The Immigrant: A New American Musical
By Mark Harelik
Opened November 4, 2004
Dodger Stages, 340 W. 50th St
Even Alfred Molina’s “Tevye” may have sounded more Jewish than Adam Heller’s Haskell Harelik in “The Immigrant,” but nevertheless, the characterization of Jewish life in this play succeeds with powerful impact. Heller pulls a wheelbarrow on his back just like Tevye, he sings “L’chaim” just like Tevye’s “To Life,” and I was sure he would break out in “Tradition!” if the producer had just given him the chance.
“The Immigrant” even offers a moment where a stubborn character mutters an apologetic and forgiving “Good bye!” too late for the recipient to realize. There were some places where the nuances of Jewish practice were missed. There was some mispronunciation of the Hebrew, most notably in the blessing of the children. The main character prays with tzitzis but without a kippa; and he mischaracterizes the laws forbidding the combination of meat and fish products. But nevertheless, in many ways, Haskell manages to present a deeper character than Tevye did.
“Fiddler” sings of assimilation in the literal sense – an old fashioned father desperately trying to keep his daughters in the traditional fold. The Broadwayization of it all makes it quite difficult to take the songs, the set, and the acting – seriously as meditations on intermarriage and absorption.
“The Immigrant,” opting for a more modest set and temperament, manages to wiggle its way into certain narrative nooks and crannies that “Fiddler” is simply too large to navigate. “The Immigrant” tells about Haskell, a banana merchant, who immigrates to rural Texas. It depicts his struggle with language and anti-Semitism as he brings his wife, Leah, from Russia and raises a family in America.
The play reminds me of Ole Edvart Rolvaag’s (1876-1931) novels, notably Giants In The Earth. Rolvaag writes masterfully of Norwegian immigrants who immigrated to the Dakotas in the 1870’s, and Rolvaag’s brilliance lies in personification. From the first chapter, Rolvaag gives the prairie a tongue: “‘Tish-ah!’ said the grass…’Tish-ah! Tish-ah!’… Never had it said anything else – never would it say anything else. It bent resiliently under the trampling feet; it did not break, but it complained aloud every time – for nothing like this had ever happened to it before…’Tish-ah, tish-ah!’ it cried, and rose up in surprise to look at this rough, hard thing that had crushed it to the ground too rudely, and then moved on.”
The author recognizes the landscape as a character, a specter that forever looms over the characters and tries to rob them of their values and their cultural heritage, tempting them with a new American identity.
Harelik knows how to allow the scene to dominate the characters. The set – Milton (a banker who recalls Mr. Banks from “Marry Poppins”) and Ima Perry’s house with an attic and a porch, a Shabbos dinner table and then later a grocery store that Haskell runs – is just minimalist enough to whet the audience’s imagination to fill in detail, and just detailed enough to be literal.
Milton and Ima are a Christian couple who adopt Haskell and house and feed him until he can manage on his own, and they accompany Haskell on a roller coaster of interfaith relations, from “I saw his horns” to “Don’t Jew me” to “We are not used to strangers,” ultimately closing in an ambiguous stalemate at the end.
The set rallies a team of symbols to extend the plot. A tree represents the family’s future in America, and a well serves as a mikvah of sorts, while candle-sticks and a shawl serve as stand-ins for the Russian heritage. (Milton tells Haskell, “You can get some wasser at the well at the side of the house,” though the audience never sees the well).
More interesting than the set, perhaps, is the history. By that, I do not mean the true story of Haskell Harelik which Mark Harelik tells (which is interesting, no doubt), as much as the general historical backdrop. Haskell represents the Wandering Jew, who has sat down and decided to stop wandering for awhile. He is an Atlas of sorts who has shrugged, as in Ayn Rand’s work.
The myth of the Wandering Jew has constituted a dynamic and living part of the western Christian imagination for over two millennia. The legend recounts that the wandering Jew is cursed by G-d for having insulted Jesus on the road to Cavalry. This witness to the Passion was condemned to live without rest until the end of time.
A painful and troubling figure wandering throughout the world and the centuries emerges in visual images that permeated Western Christendom. In embodying the inexorable passage of time, images of the Wandering Jew connoted a lack of moral or territorial identity. These representations also sought an unsympathetic reaction from their audience and perpetuated certain stereotypes.
Visual representations associated with the legend of the Wandering Jew date as far back as the rise of Christendom, and they are greatly instructive on two accounts: firstly, in theorizing about the gradual transformation from the religious to secular imagining of Jews in the 18th century, and secondly, in tackling the problem of identity politics and the French Jewry.
Questions of identity are inextricably linked with the depictions of the Wandering Jew. The Wandering Jew was a symbol of an entire people. He represented, to an average Frenchman, the oneness of Jews connected through time and space. In the mind of the 18th century Frenchman, this immediately categorized Jews as an ethnic-nation unable to ever fully assimilate into any other civic nation – monarchical or republic. The unending journey of the Juif Errant also points to the lack of territorial anchor of the Jewish people and hence absence of patrie.
Given this lack of sovereignty, Jews as a people could clearly not have been perceived as French. Their stay in France merely interpreted as a trespass of an iterant tribe. Any questions of their loyalty to the French civic nation were assumed redundant: the errant Jew could not possibly pledge allegiance to the crown or the nation and must be left on his own.
At the core, “The Immigrant” is a tale about the Wandering Jew finding his home. “Even a coward has to say enough. Here is my place,” Haskell tells Leah. “Who says we can’t wander and rest for a while?”
The play offers real moments – the Baptist in Ima makes an exception and drinks wine at the Shabbos dinner to which she and Milton are invited, and in a huff, Haskell sinfully blows out the Shabbos candles while fighting with Milton. And yet, where the newest revival of Fiddler ends with the fiddler handing his fiddle to a little boy (symbolically passing on the mantle) who plays a short piece and walks off into the sunset, “Immigrant” shows Ima and Leah walking off after Milton’s untimely death, while Haskell freezes and slowly turns to face the audience, looking at the tree he has planted for his children.
The lights fade on the tree, and the audience wonders if the tree will cast strong roots and last the hard winter, or if it will dry up and slowly wilt. ◙
I gratefully acknowledge the suggestions of my friend Atif Ansar regarding the historical climate surrounding the Wandering Jew. Atif recently moved to New York, and his most recent art project is designing a space as a dedication to New York and its topographic diversity, which he calls “the winged cultural scene of a delirious town.”
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the “Yeshiva University Commentator.” As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts.
The Immigrant: A New American Musical