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!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • 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.