My taste in men has been formed by men who have played, will play, or could play Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. Motel the Tailor is a type. Leonard Frey (the 1971 movie) and Adam Kantor (the most recent Broadway revival) are certainly Motel the Tailors, but you don’t need to have played Motel the Tailor to be a Motel the Tailor. Seth Cohen, Dave Rygalski, and pretty much any other character played by Adam Brody is Motel the Tailor. This guy who made a YouTube video about how to make the perfect Philly cheesesteak is Motel the Tailor. They tried to make Jesse Eisenberg Motel the Tailor, but they ruined that when he played Mark Zuckerberg, who is decidedly not Motel the Tailor. Andy Samberg is a Motel the Tailor. Adam Levine seems very nice, but he is not a Motel the Tailor.
Motel the Tailor has the mystique of every Nice Jewish Boy you ever cared about too much, except that he’s too fictional to ultimately disappoint you. It’s not just that scruffy nebbishes with messy hair and big, bespectacled eyes are adorable and so, so familiar; a Motel the Tailor is radically kind, brave, and genuinely respectful of women. Putting him back into his original context: he’s not as exciting as Perchik, the very sexy communist revolutionary who’s raring to change the world with Hodel by his side (clearly the F in this FMK). He’s not as rebellious a choice as Fyedka, whose passionate intellectualism draws Chava outside of the faith (the K in the FMK because he made Chava get married in a church and I do not care how Jewish-puritanical I sound, that’s just not who she was, Tevye sings a whole song about it).
Perchik is hot and smart and his politics are good, but Perchik and Hodel’s relationship was really all about Perchik and his ambitions — the closest Hodel comes to self-actualization is singing about the man who came and changed the shape of her dreams, and Perchik’s love song is so boring that it’s cut from the movie. Fyedka, who sucks, is literally best friends with the oppressors interested in upending Chava’s former way of life. Motel stands out as the only equal partner among the three. His relationship with Tzeitel is based in equal parts love, friendship, and the pledge they gave one another. He’s the man you marry. I’ve believed this my whole life.
Early in act one, it seems like Motel’s fellow Anatevkans have nothing better to do than gossip about how poor and inconvenient he is. Golde doesn’t even register that Motel and Tzeitel are interested in each other beyond a childhood friendship until Yente the Matchmaker wiggles her eyebrows and is like, “from such children come other children.” Marriage is a transaction and a mechanism of social mobility in Anatevka — if Tzeitel marries the affluent butcher Lazar Wolf as planned, Golde and Tevye know she will never want for anything. Love becomes an afterthought when hunger and poverty take up so much brainspace for these characters.
But love is a motivator, not an afterthought, for Motel: our quiet revolutionary. While his neighbors laugh at him and call him a nothing, Motel’s methodically saving up his money and his energy to be the partner Tzeitel’s family needs him to be. Tzeitel and Motel made the revolutionary choice to promise each other that they would marry without Tevye’s permission, and he was willing to put in the work to make good on that promise. The work Motel puts into building a life for himself and Tzeitel is no small thing in a context where their ability to choose each other is far from given.
Motel is a timid little guy. He’s an imposition at Tevye’s Shabbos dinner, not a readily welcomed guest. He’s a shabby, somewhat-emasculated stitcher who doesn’t like to raise his voice and doesn’t like when people raise their voices at him. But where it matters, Motel is astoundingly brave. When he hears about the match between Tzeitel and Lazar Wolf, Motel springs into action, intent on changing Tevye’s mind and moulding his own future. He’s frightened, but he gains Tevye’s respect and permission when he speaks his truth out loud, out proud: that even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness!
Where Perchik gives Tevye’s daughters (again, very sexy) Marxist interpretations of the Torah in his daily lessons, Motel looks for smaller wonders than a revolution in religion. “Miracle of Miracles” is one of the most powerful love songs in the whole entire musical theatre canon because it puts enormous biblical miracles — David slaying Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den — in conversation with something as simple as a love requited. “Of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all,” Motel sings, “is the one I thought could never be: God has given you to me.”
Motel the Tailor is unselfish. He is kind by nature, not as a means to an end. He’s progressive, but doesn’t center himself — he might not have been the first to cross the barrier, but he danced with his wife at his wedding. Motel believes in small miracles, like Tzeitel’s love, and in small sacrifices, like the ones he needs to take charge of his family’s future. He is the sweet, soft-spoken, shining example of the small-but-radical ways true love can challenge tradition.