “that fake ‘niceness’ I disliked about ballet” and be himself—or, rather, a heterosexual, non-Jewish version of himself.

And while he went out of his way to steer clear of explicitly Jewish subject matter in his dances, he found it difficult to ignore his Jewishness, thus planting a seed that in time would bear astonishingly profitable fruit. [He] managed to come to terms with his Jewishness by making Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that seeks to fuse a sentimentalized but nonetheless artistically serious portrayal of shtetl life and customs with the assimilationist dream of Jewish acceptance into American culture that would be central to Robbins’s own creative life. Significantly, he stopped working on Broadway after Fiddler, thereafter devoting the bulk of his creative energies to the making of ballets.

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