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.
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.