BWW Blog: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF's Ben Rappaport- The Old Country
'We are Russian Jews', my father would always tell me when I asked where we came from. From a very young age, I was curious about history; where people and things came from, origins, and remnants. Growing up in the US, I was used to the idea of the big melting pot - that a lot people here came from somewhere else for a better life. A lot of us, including myself, have very mixed backgrounds, and it can be overwhelming to piece together the puzzle that is your ancestry. Thankfully, we live in the golden age of the World Wide Web, and our collective curiosity and quest for a sense of identity and meaning has resulted in the creation of wonderful resources like ancestry.com.
Now, here's the thing with ancestry.com. It's been around for a little while and we all do the free 30 day trial, or whatever, and get gun shy once that is up and it's time to start paying the not-so-cheap monthly fee. I totally get it. For most it's a curiosity, but not a financial priority. For me, however, it's technically a business expense for Fiddler research, so you better believe I recently signed right up! For those of you who've gone down this rabbit hole, you understand how completely and utterly addicting it is. You create a family tree based on your knowledge of relatives and from whom they've descended, then the website starts throwing hints at you via public record. It's FASCINATING.
When I told my parents I joined, their interest was immediately peaked. Nobody in the family had really set off on a quest to dig in and find out specific details from our ancestors lives with this level of commitment. First, my mother sent me a lot of names of relatives on her side of the family, whom she'd already begun tracing some years ago. Once I started entering those names, TONS of facts came up. Because they emigrated from England and Canada, there are many more coherent records and there isn't a language barrier. It's my father's side of the family that is proving more difficult to track. Luckily, my great-great-grandfather on my paternal grandmother's side, Louis Sugerman, had written a novel entirely in Yiddish (with Sholem Aleichem-esque chapter headings) about his experiences back in his Shtetl in what is now Ukraine, entitled 'The Godly Ben Zion'. Funny enough, at the same time I was preparing for my Fiddler audition, my family pooled together money and paid for the book to be translated into English.
As I have been slowly getting though the book, the parallels that are coming up between his world and the world of Tevye and his family are astounding. Louis, the son of Gershon The Torah Scribe, was brought up in a devout Hasidic community. The characters that inhabit this world include Reb Kadesh The Water Carrier and Reb Chaim The Rich Man (anyone thinking of Tevye and Lazar Wolf, here?). He paints a picture of the same world that Fiddler depicts, thus solidifying my deep connection to the show. It's in my blood. As I dug into my other paternal relatives, I kept coming to the same brick walls.
My family came to New York at the height of the mass exodus of Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in the early 1900s/1910s. When I searched for information on my Great Grandpa Ben Rappaport (whom I'm obviously named after), the amount of Yiddish speaking, Russian born men by that name on the lower east side in that time period brought me to the conclusion that Ben Rappaport was like a Jewish 'John Smith' of sorts. Combing through countless WWI draft registration cards and ship records was maddening. Which one was he!? I decided to go the extra mile, and send in for the DNA kit, in which you send in a saliva sample and ancestry.com processes it in a lab. In 6 to 8 weeks, you get the percentages of your ethnicity and are able to connect to others on the site who share your results. I should get those results in the coming weeks, so I will let you all know what comes back!
Meanwhile, an amazing feature of the site is the ability to look at the censuses. I found the 1915 census in which 20 year old Great Grandpa Ben Rappaport lived in a tenement in the lower east side with his mother, brother, and sister. All of whom had immigrated separately in the 4 years preceding. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. There was his address: 233 Madison Street. I live in Manhattan. Why don't I just go there and see it for myself! On a recent day off from the show, Megan and I went down to the LES, had brunch with a friend, and strolled around the neighborhood. As the sun was setting, we typed the address into google maps, and followed the directions. It was only a few blocks from the famed Jewish Daily Forward building. As we approached his block, surrounded by blocks of tenement buildings that would have been there at that time, we were greeted by a disappointing sight. The whole block was now Governeur Health Medical Center which opened in 1972. Nonetheless, we snapped a few photos, breathed in the surroundings, and imagined what life must have been like there in 1915. Even though the building was long gone, it was incredibly moving to be in the spot where the Rappaports began their life in America. It felt as if the ghosts of my ancestors were reaching up from the past and tapping me on the shoulder. They seemed to be whispering in my ear to continue my search. That's exactly what I'm going to do. I'm going to Ellis Island to learn about how they got here. I'm going to learn the names of the boats they came over on and what their journeys entailed. I'm going to find out the names of the towns they came from, and I'm going to visit these places (or what remains of them).
In the meantime, I have the profound honor of telling their story on the stage of the Broadway Theatre eight times a week. Among other things, I hope the audience walks away with the question this show has ignited in me: where do we come from?
Check back next Wednesday for more from BroadwayWorld's latest blogger, Ben Rappaport. Ben can currently be seen as 'Perchik' in Fiddler on the Roof, playing at the Broadway Theatre. Every week, he will answer questions from fans, so be sure to comment below, or tweet him directly at @Ben_Rappaport.
Ben was last seen on Broadway in Picnic with Ellen Burstyn, directed by Sam Gold. His Off-Broadway credits include: Sex Lives Of Our Parents (Second Stage),The Gingerbread House(Rattlestick/stageFARM). Regional: Alex Timbers' original production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Williamstown Theatre Festival). On TV, Ben is best known as the star of the NBC series "Outsourced". He currently appears as Carey Zepps on "The Good Wife"(CBS) and Ollie Parker on "Mr. Robot"(USA). He has also appeared on "Elementary"(CBS). Film credits include: Hope Springs opposite Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell. The Brass Teapot, Stereotypically You (upcoming), and lead of the upcoming film Landing Up. Ben trained at Juilliard, where he received the Michel and Suria Saint-Denis Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Drama.