The Arty Semite

Tevye Goes West

By Ed Rampell

  • Print
  • Share Share

When remembering the waves of Jewish immigration to early 20th-century America we usually conjure up images of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. However, thanks to the Galveston Plan, some Eastern European Jews found themselves far from the Statue of Liberty, way down yonder in the land of cotton. Haskell Harelik may have landed at Hamilton, Texas, instead of Hester Street, Manhattan, but in 1909 this Russian refugee also sought the American Dream.

Michael Lamont

Mark Harelik, who wrote the book for the musical “The Immigrant,” directed by Howard Teichman and playing through July 15 at the West Coast Jewish Theatre, tells his grandfather’s saga with the panache of a contemporary Sholem Aleichem. But if “Fiddler on the Roof” closes with Tevye the dairyman leaving Anatevka, “The Immigrant” opens with Haskell (Gary Patent) the bearded banana man peddling fruits in the small Texan town of Hamilton. There, while making the rounds with his cart, young Yiddish-speaking Haskell encounters middle-aged Milton (Anthony Gruppuso) and Ima Perry (Cheryl David), and begins a relationship that profoundly affects all of their lives.

The gruff Milton is a banker — more Jimmy Stewart than Jamie Dimon — who, impressed by Haskell’s work ethic, decides to grant him a loan. Haskell becomes a protégé of Milton, and under his tutelage grows from striver to thriver. Haskell’s pushcart gives way to a horse drawn wagon, and eventually to a fruit store and then a dry goods emporium.

In the process Haskell brings his wife Leah (Dana Shaw) from Mother Russia to the Lone Star State, ending his loneliness and doubling Hamilton’s Jewish population. Leah’s adjustment to this brave new world is more difficult for her than for Haskell. Over time she adjusts with the help of Ima, a Missouri-born Baptist whose belief in hellfire and brimstone is trumped by her innate, nurturing nature.

Milton, too, can put aside Semitic stereotypes and, having lost both sons, become a surrogate father to the Hareliks, who go on to have three boys, the last named for Milton. While Act I focuses on the Hareliks’ adaptation to home on the range, Act II focuses on their relationship with the Perrys. Over time, as Hitler threatens European Jewry, the couples clash; a long simmering conflict explodes when Haskell can’t contain his anguish but Milton, embodying American isolationism, counsels Haskell to “forget.”

For Haskell, amnesia is no solution to the Final Solution. Instead, he yearns to spread the freedom he’s found in America to his fellow, suffering Jews. Milton takes umbrage at Haskell’s tone, reminding him of all he’s done for the newcomers, even risking bigoted townsfolk branding him a Jew-lover. But like the banker, the now prosperous Haskell has become prideful, and hates feeling beholden — especially since Milton has a point.

Milton is the musical’s most complex character; although he refuses to be baptized (much to Ima’s chagrin), he follows the Golden Rule more than the rest of the characters. Offstage, Gruppuso explained that his character’s anti-religious stance is because “Milton is angry at god for the loss of his two sons.” As for Haskell, he eventually “gives back” — sending three of his sons to fight fascism.

One of those World War II veterans was the playwright’s father. In 1985 “The Immigrant” was originally a non-musical play and novel based largely on family folklore passed down at the Harelik dinner table. Steven Alper was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for the music he composed for the 2002 adaptation, with lyrics by Sarah Knapp. The West Coast Jewish Theatre’s revival has a three-piece orchestra accompanying lovely songs performed by the cast. It is a tremendously moving musical that enhances the picture of no-longer-wandering Jews, home at last in their new homeland called America.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: West Coast Jewish Theatre, Theater Review, Theater, Texas, Mark Harelik, Immigration, Ed Rampell, American Dream

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.