Haskell Harelik had fled Russia to escape pogroms, docking not in Ellis Island but in Galveston, Texas, via a plan to route Eastern European Jews to the West. He spoke no English and was the first Jew the Hamilton residents had ever seen. But he found some friendly faces, and he stayed in that Baptist town, founding a dry goods store and raising three sons there.
The unexpected success story is the subject of "The Immigrant," actor/writer Mark Harelik's musical adaptation of the play he wrote to honor his grandfather (at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through May 4), and the show has traveled a journey as arduous and as rewarding as its protagonist's.
It began after another Harelik project fell through at the Denver Center Theatre in 1985. When the artistic director asked if he had anything else that could go into rehearsal in a month, the author's thoughts turned to his grandfather.
"He had been my hero since I was a boy," Harelik said. "He was not a captain of industry or a soldier who had saved his platoon, but a different kind of hero -- a very kind, generous person who, as the only Jew in town, brought ecumenism to an isolated rural community.
"For a Jew to be so accepted in that all-Baptist environment was inspirational," he added. "I thought of him as one of the lamed vavniks -- the Talmudic concept of 36 righteous people upon whom the fate of the world stands."
"The Immigrant," which initially starred Harelik as his own grandfather, was such a hit that it went on to become the most produced play in the country in 1991 and remains one of the most frequently programmed works in regional theater.
The musical, which features klezmer-meets-Copeland style songs by Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper, debuted in 2000 and played off-Broadway in 2004. While neither the play nor the musical has been a critical success (reviews of the Colony Theatre show have been mixed), the comedy-drama about the struggle to maintain one's cultural identity in the melting pot has struck a chord with diverse viewers.
"Jews and non-Jews all over the country have said, 'This is my grandfather's story,'" Harelik recalled.
During rehearsal breaks at the Colony Theatre, cast and crew shared anecdotes about their own immigrant forebears. Musical director Dean Mora described his Mexican great-great uncle, who was the Archbishop of Los Angeles in 1890; actor Chris Guilmet, who plays Haskell, traced his roots from France to Quebec to Maine; and director Hope Alexander (nï¿½(c)e Ossipoff) recounted how her Ukrainian father fled Cossack pogroms, never to see his extended family again. Alexander said she loves the play, "because I feel it is a quintessential American story. It is about all our families; strangers in a strange land, who carved (and continue to carve!) the American dream out of hard work, hope and tears."
Mark Harelik's Jewish identity was shaped by the old and new world stories exchanged around the family dinner table when he was a boy in Hamilton. During his early childhood, he remembers attending synagogue in Waco, Texas, with his grandparents and "feeling warmed by their contact with their religion and their beliefs." But by the time Mark was preparing for his bar mitzvah, his grandfather had moved out of town, Mark's mother was dying of Hodgkin's Disease and the remaining relatives found themselves "in painful isolation, with no religious or cultural raft to carry us through dark waters." "The Legacy," Harelik's 1995 sequel to "The Immigrant," draws on the crisis of faith he experienced as he prepared for his bar mitzvah.
"I stopped being a practicing Jew the minute I left for the University of Texas at Austin," Harelik said. "The late 1960s zeitgeist was to reevaluate everything and start over, and I was very easily persuaded. Thereafter, my relationship with Judaism became embodied only by my relationship with my grandparents."
The day he sat down to write "The Immigrant," Harelik had learned that his grandfather, then suffering from Alzheimer's disease, did not recognize his own name. The nonagenarian was too ill to ever see the production; he died in 1987.
"The play was all that remained of this good man's life," his grandson said. "But he was so humble he would have been surprised audiences were so interested in his story."
In fact, hundreds of productions have been staged across the United States; Harelik created the musical version because he felt the genre would serve the folksy characters and make his grandfather's saga even more universal.
He said he hopes to write a third play to create a "Hamilton" trilogy: "It will describe the passing of the last Jews from town," he said. "And once again there will be this all-Baptist community, where for two generations a Jewish family thrived. It's a trend that is happening all across the landscape. Whereas a century ago there were Jews throughout the West, there are now vast Jewish cemeteries in towns with no Jews."
For now, Harelik's parents still live in Hamilton, and the actor-writer likes to visit with his 2-year-old son, named (what else?) Haskell Harelik.
"A century after my grandfather first set foot in town, people tell me how much they enjoy knowing two Haskell Hareliks, one on each end of life," he said.