(Photo: Biography from “Fiddler” Program – May 1981)
My friend, Hal Grant, called me today and said, “Nehemiah Persoff passed away, he was 102.” And then Hal went back to work directing a television show in Southern California.
Nehemiah used to talk about ‘The Actors Studio’, and his teachers Stella Adler and Elia Kazan. And his friends Shelley Winters, Cloris Leachman, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, Marlon Brando, and Barbara Streisand.
I worked with Nehemiah twice. He did ‘Fagin’ in a production of ‘Oliver’ (Hal Grant was his understudy). And then, a year or so later, Nehemiah came back to San Jose Civic Light Opera to do Tevye in a production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. This was after he had been touring his solo performance piece, ‘The Tales of Sholom Aleichem’. He felt he was now ready to take on the iconic Dairyman.
One night, after a ‘Fiddler’ rehearsal, Nehemiah invited a few of us to the bar at the Holiday Inn, across the street from the Center for the Performing Arts, where he was staying. We sat at the bar and ate bar nuts and had a beer.
“Gary, what role are you playing?” He still wasn’t sure who I was in the show, he’d been working with me as both Fyedka and Perchik. I told him, “Mr. Persoff, sir, I’m doing Fyedka, but I’m also understudying Perchik.” He said, “Call me Nick.” I said, “Uh, yes sir, uh, Nick, sir.” He asked, “Where’s the guy playing Perchik? I said, “He will be here in a week. He’s doing an opera, or something.”
Then he said, “Brando was crazy.”
I didn’t want the actor playing Perchik to show up to rehearsal. Ever. That would mean my all day rehearsals with Nehemiah would end. Doing both roles, I was able to work with Nehemiah several hours a day, for a week. Every day was a master class.
He came to San Jose early, to work the role with the local actors, before the Equity actors were scheduled to start. He came in on his own time. He wanted to be perfect. And I got to be in the room while he was making his mistakes. “You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing” his teacher Stella Adler used to say.
I’d squeeze into a corner of the rehearsal room when I wasn’t being used and I’d try and disappear.
There was this one rehearsal— it was the day after we went for a beer—the director, the late great, Peter David Heth, was blocking the scene in Act II, the one when Golde runs on stage screaming and shouting that their daughter, Chava, has run away with Fyedka, the Russian. She tells Tevye they were married…by The Priest.
Stunned, Tevye tells Golde to go home. “We have other children at home, go home, Golde.” Golde says, “But Chava…” And then, from somewhere near the earth’s core I hear this indescribable sound coming from Nehemiah— a primal moan— I’d never heard anything like it— “CHAVA IS DEAD TO US!”
And then the actor playing Golde faints and Nehemiah catches her and holds her up so she doesn’t fall. For several minutes he holds her close to him, hugging her, until she has the strength to push him away, wailing “Chaaavaaaa”…as she makes her exit.
It was stunning work.
But that was only the beginning. The shit was about to get real.
Nehemiah then walks over to his dairy cart— with the two ten gallon milk cans, and the 5 gallon butter cans, and the buckets, and the blocks of cheese hanging off the side of the cart— clearly in shock— and he starts unpacking everything.
He just starts taking the cart apart, throwing its contents all over the stage. After several minutes of this, he stops and realizes what he is doing, so he shakes his head, looks around at everyone in the room, and somehow he finds me curled up in the corner, and he gives me this look of death, I could feel my bone marrow freeze. And then he starts picking everything up, and methodically repacks the cart; his livelihood.
You find a better metaphor…if you can.
And all the while he’s mumbling something gorgeous in Yiddish. Tears flowing down his face. And then he collapses on the cart.
Just as he sits, the vocal director gives the downbeat to the rehearsal pianist, and the music starts, and he sings, “Little bird, little Chavala, I don’t understand what’s happening today, everything is all a blur.”
And the ‘Chavala Ballet’ begins.
And this went on all day, until finally, at the end of the day, he felt he could do the scene without literally unpacking and repacking the cart.
The opening night audience never saw the scene we all witnessed in the rehearsal hall that day. The scene they saw lasted maybe a couple of minutes. And yet, it had all of that work under it. Nehemiah was literally standing on a mountain of work. And every night he went out on stage in front of 2000 people, they saw it too.
The road to Transcendence is long.
I was lucky to be there to witness Craft at such a young age. All while waiting to make my entrance in the Chavala Ballet as both Perchik and Fyedka. And that’s why Nehemia was confused. He wanted to know who the face of the man who ran off with his daughter. And that’s why he wanted to grab a beer. He needed to know.
The man was always working. Always learning. Always teaching.
His teacher, Stella Adler, also said, “Sometimes life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”
Thank you, Nehemiah. Thank you for the art.
Rest in peace.