The Washington Post
Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbinsby Amanda Vaill
From the author of the acclaimed Everybody Was So Young, the definitive and major biography of the great choreographer and Broadway legend Jerome Robbins
To some, Jerome Robbins was a demanding perfectionist, a driven taskmaster, a theatrical visionary; to others, he was a loyal friend, a supportive mentor, a generous and entertaining companion/b>/i>
From the author of the acclaimed Everybody Was So Young, the definitive and major biography of the great choreographer and Broadway legend Jerome Robbins
To some, Jerome Robbins was a demanding perfectionist, a driven taskmaster, a theatrical visionary; to others, he was a loyal friend, a supportive mentor, a generous and entertaining companion and colleague. Born Jerome Rabinowitz in New York City in 1918, Jerome Robbins repudiated his Jewish roots along with his name only to reclaim them with his triumphant staging of Fiddler on the Roof. A self-proclaimed homosexual, he had romances or relationships with both men and women, some famous -like Montgomery Clift and Natalie Wood- some less so. A resolutely unpolitical man, he was forced to testify before Congress at the height of anti-Communist hysteria. A consummate entertainer, he could be paralyzed by shyness; nearly infallible professionally, he was conflicted, vulnerable, and torn by self-doubt. Guarded and adamantly private, he was an inveterate and painfully honest journal writer who confided his innermost thoughts and aspirations to a remarkable series of diaries and memoirs. With ballets like Dances at a Gathering, Afternoon of a Faun, and The Concert, he humanized neoclassical dance; with musicals like On the Town, Gypsy, and West Side Story, he changed the face of theater in America.
In the pages of this definitive biography, Amanda Vaill takes full measure of the complicated, contradictory genius who was Jerome Robbins. She re-creates his childhood as the only son of Russian Jewish immigrants; his apprenticeship as a dancer and Broadway chorus gypsy; his explosion into prominence at the age of twenty-five with the ballet Fancy Free and its Broadway incarnation, On the Town; and his years of creative dominance in both theater and dance. She brings to life his colleagues and friends- from Leonard Bernstein and George Balanchine to Robert Wilson and Robert Graves- and his loves and lovers. And she tells the full story behind some of Robbins's most difficult episodes, such as his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his firing from the film version of West Side Story.
Drawing on thousands of pages of documents from Robbins's personal and professional papers, to which she was granted unfettered access, as well as on other archives and hundreds of interviews, Somewhere is a riveting narrative of a life lived onstage, offstage, and backstage. It is also an accomplished work of criticism and social history that chronicles one man's phenomenal career and places it squarely in the cultural ferment of a time when New York City was truly "a helluva town."
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Read an Excerpt
In the end, he came home.
Four days earlier, on July 25, 1998, he had suffered a catastrophic stroke and was rushed to New York—Presbyterian Hospital, where a CAT scan revealed that the entire right hemisphere of his brain had been flooded with massive amounts of blood. His doctors had wanted to put him in intensive care, but it was clear they could do nothing more for him there. So the terms of his living will had been invoked and he had been brought back to the house he had lived in for thirty years and to the circle of family, friends, and lovers who had gathered to say good-bye.
Now he lay in his third-floor bedroom, the once quicksilver body still, the sharp eyes unseeing, the voice–which could warm you or raise blisters on your skin–silent. His breathing was ragged: sometimes he seemed not
to be breathing at all, and then suddenly he would take deep, gasping breaths, as if he were desperately trying to fill his lungs with oxygen. “Is he afraid?” his sister had asked when she arrived at the house from her home in Vermont; when she was reassured that no, he wasn’t, she said, “I am.”
Downstairs, in the office that was the center of a million–dollar–per–year theatrical business, the telephones rang with concerned calls from associates, colleagues, friends, but upstairs it was quiet except for the rounded cadences of Bach’s French Suites on the bedroom CD player. He always liked to have music playing, particularly if it was something he was working on, and in recent weeks, although he’d been far too frail and forgetful to work, he had been listeningto this Bach recording—as if he drew comfort or certainty from Bach’s clear phrasing or from the confident structure that always brought him back to where he had started.
On his bedside table a photograph of a beautiful woman, a dancer stricken with polio at the height of her fame, smiled at him from the antique frame in which he had placed it; on the desk beyond the foot of the bed another photograph, of the young man he had loved and nursed through his final illness, gazed across the room at him. On chairs ranged around the bed sat his sister, two former lovers, his assistants, an old friend and confidant, and the friend’s young wife, a physician; it was she who made sure that someone was always holding his hand. The minutes ticked by. Then suddenly his dog, an affable cream–colored mixed breed who had adopted him some years before on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, jumped on the bed and started to lick his cheek. And just as suddenly he opened his eyes and rose up in bed, seeming to take in the faces grouped around him, looking at each one in turn.
“You’re fine,” said his friend’s wife, squeezing his hand. “You’re fine.” There was a silence. He subsided on his pillow, his eyes turned to the ceiling. The dog barked twice. “All right,” his friend’s wife said now, soothingly.
“You’re free.” The dog let out a long, keening cry. It was over.
The next day the New York Times—like other newspapers on two continents—would carry his obituary on the front page: “Jerome Robbins, 79, Is Dead: Giant of Ballet and Broadway.” The lights on Broadway’s theaters would be dimmed for a moment and the flags at Lincoln Center lowered to half-mast, as the world remembered a man who had put an indelible stamp on American theater and dance with ballets like Fancy Free and The Cage and Afternoon of a Faun and Dances at a Gathering and musicals like On the Town and Peter Pan and West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof; a “theatrical genius” (in the words of the actor Montgomery Clift) who had won five Tony Awards, four Donaldson Awards (precursor to the Tonys), two Academy Awards, and an Emmy and had been awarded the National Medal for the Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors, as well as being made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.
For their part, some who had worked with and known him would recall a martinet who “could be monstrous…toward performers” and whose “dancers hated him”; others, “a father, teacher, and eternal friend” who was “generous,” “a wonderful person, a lot of laughs.” For Jerome Robbins was a man of contradictions: a nonobservant Jew whose most successful theatrical work was that paean to Jewish folkways Fiddler on the Roof; a college dropout who learned Russian so he could read Chekhov and Tolstoy; an entertainer who could be paralyzed with shyness in gatherings where he knew no one. If, in his professional, creative life, “he was always right”—as the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton would put it—in private he could be conflicted, vulnerable, and torn by self–doubt. “Where does the talent come from, I wonder,” he wrote in his diary once, “when I have felt such a hoax?”
When he wrote those lines he was involved in a romantic relationship that afforded him a refuge from loneliness and self-doubt—a relationship that felt, he said, “like home.” Robbins spent much of his life searching for such a haven of love and acceptance, and that same place was arguably also the goal of much of his best work, from West Side Story to Dances at a Gathering. He was always coming close to it; perhaps, when he opened his eyes for those few seconds just before his death, he found he’d got there.
“It was all lovely ”
Although it is gone now, there was once a village called Rozhanka, which stood in the vast, flat plain that stretches between Poland and Russia, the land that is now Lithuania and Belarus. In the old days these miles of pasture and cropland, punctuated by patches of forest and the onion domes of churches, belonged to the kings of Poland, but by 1888,when Herschel Rabinowitz was born, they had come under the rule of the czar of all the Russias.
Almost equidistant from the bustling towns of Vilna and Bialystok, Rozhanka was a rural backwater of less than a thousand residents, two-thirds of them Jews, who lived in wooden houses, some with only earthen floors, that were built around the central marketplace and along the village’s four streets—Mill Street, Bridge Street, the Szczuczyn Road, and the Connected Street. There were butchers and bakers, blacksmiths and tailors, cobblers and carpenters; there were two flour mills near the river, an eighteenth-century stone church for the gentiles, and a wooden synagogue of somewhat later date for the Jews. In addition, because the synagogue had no furnace and could not be used in the winters, there were two bet midrashim, the houses of worship and study where the faithful gathered for prayers and earnest yeshiva students came to learn and read the holy books.
There was a mikvah, a ritual bath for women’s monthly cleansing; a cheder, the one-room school where the little boys sat on wooden benches and learned their lessons over the squawking of the rebbe’s wife’s chickens; and a bustling market where farmers brought their produce and livestock, merchants sold pots and pans and crockery and cloth, and villagers came to poke and pinch and buy and sell and exchange news and gossip. And there were Sabbath evenings when candles were lit in all the houses and braided bread was laid on the tables and prayers were said over the meal. Rozhanka was a place out of time—“an unforgettable place,” as the writer Sholem Aleichem said of another shtetl in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, which he called Voronko—“small but beautiful and full of charm.With strong legs, you can traverse the entire village in half an hour. It has no railroad, no sea, no tumult. . . . Although it’s a small village, the many fine stories and legends about it could fill a book.”
In this village of Rozhanka, Herschel, the third son of Nathan Mayer Rabinowitz, the baker, was born on September 11, 1888. He and his brothers, Julius, Samuel, and Theodore, attended the cheder while their sister, Ruth, stayed home to learn from their mother, Sara, how to keep the house; they made wooden swords for Tishah b’Av and dreidels for Hanukkah; they swam in the river and played in the fields. And when they grew older, they worried not about the Torah portions they had to learn to chant for their bar mitzvahs but about becoming one of the Jewish boys who were conscripted each year into the czar’s army, where they were often mistreated or forced to convert to Christianity.
It was to avoid this fate that first Julius and Teddy, then Herschel, and finally Samuel fled to America, where other emigrants from Rozhanka had found a new home.When Herschel came of age for conscription, his father, Nathan, fearing reprisals for draft evasion, bought a burial plot and bribed an official to issue a death certificate for his son. The family took off their shoes and covered their looking glasses and sat shiva for him and put an empty coffin in the earth; his mother, Sara, sewed money and a steamship ticket into the lining of his coat; and Herschel,who at sixteen had never seen anything beyond the horizon of Rozhanka, set off alone for the goldeneh medina on the other side of an ocean he could only imagine. He traveled on foot at night to escape detection, staying clear of towns and checkpoints, of barriers and strangers, sleeping in barns or haystacks, and scavenging food where he could. He was lonely and afraid, but then he acquired a comrade, a handsome, strapping young Russian deserter who showed him how to cross the borders, stepping carefully to avoid the raked areas that would show the slightest footprint. One night the two of them dared to get their dinner in a tavern, and they were served by a pretty young village girl; the soldier flirted with her and she blushed and giggled at his attentions, and young Herschel watched the byplay with yearning. The next day the two young men went on, making their way across Poland to Germany and then on to Holland; and when Herschel came to the pier in Rotterdam and “realized that the wall rising up beside him was the side of a ship”—he told his own son many years afterwards—“he burst into tears. For he had never seen anything so enormous.”
Herschel Rabinowitz debarked from the SS Statendam in New York on January 4, 1905. His welcome to the United States was the cacophonous inquisition of the Registry Room on Ellis Island, where immigration agents pinned a numbered tag to his coat bearing the page and line in the Statendam’s manifest on which his name appeared, and barked a series of questions: Name? Age? Occupation? Marital status? Herschel Rabinowitz told them he was eighteen; he was a baker, he said, and unmarried.
When the agents let him through he took the ferry to Manhattan, under the stern bronze gaze of the Statue of Liberty, to stay with Julius and Teddy, who had preceded him to New York. But the tenement apartment his brothers lived in was crowded, and within a few days Herschel had to move out. A Yiddish delicatessen owner took pity on him and offered him a job: he was to receive four dollars a week and all the food he wanted, and he could sleep in the shop, on a shelf behind the counter. It was just the chance he had been looking for. Soon after, he began calling himself Harry, because now he was an American.
Even so, he was still an observant Jew, and went to a cousin’s house for the evening meal on the Sabbath. But one Friday his boss kept him late, so that the sun set before he could reach his destination and he arrived after dark, in tears of self-recrimination. Never mind, said his host, it’s not your fault you had to travel after sundown, so no harm is done; and this reassurance, Harry’s son was later to say, started Harry thinking that maybe the old ways had to change in his new country.
Eventually all the Rabinowitz siblings found their way to New York from Rozhanka, along with a number of other landsmen from the village—enough that there was an association of Rozhanka dwellers who met regularly for feasts and dancing and sent money back to the village to help pay for a library or a new bet midrash. Harry and his brothers were no less successful: they managed to buy their own business, a delicatessen on upper Madison Avenue in Manhattan, in a neighborhood where the brick apartment buildings of European immigrants–Italians to the south and east, Russians and Jews to the north and west—coexisted with the limestone mansions that industrial barons were building along the perimeter of Central Park. And Harry found a bride, a young woman whose family had emigrated from Minsk to Iowa in the 1890s and ultimately settled across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in Jersey City.
Lena Rips was twenty–one, a year and a half younger than Harry, and unlike him she had graduated from an American school and attended a Des Moines women’s college for two years. Her father, Aaron, a gray-bearded man with the dark eyes and hawk face of a gypsy, was a garment cutter and a founder of the local synagogue, Congregation Mount Sinai, which his grandchildren would refer to as “grandpa schule.” His blue-eyed wife, Ida, was a pillar of Jersey City Jewish society: founder of the local Hebrew school, director of the Hebrew Home for Orphans and Aged, active in Hadassah and other religious and social organizations. The two of them had seven children: a son, Jacob, followed by six daughters, Anna, Lena, Mary, Gertrude, Jean, and Frances–and although Lena was only the third eldest she was the alpha female in the pack (a nephew later described her as “wearing the pants in the family”). She had inherited her father’s chiseled cheekbones and gypsy features, which made her seem more decisive than her stocky and soft-faced fiancé; unlike him, also, she spoke unaccented English, the result of her years of American schooling—Harry still sounded as if he’d just got off the boat. She didn’t have Harry’s sense of humor, but she did have a flair for drama and a passion for music and the arts.
She and Harry were married on the evening of February 9, 1911—Lena enveloped in a cloud of white lace, Harry resplendent in white tie and tails—with a reception afterwards at Jersey City’s Arion Hall. The newlyweds moved into an partment in Manhattan at 51 East Ninety-seventh Street, on the corner of Madison Avenue, in the same building as the delicatessen, along with Harry’s sister, Ruth, and younger brother, Sam. It was as if the familial closeness of Rozhanka had been re-created half a world away in New York—a similarity only underscored by the presence of the Russian Orthodox cathedral of St. Nicholas, with its five onion domes, down the block. A little more than a year after the marriage, Lena gave birth to a daughter, Sonia, a fair, blue–eyed baby who showed an early aptitude for singing and dance: by the age of four she was appearing in recitals, ballet slippers on her chubby baby legs and her little arms held in perfect rounded fifth position above her head. She also had an independent streak: at five she used to play hooky from Sunday school and take the Fifth Avenue bus to the bottom of Central Park, where she could ride one of the fat ponies around and around the pony ring.
On October 11, 1918, her little brother, Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, was born at the Jewish Hospital (now Beth Israel Hospital) on Fourteenth Street; but Sonia hardly noticed him—except for the time, just after his bris, or ritual circumcision, when Lena held up the red-faced, wailing baby and “he peed right across the room.” Much more memorable was the signing of the armistice ending World War I on November 11 and the return of American troops, who were welcomed with a parade down Fifth Avenue. The Rabinowitz delicatessen made dozens of sandwiches and vats of potato salad for the occasion and Sonia was thrilled to be trusted to take it all by the pailful to a vacant lot at the corner of Ninety-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue and sell it to the bystanders.
The delicatessen—which, Sonia recalled proudly many years later, “catered to the elite”—was thriving, and the Rabinowitzes had acquired at least one of the trappings of the bourgeoisie, an Irish nurse for the children named Annie Rooney, who took them to the park to play by the Egyptian obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum or to walk around the reservoir with its geyser-like fountain. On one of these peregrinations Sonia spied what she thought was a toy gun lying on the other side of the reservoir’s iron fence and, defying Annie, scrambled over to get it; “and as I did a man came rowing across the reservoir and shouted, ‘Get out!’ at me. And he asked us where we lived, and Annie whispered, ‘Don’t tell him where you live, don’t tell him the truth.’ And we went home.”
Little Jerry didn’t share Sonia’s independence: he was an introspective child whose first memory was of sitting in his high chair and suddenly discovering his toes—“the marvel of being able to put my fingers between them”—and his hands, which he stared at with fascination. He was affectionate, even clingy, and any separation from his adored mother was cause for anguish. One of his most painful memories was of her leaving him with Annie while she went out on some business: “When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she turned & looked up at me,” he wrote later:
She was in day dress, a gray woolen jacket trimmed with beige & a pleated skirt that fell to the floor, and … her hat like a Tyrolean hunting hat with some tall feathers that was slightly cocked over her left eye… She is as fixed as Sargent’s Madame X—stylish, poised & cooling [sic] looking up & back.
Mama Mama I was screaming—Don’t go—please don’t go & leave me—A housemaid—Annie—was holding me fiercely as I struggled to tear myself from her arms; I was crying [in] desperation…The terror of separation & my love for my mother were so intense that my life & security depended on keeping her home—depended on her not forsaking me.
In his memory, as vivid as a scene on film, she stopped and looked back: “Cool. Still. Poised. As if her picture was to be taken…Neither did she smile—wave—blow a kiss say a word—offer consolation or suggest comfort or assurance. She stood and gave me that look and left.”
A photograph from about this time shows Harry Rabinowitz standing in front of the Rabinowitz Delicatessen Shop on Madison Avenue with Jerry in his arms and Sonia pressed close to his side. Sonia and Jerry have nearly identical Dutch–boy bobs; Sonia wears an elegant spring coat with a middy collar, Jerry is in white with high lace-up baby shoes. Harry has removed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves, but he is wearing a vest and tie, squinting slightly in the spring sun–the very image of a prosperous young merchant paterfamilias. Shortly after the picture was taken, Harry and his brothers cashed in on the postwar boom and sold the store, and Harry, Lena, and the children moved to New Jersey.
At first they rented an apartment on Booraem Avenue, in Jersey City, a few blocks from where Lena’s parents lived—a top-floor walk-up railroad flat in a clapboard building next door to a vacant lot. Down the street there was a small park with a playground and a pond where the children would skate in the winter, but for the most part Jerry played in the vacant lot with a boy who lived in the ground–floor flat—until one day “I aggravated him to the point where he brought his toy rake down on my face & cut my nose.” Jerry carried the scar always.
From Jersey City the Rabinowitzes moved to nearby Weehawken, an urban village perched on the Palisades that the grown-up Jerry would remember as “about three blocks deep and nine wide…grubby, ugly, and uninspiring.” It was full of one– and two–family houses on narrow lots with small yards in back, but the drab streetscape was transformed whenever you looked east—for there, a ferryboat ride away across the Hudson River, glittered the fairy-tale towers of Manhattan, full of glamour and promise. Helped by his father–in–law, Harry went into the foundation-garment business with Ben Goldenberg, a big, handsome salesman who was the husband of Lena’s sister Mary; together they opened the oxymoronically named Comfort Corset Company in Union City, with Ben doing the selling and Harry running the factory. The Rabinowitz family was on the way up: Harry was named a Master Mason in the Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons and bought a Packard to take his family on weekend drives, and Lena joined a host of social and religious organizations: Unity Link, the Order of the Golden Chain, the National Council of Jewish Women.When she wasn’t presiding over a tea or a meeting, she was spending time with the children, reading to them, encouraging them to memorize poetry, or playing games; in a favorite one of Jerry’s she would wipe a blackboard with a damp cloth and the children would rush to outline the wet patches with chalk before they disappeared. One summer the family rented a cottage on the Jersey Shore and after dinner Jerry and Sonia would sit on the porch while Lena asked them to say what animals or things the shapes of the sunset clouds suggested to them.
Although Harry loved music and responded to it viscerally, snapping his fingers and swaying along with the rhythm of Passover songs, which he sang with a “smile of beautiful sorrow,” it was Lena who saw to the children’s musical education. By the time they moved to New Jersey, Sonia had studied ballet with Michel Fokine and had begun to work with Alys Bentley, an acolyte of Isadora Duncan; she appeared in concert as “Little Sonia” and would later perform with the barefoot troupe of Irma Duncan, Isadora’s adopted daughter. Lena made sure that Sonia took the ferry across the river to Manhattan to continue her lessons with Bentley. For his part, Jerry had already shown promise at both piano and violin and performed at New York’s Aeolian Hall when he was three. At Hudson City Academy, the private German-language kindergarten he attended—Jersey City had a substantial German population—he was the star of the end–of–the–year program, reciting a poem, “Mäuschen” (“The Little Mouse”), and playing a piano solo.He and Sonia were both pupils of Miss Effa Ellis Perfield, at whose studio in Manhattan, at 33 East Thirty-sixth Street, they learned a system of music theory and performance based on recognition of major and minor chords: “Ear, eye, and touch,” Miss Perfield called it. She would play a single note, and the children would race each other to the piano to repeat it in major and then minor chord combinations. Jerry shone at this—“he had a perfect ear,” Sonia remembered.“He was so musical.”
Music was a part of family life for the Rabinowitzes: there was always a piano, and stacks of classical phonograph records, and even before he could read Jerry could pick out his favorite Chopin recordings and put them on the gramophone. The neighbors thought he was a prodigy: one recalled him playing the violin and piano simultaneously—violin with the right hand, piano with the left—after Friday night dinners. At the age of six he made a guest appearance at a recital for another teacher’s pupils in Jersey City—where, the local paper noted, “A special feature of the evening was the playing of little Jerry Rabinowitz, son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Rabinowitz of Weehawken…Little Jerry is only 6, and since the age of 3 has been composing and playing. Last evening he played two of his own compositions, an ‘Indian Dance’ and ‘A Russian Song.’ Both the compositions were typical of the music of the people for whom they were named”—this, after all, was the era when Irving Berlin could unblushingly write and perform “The Yiddisha Professor” and “A Bad Chinaman from Shanghai”—“and showed a comprehension of music far beyond that of even most adults.” A school performance— in which, dressed as a woman, he rocked a doll in his arms while crooning a lullaby—gave him a further taste of the seductive attention of an audience: “I did something that held the interest of an audience and my mother,” he recalled later. “I scored.”
Whether he scored with his father was another matter.When Jerry was small they had an easy, affectionate relationship: Jerry laughed at Harry’s practical jokes, which were of the bucket-of-water-on-a-door variety, and loved roughhousing with him.Harry was strong, so strong he could support Jerry when the boy stood on one of his father’s hands, and sometimes he would grasp his son’s wrists and ankles and sling him over his head and onto his shoulders “like a package.” But one day when Jerry begged to be picked up Harry said, “I can’t, you’re too big now,” and that was the beginning of the end of the old fatherly familiarity.
Part of Harry’s evening ritual was to listen to the radio—The Yiddish Hour, The Amateur Hour, and Eddie Cantor, especially when his program featured little boy prodigies like Bobby Breen, the curly-haired singing star of films like Let’s Sing Again and Rainbow on the River. Harry would sit enthralled, Jerry remembered afterwards, then shake his head “as if to say, ‘What a talent, how good that boy is, a Jewish boy’—& somehow made me feel I should have been like that, a child prodigy who would ‘bring home the bacon.’ ”He would tell his son about other gifted little Jewish boys who had played for the czar or the president or some impresario and attracted the attention that made their families rich, and Jerry nurtured a fantasy in which he himself played his violin, wearing “a velvet suit, short pants, Eton jacket & white shirt, flowing tie, white socks, black patent leather button strap shoes,” for an audience that included “the crowned heads of Europe, & they listened as the whole court did, enrapt, spellbound, tears flowing down their cheeks, as I played my heart out for them, & they rewarded me with golden coins worth a fortune.”
Like many other assimilated Jews the Rabinowitzes celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday, and the year Jerry was five or six his parents gave him an electric train—the first any of his friends had seen. To the amusement of the guests at dinner, Harry himself dressed up as Santa Claus to present the gift, which the little boy received with awestruck delight. Spellbound by the toy, he continued to play with it even after Lena told him it was time for bed. Finally, with much nudging and winking among the adults,Harry, still in his red fur-trimmed suit and white beard, told Jerry he had been a bad little boy to ignore his mother and took the train away. All the adults burst out laughing—that Harry, what a joker!—and Jerry, hurt and bewildered, dissolved in tears. Then Harry took off the red hat and beard—see, it’s Poppa! But Jerry didn’t laugh; he said of the incident later that it marked “the separation from my father,” and in 1991, telling a friend about the incident, he said he had felt completely betrayed.
He was still close to Sonia, though, despite the difference in their ages: they were bathed together and at night, although they had twin beds in the room they shared, Jerry would climb in under the covers with his sister while they read from the same book. He would have to struggle to keep up with her, and she sometimes mocked him for his babyish habit of mouthing the words as he read; he wondered when he would be old enough not to do it anymore. “Sometimes we’d sleep together,” he remembered, “and she’d cuddle me, enfolding me like a big spoon and a little spoon—reach around and grope me & play a bit.”
When their parents went out—Lena to card parties or meetings of Eastern Star, the Golden Chain, or the Women’s Auxiliary; Harry to the Masonic Lodge—Sonia was left in charge. Since Jerry was a picky eater she would make them what she called a Chinese dinner—Chinese, Jerry recalled, because “we ate it backwards,” beginning with tea, served in a bowl with “a perfectly round ginger snap” floating in it, then eggs, and finally soup. “It felt terribly exotic.”
When they had eaten, Sonia would dress up in Lena’s clothes and she and Jerry “would laugh so—& she’d put on make up & hobble around in Mother’s shoes.”Afterwards they’d try to put everything back as it was, so as to avoid detection; but usually they were too careless and excited as they seized the clothes to remember where they had come from, and they’d worry terribly that they’d left evidence of their misdemeanors. Once they found a revolver hidden in a sock in the back of Harry’s top bureau drawer; the sight of its nickel-and-black surface gave them an almost sexual thrill, Jerry remembered, “like looking at Dad’s privates, which never were then or after ever revealed to us.”
There were more conventional amusements, too, like roller-skating along the cracked Weehawken sidewalks and sledding on the road that went through the gap in the Palisades where the Lincoln Tunnel ramp would later be built, all the way down to Jersey City at the bottom of the hill; the climb up was made easier because their German shepherd, Blitz, would pull their sleds behind him. And once a year at least there would be Rozhanka parties, dinners for all the emigrants from the old village at a hired hall on lower Second Avenue in Manhattan: there was a klezmer band and dancing, and the children would do the kazatsky and cut pranks and race around and have their cheeks pinched by the aunts and uncles until the tears ran, and finally they would sink exhausted onto chairs until their parents scooped them up and carried them to the car for the long drive back to New Jersey. To the end of his life, Jerry said, the sound of someone talking quietly in the dark, as his parents did in the front seat of the Packard, would lull him to sleep in an instant.
The summer before Jerry turned six his mother took him and Sonia back to the original Rozhanka to visit the grandfather they had never seen. Harry stayed at home to mind the business, but Lena was accompanied by his cousin Honey Zousmer and her son Jesse. Sailing to England on the White Star Line’s Homeric, Jerry played piano in a shipboard concert and, in looping little-boy script, wrote his father a letter from “the middle of the ocean” to tell him “I am not sea sick. Every night we have ice cream.” On the trip they stopped in London for the Empire Exposition and also in Berlin, where they gaped openmouthed at Cecil B. DeMille’s screen epic The Ten Commandments—as Americans, Sonia and Jerry were exempted from the regulations barring children from its screenings. Finally they reached Poland, where they traveled first by train and then horse-drawn cart to the shtetl Harry had left as a fugitive twenty years earlier.
It was almost unchanged. Although there was now a village library, and although Nathan Mayer Rabinowitz had become so prosperous that he now owned a flour mill in Lida as well as the bakery in Rozhanka, he still lived in his thatched-roof house in the shtetl, where Lena and the children stayed with him. There were no automobiles, no paved roads in Rozhanka, and Sonia and Jerry went everywhere on horseback or on foot; ever the independent, Sonia caused a scandal by riding her pony down the main street on Shabbos. During the long afternoons the children played with the village boys and girls in the fields and the yards of the houses; Jerry caught fish in a tin can with holes punched out of the bottom and kept them in a wooden pencil box for days, until Lena traced the source of the smell of putrefaction they’d all been noticing and made him throw his prizes away. In the evenings his white-bearded grandfather took Jerry on his lap in the kitchen and sang him lullabies. It was one of the happiest times he had ever known, and his memories of that golden summer have the elegiac music of a Sholem Aleichem story, a music he would strive to recapture many years later. “I bathed in a brook with the women,” he remembered remembered later:
I peed for them like men do, feet apart, hands on hips. I climbed into haylofts, shopped in the marketplaces, crawled through the abandoned flour mills. I slept in the afternoons, smelled baked bread.
I watched my grandfather stop a drunk from carousing through the town, atop a large farm wagon, lashing his two horses.
A mysterious man was kept locked up behind a heavy door in a dark room. His food was passed to him through a slot in the bottom of the door, at the floor. There was a small shutter we could slide open to look in and see him. Eyes: only eyes.
At night after dinner, by kerosene lamps, songs were sung. I remember apples, embroidery, mud pies… I remember tea, candles, jams and the melodies of voices.
It was all lovely, all lovely. I do not remember one unhappy moment.
But the time came to leave, to go back to New Jersey and their life there. The hay wagon came to take them on the all-night journey to the station where they would get their train at dawn. One of Jerry’s playmates, another six-year-old boy, named Itchi Utch, “brought me apples in a red bandanna, its end tied together in a knot.He handed them to me saying, ‘Na, Gershon.’ We got into the small wagon and waved good-bye. As we clopped away into the darkness, I fell asleep.”
Meet the Author
AMANDA VAILL is the author of Everybody Was So Young, the bestselling biography of Lost Generation icons Gerald and Sara Murphy, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. A publisher and editor for more than twenty years, she has written on arts and culture for New York, Esquire, Ballet Review, Architectural Digest, Town & Country, and other publications. She lives in New York City.
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