The Immigrant - A New American Musical Immigrant - History

    They fled the darkest corners of Eastern Europe. Their story was written thousands of times over by people who risked everything to live a dream. Only a few would welcome them. The Immigrant celebrates one such story in the most unlikely of places - Hamilton, Texas. It is a true story of new Americans told in a heartfelt New American Musical.

One such story...

Lacking a chief rabbinate, American Jewry has instead often found its leaders in the philanthropic sector. No leader was as pre-eminent in his day as Jacob Schiff (1847-1920), the investment banker who guided American Jewry from 1890 to 1920 in the crucial years when more than two million Eastern European Jews arrived on America's shores. With Jacob H. Schiff: A Study in American Jewish Leadership, Naomi W. Cohen, the distinguished former professor of Jewish History at Hunter College and author of Jews in Christian America, has provided us with the first full-length biography of Schiff.

Dignified, elegant, and self-assured, Schiff was a German Jew of aristocratic bearing, the son of a prominent Frankfurt banking family.  Schiff left for America at the ripe age of 18, with $500 in his pocket and a packet of kosher meat, to work in New York, quickly joining (and eventually heading) the investment firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Under Schiff's deft leadership, Kuhn, Loeb & Co. came to finance America's expanding railways and growth companies, including Western Union and Westinghouse, thereby challenging J.P. Morgan's dominance of American high finance.

New York's German Jews, predominantly located on the Upper East Side, were far better heeled than their Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European brethren residing in tenement squalor on the Lower East Side. But Schiff did not suffer from the traditional German Jewish aversion to the Ostjuden; instead, he realized that the future of American Jewry lay in their great numbers.  Guided by a strong philanthropic ethos inculcated in the Jewish community of his native Frankfurt, Schiff worked diligently to integrate these newcomers into American society.

Schiff, Cohen notes, "labored to shape a collective Jewish identity in tune with the modern era, an identity predicated on Jewish continuity even as it broke from ghetto life."

Schiff was a leading proponent of Americanization, of taking traditional Eastern European immigrants with their black hats and beards and turning them into modern Americans, teaching them English, citizenship and American civic culture along the way. Schiff thought the best way to lessen anti-Semitism would be to integrate-not assimilate-Jewry into America as a whole.  Accordingly, one of Schiff's major priorities was to discourage Jews from congregating in ghettos. He was a major giver to the Jewish Agricultural Society, which sought to place Jews in farm settings. In addition, he pioneered the Galveston Plan, an attempt to get Eastern European Jews to immigrate to Texas and the Southwest rather than the urban Northeast. (The Plan failed, however, as only 10,000 Jews went to Galveston from 1907 to 1914.)

Part and parcel of this immigrant's plan to Americanize his fellow Jews was Schiff's effort at religious reform. Schiff was raised as a Orthodox Jew in Frankfurt, but like most of his fellow Germans, he affiliated with Reform Judaism in America, attending New York's Temple Emanu-El.  Reform, with its outright disdain for tradition and dietary laws, was an anathema to the largely traditional Eastern European Jews. Though Schiff was neither kosher nor Sabbath observant, he respected and understood Orthodoxy. He thought that the best way to Americanize Eastern European Jewry would be by promoting a middle way between strict Orthodoxy and lax Reform; a more modern practice that would conserve some of the traditions discarded by Reform.  Hence, Schiff became the major benefactor for the then-fledgling Conservative Jewish movement by heavily underwriting the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

For those Jews trapped in the ghetto, Schiff became the major benefactor (and in most cases, the guiding light) of numerous communal institutions designed to welcome or care for the uprooted. Many of these institutions continue to play a major role in the social service infrastructure of New York City. Schiff founded and for 35 years, ran the Montefiore Hospital for the chronically ill.  Of Montefiore, he once said, "I have reared it as I would my own child.") Schiff funded the Visiting Nurse Service to provided in-home health care and the Henry Street Settlement to shelter new immigrants, and was a major donor to the Hebrew Free Loan Society, a mutual aid society.

While these institutions were designed to promote communal well-being, they were also designed to show Christian Americans that Jews could take care of their own.  Though these institutions were Jewish in character, they were not religious institutions, and, at Schiff's insistence, their services, by and large, were open to qualified individuals of any creed. Schiff, it should be noted, contributed heavily as well to non-Jewish philanthropies, such as the YMCA and secular institutions, including Harvard University and Barnard College. Of special interest to him were efforts to improve the social and economic status of blacks; Schiff was a prominent contributor to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute.

The Immigrant was one of the most performed plays in America and is now a new musical that received a rave in Arizona two weeks ago: In this ravishingly lyrical and touching new musical, a Jewish Immigrant in 1909 plants himself in the vast expanse of Texas to build a new life with an old cart, a few bananas and a pair of unexpected benefactors. Faith and friendship transcend cultural fears as two families create a community in the truest sense.

The Immigrant is about the lore of the lone Jewish family in Hamilton, Texas.

But it’s also about Irish, Dutch, Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans, Filipinos - the play with music... is about anyone who has immigrated, or has had relatives who have immigrated, to this country.

Or who has felt lost with another culture.

Or who resists change. Or embraces it.

Playwright Mark Harelik’s very personal story about his grandparents, who came to this country from Russia in the first part of the last century, is a universal story about acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, loss and hope.

And it’s a story that’s told with great power and feeling...

It opens as Haskell Harelik, fresh from Russia through Galveston, Texas, wanders the Hamilton streets trying to sell bananas.

He speaks no English.  He has no place to live.  He’s a pretty sorry sight.

The town banker and his wife, Milton and Ima, take him in though the discovery that he is Jewish worries them.  Was he dangerous?  What of the prayers he says?

With Milton’s help, Haskell’s business grows.  He brings his wife, Leah, from Russia, who feels isolated and terrified because she sees none of herself in the people of Hamilton.

And so the story goes. It’s a gentle one, never didactic, about how they all learn to accept and even love their differences, and adjust to whatever life throws at them.

Leah is heartbreaking with her vulnerability and sense of loss as a stranger in a very land.

Haskell totally seduced with his humor, his struggles, and his beautiful tenor.

                    - Kathleen Allen, Arizona Daily Star


©2010 by Flying Baby Music LLC