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The Making of a Gypsy
He was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz on October 11, 1918, exactly one month before the end of World War I. He came into the world at the Jewish Maternity Hospital (later incorporated into Beth Israel Hospital) at 270 East Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan's Lower East Side immigrant neighborhood. At the time, the Rabinowitz family lived in a large apartment house at 51 East Ninety-seventh Street, at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue. The birth could have taken place at nearby Mt. Sinai Hospital, but Jerome's mother and father, Lena and Harry Rabinowitz, favored a Jewish hospital that provided kosher food and Yiddish-speaking doctors.
From his earliest days, Jerome was called "Jerry" by family and friends, and according to his sister, Sonia, his middle name, Wilson, reflected their parents' patriotic enthusiasm for the current President. The family name meant literally "son of a rabbi" and was never one that Jerry liked; it marked him as the son of Jewish immigrants, a stigma that he resented in his youth and which he identified with his parents, especially with his father, who retained a thick Yiddish accent and the habits of the Old World.
Harry (originally Chane) Rabinowitz was born September 11, 1888, and emigrated from his native Russia in 1904 while still a teenager, traveling first to England and then to America. His departure had required subterfuge in order to avoid serving as cannon fodder in the Russian army. Robbins' sister recalled that their father "managed to escape the draft in Russia by being declared dead...whichhewould have been if he had been drafted." Harry's father, Nathan Mayer Rabinowitz, made his living as a baker, a trade that he passed on to his children. His wife, Sara Luniansky Rabinowitz, had apparently died relatively young. As an elderly widower, Harry's father remained behind in the village of Rozanka, a tiny rural community in the province of Vilna near the shifting Russian-Polish border. As was common for such impoverished Jewish families, the Rabinowitz clan emigrated one at a time. The first to leave was Harry's oldest brother, Julius, who established himself in Manhattan and later arranged passage for the others-first Harry, and eventually two more brothers, Samuel and Theodore, and their sister, Ruth.
The Rabinowitz siblings were part of the great wave of Jewish immigrants who came to this country to escape the pogroms and outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence that were occurring throughout Eastern Europe. The world of the shtetl was one of privation and miseries endured. A familiar adage of the shtetl was the heartfelt lament, "If God lived here, His windows would be broken." For a poverty-stricken community increasingly under siege, religious faith served as both a solace and essential bond. But in the New World, faith was coupled with a practical ambition for material success, a dream now at least within reach for the uprooted Rabinowitz family.
Harry soon went into business with his brothers, opening a Kosher delicatessen on the same block as their East Ninety-seventh Street apartment house. One of Jerry's young cousins, Jack Davenport, retains fond memories of the deli and its proprietors. "Uncle Harry used to tell me that he kept my mother on the cutting table....She could cut turkey [and] tongue so that you could read a newspaper through it....Harry was the family practical joker and neighborhood ass-pincher and project supervisor....[He] never lost his dialect, [which was] hard to understand, and in later years turned off his hearing aid-conveniently....Lena was the head of the household and super smart, very organized." The neighborhood at the edge of Carnegie Hill and what is now Spanish Harlem was then largely Jewish. More than fifty other families lived in the building, all of them immigrants representing the stratified Jewish world of Europe, with Germans at the top and Russians, Poles and Hungarians at the bottom. Harry's younger siblings, Samuel and Ruth, also lived in the apartment and worked in the deli, as would Harry's future wife, Lena, and her sister, Jean. Harry would prove himself an able provider, but by the time Jerome was born, the inherited dream of success had magnified beyond anything his lower middle-class father might have imagined. Like many of his generation, Jerry would embrace the idea of putting as much social distance as possible between himself and his origins.
At the age of twenty-four, Harry Rabinowitz had married Lena Rips, who lived just across the river in Jersey City. The nuptials took place on February 9, 1911. Cousin Viola Zousmer recalled, "Lena was my mother's best friend and introduced her to Harry. My mother's name was Honey Zousmer. My mother and Jerry's father were first cousins." Lena, the bride, was two years younger than her husband, and, according to relatives, she soon proved herself opinionated and outspoken on all domestic matters. She was also ahead of her husband in education, having graduated from high school and spent two years at a college in Des Moines, Iowa, and unlike her husband, she spoke English with perfect diction. On June twenty-seventh of the following year, Lena gave birth to their first child, Sonia.
The marriage made for a large extended family with strong ties to the Old World and the old ways. The Rips clan had immigrated from Minsk in the early 1890s and settled in the largely Jewish, Hudson City district of Jersey City, an area known as "the Heights." The family was devoutly Orthodox. Lena's father, Aaron Rips, worked as a cutter in the garment trade and later owned a candy store. He was also a founder of the local synagogue, Congregation Mt. Sinai. Lena's mother, Ida, helped establish the first Hebrew school in the district. She was a member of Hadassah and first director of the Hebrew Home for Orphans and Aged. Jerry's cousin, Jack Davenport, recalled that Ida "was one of the driving forces and founders of the Sherman Avenue Talmud Torah. Grandma Ida Rips was the energy and drive in the Jewish community in Jersey City."
Another cousin, Jean Handy, would later dance as a teenager in Jerry's first Broadway show, On the Town. She remembered that, at the age of seventy-three, Ida moved in with Harry and Lena after Aaron died in 1931, just months before Jerry's bar mitzvah. "Grandma was a great influence, a great thing for Jerry, much more so than I ever knew because she died [in 1941] when I was quite young....Jerry always told the story about how [Grandma Ida] would come into the room and ask for his change. And the change went into the fund for the neighborhood, because as old as she was she was still out in the neighborhood seeing to families. She always collected money for them, and she collected it from Jerry, too."
Like Ida, Jerry's parents devoted themselves to civic and charitable causes. Lena was active with the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and belonged to such organizations as the Unity Link and the Order of the Golden Chain, of which Harry had been a founder and patron. Staunch in their shared commitment to faith and community, Harry and Lena undoubtedly expected their son to follow in their footsteps, but they would be disappointed. As Jerry later succinctly put it, "As a child, I went to Hebrew school and hated it. It had nothing to do with the rest of my life. I went through a Bar Mitzvah and then said 'that's it' to the whole business."
According to friends and family, he made no secret early on that he deplored being Jewish and poor and from what he saw as the wrong side of the tracks, although his family never descended to poverty even in the depths of the Depression. Many decades later, in one scene of his autobiographical Poppa Piece, Robbins depicted himself mocking his Hebrew tutor behind his back. Like many of his peers, he was caught between two worlds, that of the largely conservative Jewish community and that of mainstream America with all of its lures and temptations. Though the latter would win, he would still feel the conflict keenly for the rest of his life.
With the boom of prosperity that came early in the 1920s, Harry and his brothers sold the deli. Julius went on to head the kosher division of HyGrade Foods, while Harry moved his family to Weehawken, New Jersey, by way of Jersey City, where Lena's parents lived. Weehawken was then a town of 14,000 nestled on the cliffs of the Palisades, and familiar to most New Yorkers only as the other end of a short ferry ride. Ten years before the Rabinowitzes moved to Weehawken, Fred and Adele Astaire had lived there briefly as children only a block away from one of Jerry's boyhood homes.
During an interview in the 1940s, Robbins remembered the town as "about three blocks deep and nine wide...grubby, ugly and uninspiring." His opinion softened with the nostalgic hindsight of later years. Looking east from 57 Hudson Place, where his parents rented an apartment, the skyline of Manhattan was visible. At night, the lights would beckon, exciting his imagination. Family lore includes affectionate tales of him dancing on the rooftop and giving puppet shows in the front windows of the apartment. "We were the same age," said Viola Zousmer. "We were brought up together. At seven years old, we went up on the roof, two kids, and Jerry climbed on the edge of the roof and said, 'Come on, join me. I'm a bird.' I said, 'Oh no, not me.' Seven years old, and he was a daredevil."
Not long after moving to Weehawken, Harry Rabinowitz and one of Jerry's uncles, Benjamin Goldenberg, went into business together operating a corset factory in nearby Union City. Like the delicatessen, the factory became a family enterprise, this time involving Lena's relatives. The original 1928 deed for the land indicates that Harry's father-in-law helped him acquire the site. Lena worked with Harry in the business just as she had worked with him behind the counter in the deli. In later years, Robbins mounted the original sign that read comfort corset company on a wall in his office. As a boy, he and his young cousins often visited the factory. "When we were taken there," Jack Davenport reminisced, "we played, mainly shooting corset stays at each other....They were made of steel and you bent them and let them snap out of your fingers."
His mother's side of the family represented an ideal of conventional family ties that would remain absent in Robbins' life. Aaron and Ida Rips had raised seven children. Lena had five sisters, Anna, Mary, Jean, Gertrude and Francis, and a brother, Jacob, the eldest, who died of appendicitis in 1926, leaving behind a wife and two children. A second brother was said to have died in infancy back in Minsk. The three eldest sisters, Anna, Lena and Mary, and their brothers had been born in Russia. All of the sisters married and raised families of their own. None of them ever divorced (though two were widowed and remarried). Together, they were an aggressive, formidable matriarchal force. Their tight-knit stability and mutual support were later a source of pride and fascination shared by all of their children, including Jerry. Like their parents during hard times, they took in less fortunate family members and loaned them money, with generosity felt as an obligation. They celebrated holidays together and had seder at each other's homes-though they also marked Christmas with an exchange of gifts, perhaps feeling that doing so would help them assimilate into the non-Jewish world.
Jerry's cousin, Bob Silverman, pointed out one area where the sisters may have been lacking. "None of them had a sense of humor....You can't say any one of them was witty or verbal. They were all very middle-class Jewish women, busy raising their families, living extremely conventional lives, as the second-generation children often had to do."
Of the six sisters, Lena was the dominant one. She ruled the roost in her own household and usually prevailed over the others with her strong will and practical intelligence. Sonia suggested that her mother played the role of family martiarch "very much like Ida Rips," and remembered that "in our culture, women had to be strong." According to Silverman, who later became a successful composer and publisher, "Jerry often talked about writing a book or play about the six sisters....Lena was the man in the family. She wore the pants, she made the decisions. When some decision had to be made and the sisters got together, that would have been Lena organizing things like that. When the family got together, it was often at Lena and Harry's place out in Jersey. They had the largest apartment, and they were seemingly making a bit more than the rest of us during those years."
Jerry's large circle of relatives-he had twenty-eight first cousins-provided a number of theatrical and show-business influences. Bob Silverman described some of the other dancers in the family. "My father, Jack Silverman, was a professional ballroom dancer and met my mother at Roseland, when it was a big social place where young people went for ballroom dancing, and they paid ten cents, something like that, for a partner. My Aunt Jean [Davenport] used to go there all the time, and Jean was probably the best dancer of the six sisters. My father-don't ask me how it all came about-found himself as a young man living with two other guys, Bing Crosby and George Raft. Now you gotta get this picture. These three were among the shortest men ever born, like Edward G. Robinson, who was also related to the family. The three, Bing Crosby, George Raft and my father, started out as ballroom dancers. Ten cents a dance....So there was this dancing gift, if you will. And Jerry, of course, knew all about this stuff."
In fact, Edward G. Robinson had been born Emanuel Goldenberg and was indeed related to Jerry's uncle Benjamin Goldenberg, who had married Lena's sister, Mary, before going into the corset business with Harry. At least one of Jerry's aunts, Jean Davenport, visited with Robinson when he was filming one of his early movies along the Palisades. Jean also played the piano for the silent movie houses in and around Jersey City. But she was the only one of the sisters who displayed such musical talent.
Another show-business connection came from Jerry's uncle Daniel Davenport, who ran a successful chain of vaudeville and later burlesque theaters, including the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. According to Daniel's son, Jack Davenport, the original family enterprise-billed as Hurtig and Seamon-had competed with the Shuberts early in the century. Daniel Davenport's father, Louis Cohn, and his brother, Vic, performed on the vaudeville circuit as an acrobat-comedy team known as the Davenport Brothers. One of their playbills from the 1890s boasted "acts of posturing, ground and lofty tumbling, acrobatic display...and mirth-provoking encounters."
The Davenport Brothers had been a featured act with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and as a novelty attraction, their show sometimes included Wonder, a two-legged horse. They frequently performed on stage with Fanny Brice before the turn of the century. Lou's son, Daniel, had followed him into the business as a theater manager. With his white shoes and spats and refined manner, Daniel Davenport was an uncle who surely caught Jerry's eye at family gatherings, when the tale was told of how Uncle Dan had accumulated a small fortune from his theaters, only to lose it all in the darkest days of the Depression. This branch of the family contributed to Jerry's enthusiasm for the rough and tumble of vaudevillian comedy. Years later, Uncle Dan's surviving son, Jack Davenport, would bequeath his father's collection of vaudeville and burlesque scripts to his famous cousin.
Although neither of his parents exhibited any remarkable artistic gifts, they made sure that Jerry and his sister were exposed to the arts. "Their concern, I think, was purely a Jewish cultural thing....And it saved my life," said Robbins. "When I was a child, art seemed like a tunnel to me. At the end of that tunnel, I could see light where the world opened up, waiting for me."
Both Rabinowitz children were recognized early on as prodigies and pushed toward the stage by their mother. Sonia was given dancing lessons and Jerry studied music. At three and a half, he was already composing pieces for the piano and found himself performing his first recital at a children's concert at Manhattan's Aeolian Hall. "Mother told me that I got through it very well," he later remarked, his words hinting at a need for maternal approval that would manifest itself in other ways later in life.
His music teacher, Miss Effa Ellis Perfield, delighted in the boy and faithfully collected his early compositions, as one journalist observed, "like a squirrel hoarding nuts." Sonia also studied with Perfield and remembered, "She had this great method of teaching harmony especially, a system that she had established, with major, minor, diminished and augmented chords. It was a very quick system for the piano based on the number of sharps and flats. Her studio was at 33 East Thirty-sixth Street. There were other people in her classes and we had competitions to see how fast we could play the major and minor chords at the piano. Jerry had a perfect ear, everything was easy for him. I had to study and learn it, but he would hear it. He did everything by ear."
A family friend, Dorothy Gilbert, said, "My parents' home was within walking distance of where Jerry and Sonia lived. He would walk over, usually on Friday evenings, and he had a little violin with two strings, a broken down fiddle. And he would join us for Friday night dinner and get to our piano and play the violin tucked under his chin with one hand while playing the piano with the other hand. My mother and father just sat there in amazement at this little fellow. I will never forget it."
Jerry also took violin lessons, wrote poetry and exhibited a range of talents, any one of which might have served as the imaginary gateway for him to escape the constraints of what he identified as his parents' corseted world. "I painted. I wrote. I played music," he later said. "I spent time with a toy puppet theater. The only world that was really exciting for me was the world in which I could make believe that things were not the way they were."
Those last words betray Robbins' real feelings about his childhood. For all their parents' diligence about exposing them to culture, Jerry and Sonia did not grow up happy. It wasn't just Jerry's dread of growing up a self-described "poor Jew." There were huge conflicts at home-and huge gaps as well. Sonia sums it up this way: "Both Jerry and I were taken care [of] as well as they knew how, but we both missed the nourishing feeling of love that children need. We did not really know family. We didn't touch, we didn't hug. Our parents only did the mundane with the kids. They dressed us and put us in the right clothes, and made sure we were in the right place at the right time. It was without passion. They just had to love us and they didn't. Oh sure, they cared about us, but the caring was making sure the clothes were clean and we had the right shoes. It was mechanical. It was the facade of being a good American parent and being patriotic and all the crap that goes with it. There was no empathy, or no understanding of what we felt. There was no feeling in it all, and we were not allowed to express any. The only feelings we expressed were being angry and hysterical when we were growing up. Jerry got out very quickly and got into his own life with whatever he wanted to do."
Jerry was left with wounds and a volatile pool of anger, especially concerning his father, that he would carry with him into adulthood. As far as most people knew, Harry was an affable man who was usually content to follow his wife's lead with regard to raising the children. Family members saw him as the henpecked husband who deferred to Lena and was powerless in the face of her maternal authority. Although he went along with his wife's interest in the arts, Harry was the type who preferred playing pinochle with his cronies. His daughter remembered him as "a man of humor, fun, almost awful with his practical jokes." Bob Silverman said, "Jerry's father was a very funny man, and Jerry's humor came from him. That twinkle that was in Jerry's eye when he created a dance came directly from his father."
But there was a destructive edge to Harry's humor as well, especially when it came to his son's dancing. "Harry was sarcastic," said Silverman. "I think it runs in the family. He had a cruel streak, I mean, a sarcastic streak, a non-gentle side behind the facade of 'I'm being funny.' I think that what happened with Jerry as a boy-and you know this is much more important than if an adult hits a child-was that Harry said some cruel, terrible things to Jerry....Harry's attitude about Jerry being a dancer would have been he's not an all-American boy. 'What am I gonna do, go out and throw a baseball with a kid that would rather be lifting his legs in a dance studio?' That was totally out of Harry's vision."
In the face of such paternal resistance, Sonia was her brother's only ally at home. She said, "We had fights, my father and myself. We had terrible fights in regard to Jerry. I knew he was really terrific and that was what he really wanted to do-he was driving passionately to be a dancer. My father said to me he should be a shoemaker. 'Better he should be a shoemaker!' I always remember him saying that."
Viola Zousmer also recalled Harry's harsh opposition to his son. "To his father it didn't make sense for a boy to be a dancer. 'That's it!' Many times he said it when Jerry was very young. 'Where does a boy come into this!'"
Sheldon Harnick recalls another story that Robbins told him when they were preparing The Poppa Piece. "What I remember is he described his father as the kind of person [who] as soon as there were guests in the house...was on and became a wonderful entertainer filled with good humor and comedy...the life of the party. And as soon as everybody left, then up went his newspaper, out came the cigar, and he was just not interested in the family. The other thing he [Jerry] said was that his father did things to get laughs and also did things which made him not trust his father.
"For instance, one Christmas, his father dressed up as Santa Claus. He [Jerry] was very little....There were guests in the house and Jerry was thrilled when Santa Claus gave him a toy, a little train....So he was playing with it, and at bedtime he became a little difficult because he didn't want to put the toy away. He just wanted to keep playing with it. The mother couldn't get him to give up the toy. So what the father did was to dress up as Santa Claus and come back and tell him that because he had been a bad boy, he didn't get to keep his toy. He took the toy away from him, and Jerry said he was in tears and he couldn't understand why all the guests in the house were laughing. Finally, the father took off the Santa Claus beard and [Jerry] realized that it was his father. He said it was just so humiliating. It just made him feel so unwanted, and so, like nothing. It was a bad relationship."
In time Robbins would also learn to wield his humor as a derisive weapon just as his father had. And though they would reconcile later in life, Jerry would never forgive him for what he regarded as his betrayals.
Robbins' mother, on the other hand, was the one who actively encouraged Jerry toward the arts, even if she, too, initially discouraged the idea of her son being a dancer. Less abrasive in manner than her husband, she was no less insistent about instilling her goals and values in her children. When Jerry was six, Lena and Harry's cousin Honey Zousmer took Jerry and Sonia and Honey's son, Jesse, on a trip back to the Old World, to Poland, whose borders now claimed the shtetl where the Rabinowitz family had its roots. "You have to imagine in those days," said Viola Zousmer, "for two women on their own to take their children across the ocean...that took courage." Although Robbins later remembered very little of this childhood journey, he would nevertheless recall it with much sentiment to his collaborators on Fiddler on the Roof, noting that his family's village, Rozanka, had been decimated during World War II.
But Robbins' relationship with his mother, too, had a dark side. Robbins kept a note, a lifelong keepsake that he had written to his mother around the time they made their trip to Poland. In later years, one of his assistants ran across this childhood memento and was struck by its implications. "I think it was a very six-year-old-boy kind of note. It said, 'Dear Mommy, you're beautiful, I love you, when I grow up I want to marry you.' But what was interesting about the note was that someone-and I presume it was his mother-had corrected it in red pencil. I said, 'Oh, I get it.' And his mother was-you've probably seen the photographs-a very beautiful woman. So that was the thing, and I found it very early on, and I just felt like it was a key to who he was....I think he was afraid of his mother. Afraid is maybe too strong a term, but I think his mother was the power in the house. She was the power. And that was why I always found it enormously interesting that he surrounded himself with very strong, powerful women."
Sonia, too, had an incident with her mother when she was very young, one she recalled vividly more than eighty years later. "When I was five years old I had spilt boiling milk on my chest. Pot on the stove. I remember screaming. My father rushed in and pulled the front of my dress away from my chest. I was scheduled to dance at the school that morning. My mother mended the dress with a piece of material in the front....After the performance my mother took me to a doctor. I had a huge blister and for many years a scar."
Thereafter, Sonia mistrusted her mother's priorities. Though she would later say, "As I grew up and matured, I understood and loved and cared about her very much," her other words speak louder: "As a kid, I hated my mother."
|1||The Making of a Gypsy||1|
|3||New York, New York||71|
|4||Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?||119|
|5||Betrayals, Triumphs and Fairy Dust||173|
|6||Switchblades, Strippers and Insane Love||231|
|7||Fiddler and the Sacred Vision||295|
|9||Demons and Angels||445|
|10||A Twilight of Legacies||508|