Volume 3, Number 147
"There's a Jewish story everywhere"

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Erik Liberman, playing 'Motel' in Fiddler, is a Jewish
folklorist in his own right, with wide Diaspora experience

stripeCopyright 2007-2009 - San Diego Jewish World, San Diego, California. All rights reserved.


By Carol Davis

SAN DIEGO—Just recently I had a charming chat with Erik Liberman, who plays Motel the Tailor in the upcoming production of Fiddler On The Roof starring Chaim Topol. The show is coming through San Diego starting on Tuesday, July 14th, and is running through the 19th. Erik, who was at the Art Institute of Chicago while we e-mailed, told me how thrilled he was to be in the show as the Tailor who “breaks tradition for love” — that and the fact that Motel represents to him, “someone who not only makes a living bringing disparate fabrics together — but brings disparate families together by marrying Tzeitel… Sholom Aleichim had an innate understanding of such ironies.

“Another I find fascinating is the arranged marriage of Lazar Wolf the Butcher into the family of Tevye the Dairyman, which Motel disrupts… Have you ever been in a religious Jewish home where meat and milk mingle?”

Erik also shared that being in Fiddler has been somewhat healing for him. He had a Bar Mitzvah and spent a summer living with Orthodox relatives in Israel. He confessed, however, that in the past he has avoided certain aspects of his Jewish heritage, and “accepted the role [in Fiddler] because I was resisting it — and didn’t know why.”

Being in the show, he’s had an opportunity to face those issues, and in the process has uncovered a richness in our culture that many in his generation may have yet to discover. “Perhaps it’s because we no longer live in shtetls, but we’re not exposed to the source of many of our ‘traditions’ anymore... Fiddler illuminated that for me.” He’s happy to have found this connection through the show, and to be performing it with Topol, whom he says knows “every nook and cranny” of the role of Tevye.

One of the questions I asked Erik was if he had any relatives who lived through the pogroms during the years Tevye and his daughters did, and this is his story as told to me:

“As a child, I was fortunate to know two of my great-grandmothers, which somehow made me aware that life didn’t begin and end with my arrival.

“My mother’s mother’s mother was Lilly Gordon Orlin (neé Gerowicz Oliejvich), with whom I was close and spent time in Israel before she passed in 1994. She was born in Ostrow, Poland. Most of her family were killed in pogroms and later the Holocaust; those that remained emigrated ‘in shifts’ to Cleveland and other cities, seldom, if ever, to see each other again… I enjoy looking at photos of these relatives with Lilly’s daughter — my Grandmother Ruth — as well as a parchment that Ruth’s grandmother — my Great-Great-Grandmother Sarah Rebecca Augstower Gordon — addressed to her descendents, with her wishes for them.

“Ruth lives in Miami and is married to Arthur Sokoloff, known for his 57-year dentistry career, in addition to authoring a series of books on Eastern philosophy… ‘Sokoloff’ is a Hungarian lineage of Jews (the name means ‘falcon’) that has many orchestral musicians to its credit. Grandfather still plays piano… and I can now account for the red hair that sprouts from my beard, since learning there’s also Celtic in our blood!

“My father’s mother’s mother was Itka Stryzack, whom I was also privileged to know. During the Russian Revolution, she accompanied her daughter — my Grandma Sonia — from their village of Kobrin, Ukraine, to Odessa, then to Cuba. While she was dressed as a boy on the boat to Havana, Sonia met Joseph Liberman, who was also escaping the pogroms that decimated his family and shtetl of Koretz, Ukraine. They were married in 1924.

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“In Havana, grandma and grandpa were founders of the Zionist Movement, and their photo is permanently exhibited in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Miami, where they emigrated in 1955. They owned a ladies’ wear shop there, and like many Jews of their generation, were known for their incredible wisdom and endurance — not to mention love of music. I still remember grandma playing piano and enjoying Klezmer. They were proud to know their great-grandchildren before passing in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

“My father, Jacob Liberman, and his sister, Eva Liberman Finkel, were both born in Havana, with English as their third language — and my grandparents' sixth!

“These days, in keeping with the diasporaic tradition of the Jews, my immediate family finds itself all over the globe — dad in Hawaii, mom [Marsha Forsyth] in North Carolina, sister [Gina] in Zambia, and myhalf- brother Jeremy is studing acting at NYU."

“Without the bravery of those who came before us, however, we wouldn’t have made it here at all… I have a feeling they’d have great ‘nachas’ seeing Fiddler.”

We talked a bit about Matchmakers, and Erik told me he considers the Matchmakers of Tevye’s time, as the predecessors of Internet dating sites, like J-Date. We shared a laugh at that, and the fact that while he was in Israel, every one of his female relatives tried to fix him up. We agreed it was just one of those Jewish “things,” matchmaking. He also talked about the spelling of his name — “Liberman,” which means “man of love,” while “Lieberman” means “free man.” I must say he has done his homework.

He and Rena Strober (I interviewed Rena several years ago while she was here in San Diego at the La Jolla Playhouse as Tonya in their production of Dr. Zhivago), who are playing opposite each other, he as Motel and she as Tzeitle, have known each other for ten years, having both appeared in the Original Cast of the Ovation-winning musical Reefer Madness! in Los Angeles. He feels that she “beautifully embodies the humor, chutzpah, and strength of Jewish women of the era… In Fiddler, she instigates Motel’s shift from boy to man, and is a backbone of her — and later, our — family.”

Erik collaborated on a book with his Dad, Dr. Jacob Liberman, called Wisdom From An Empty Mind, “a compilation of one page essays and accompanying quotes on topics ranging from awareness and healing to love, relationships and children.”

From their book, on the topic of Mensch:

“To the degree to which we are real, ordinary human beings, is the degree to which we influence others…

“In German, Mensch means ‘human being.’ In Yiddish, however, when someone says, ‘You’re a mensch,’ it means that you define what it means to be a human, to be humane. To be a mensch is to be sensitive, loving and caring. It speaks of quality irrespective of gender, race, or religion, or any of the other ways we separate ourselves from the oneness of life.

Rather than being a man or woman, black or white, Jewish or Christian, consider just being a mensch."

Erik is that mensch.

Fiddler On The Roof, the Joseph Stein, Jerry Block, Sheldon Harnik blockbuster based on the book by Joseph Stein from stories by Shalom Aleichem originally entitled Tevye and His Daughters is playing at the Civic Theatre downtown at 1100 3rd Avenue, San Diego CA 92101.

For more info visit www.broadwaysd.com

See you at the theatre.

Davis's email: davisc@sandiegojewishworld.com