Can you tell me about who you’re portraying here at the museum?
I’m portraying Fannie Rogarshevsky. Mrs. Rogarshevsky came to the United States from Lithuania in 1901 with her husband, Abraham, her children, and a niece who gets palmed off on her parents who already live here. Her brothers already live here and by the time she and Abraham move to 97 Orchard Street, they’ve come from just down the street. They’ve come from another pre-old-law tenement that probably might have just been about to undergo renovation. So they come here and they’ve got six children, two of whom were born down the street, ranging in age from a little child to teenage girls. About half the family is working in the garment industry. So by 1910, she’s got kids working and has just married off a kid, her daughter Bessie, to a border of her parents, and they’ve moved across the street and produced two kids fast.
When you’re portraying her, how do you make the character as accurate as possible?
I have a sense of who she is from the way she looks in pictures, from the history of her children – if they go away, they move back soon. The grandchildren remember her yelling out the back window, telling the bums to go sleep somewhere else. She’s a woman who loses her husband when her husband is quite young, in his early 40s, from tuberculosis. And she becomes the janitor of this building in order to keep a roof over her family’s heads. She is a big, tough lady.
What I try to balance is the sense that she’s a baleboosteh, a boss, a big tough mama. On one hand, she has a very complicated life. These people are not as successful as the Levines [another family interpreted at the Tenement Museum and on Live! at the Tenement] are going to be. They’re not going to wind up living in a nice neighborhood. But she’s kept most of her kids alive, and they come back, and she wants them near her. There’s a story that when one of the daughters moves to the apartment behind this apartment that Fannie sends the Sabbath meal on the clothesline across to a daughter who had been married and living in the Bronx but moved back here during the Depression.
So these stories are going through your head when you’re in character?
Yes, from photos and from the memories of children and grandchildren. We know more about this family and what they’re like than, say, the Levine family because we have the memories of one of the sons, Henry, from when he was quite an old man, who could tell us where everybody slept, which is what everyone always wants to know and what we almost never know for sure about these early families.
From there, how do you try to engage your audience?
I want people to respect her. I don’t think she was having a great time. People have commented on how cheery these characters are but I don’t think she was a very cheery person. But she was very proud of the home she had made, so it is very interesting to have people come into this space that she inhabits with this family. They come in and they often say, “Oh, this family has money. Look at all this stuff they have. They don’t have a factory in the living room.” And I say, “Yeah, but they had six children.”
She was very proud of the things she had here. A working family in the old country did not have a room that looked like a living room, even if it turns out you’ve got four boys sleeping in it every night using the couch as a pillow. And what we know from family memories is that she was proud of the furniture, and we were able to replicate that. Our sense is that she’s buying furniture secondhand and, to her, it’s fancy. It’s what the nice people uptown would have had because it’s carved and it’s upholstered, and the headboard of the bed is solid wood. It’s also all about forty years out of date.
She comes to 97 Orchard Street, and they have running water, which she’s never had before. She’s a house-proud woman. She has lights for the first time. You can see the dirt and that helps. If you can’t see it, it’s harder to clean.
So I’m always trying to balance the ways in which she was very proud of what she had achieved and on the other hand, the fact that this is a woman who’s getting down on her hands and knees to scrub the toilets of her neighbors every week.
Do you find it gratifying to be a costumed interpreter? Is it fun?
I find it exciting and difficult and interesting enough that I want to keep doing it. What it’s done is that, being Fannie, spending time in that apartment, and thinking as a member of that family with those responsibilities, I do a different tour. So when I move to the role of educator, there’s a part in my head that’s Fannie’s voice understanding what that couch meant to her. Now, after a lot of years at the Museum, that’s one beat up couch. But for her, it’s the symbol of this life that she has made here. However poor that life seems and was, they’re making themselves American. It’s an Orthodox family. They don’t want to give up who they are. They don’t want to become American in that way, yet she’s also very proud of what they have here.
She’s the last person to ever live in this building. When everyone moves out, Fannie is living here in 1941 with her youngest son Philip and his wife. Only at age 68 does she move into government-supported housing where there’s hot water. So for some reason, she’s hanging onto this place where so much of her life had been. She’s the center of a world that includes her parents in the building, and her brothers who sound like fruit sellers to me, on a small scale, in the neighborhood. She knows everybody and I think she’s trying to run all their lives. So it changed my sense of how to give that tour.
Fannie Rogarshevsky, pictured here with Philip Rogarshevsky at age 12.
Courtesy of Tenement Museum Photo Archives
Meet Judith Levine - as Fanny Rogarshevsky - tomorrow evening. For tickets, visit www.tenement.org.
- Posted by Joe Klarl