The Jewish Immigrant Experience, In Song

The tunes in the musical ‘The Golden Land’ are ‘living documents of Jewish life in America.’

10/16/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
The original 1982 cast of “The Golden Land,” starring Molly Picon, center.
The original 1982 cast of “The Golden Land,” starring Molly Picon, center.

Of all the enticing myths about America that drove Eastern European Jews to uproot themselves and immigrate to these shores, perhaps the most seductive was that the streets were paved with gold. Nor was it just the streets — America itself was known as the “goldene medina.”

For the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre, which next month revives the pioneering 1980s musical, “The Golden Land,” the glittering image of America brought by Jewish immigrants helped to shape all of subsequent American history. Directed by Bryna Wasserman, the musical starts previews Oct. 28 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, as the Folksbiene kicks off its 98th consecutive year of producing plays in New York.

Like the immigrants it celebrates, “The Golden Land,” which was co-created by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld, went through many stages on its way to becoming a success. It was born when the Yiddish Forward newspaper commissioned a Yiddish theater pageant in 1982 in honor of its 85th anniversary, and Mlotek assembled a variety of songs and skits from the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Contributed by Molly Picon, Boris Thomashevsky, and other stars of the Yiddish theater, the collection’s songs ran the gamut of the Ashkenazic Jewish experience, both in Eastern Europe and America; they included everything from “Rumania, Rumania” to “Amerike, Hurrah for Onkl Sem.” 

From such rich sources, Mlotek realized, an entire musical could be crafted. Since so many of the songs contained English, he and Rosenfeld decided to make it a bilingual show for which no knowledge of Yiddish would be required. The idea was inspired. After successful runs at the Norman Thomas High School on East 33rd Street, the Westbury Music Fair, and the American Music Theater Festival, “The Golden Land” opened Off Broadway in 1985 at the Second Avenue Theater (formerly Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre), where it ran for almost 300 performances.
Richard Shepard of The New York Times championed the show from the start, writing that it was so “buoyant” that it had the “sparkle and oomph of seltzer right from the nozzle.” 

Wasserman, who has also directed 21st-century productions of the musical in Montreal and Vienna, told The Jewish Week that the original production was especially notable for its cast, which included Bruce Adler, Phyllis Berk, Joanne Borts, Avi Hoffman, and Betty Silberman — all of whom were, or went on to become, well-known interpreters of Yiddish culture.

“These young performers brought a new vibrancy to Yiddish theater in New York,” Wasserman recalled. “They broke a lot of molds.” While Yiddish theater had been seen as the province of fading stars who had appeared decades ago on Second Avenue, “Golden Land” showed that a younger breed of performers could claim Yiddish culture as their own and make it relevant to audiences of all ages. No surprise, then, that the cast for the new production is also relatively young; it features Daniella Rabbani (an Israeli-American actress who has starred in many recent Folksbiene productions) along with Cooper Grodin, Sandy Rosenberg, Bob Ader, Stacey Harris and Andrew Keltz.

While “The Golden Land” takes the audience through the immigrants’ pain in the sweatshops and tenements, it shows how they ultimately transcended that environment to create a better world for themselves and their descendants — as well as other immigrant groups who followed in their footsteps. Even today, Wasserman pointed out, Jewish immigrants continue to come to America; the Folksbiene is sponsoring a special cabaret of Yiddish music on Dec. 10 that will commemorate the struggle for Soviet Jewry; among the honorees will be Russian-Jewish businessman Sam Kislin, who sits on the Folksbiene’s board.

The production is especially timely, Wasserman reflected, with the presidential election looming. “As we watch the elections and the progress of our country,” she said, “we wonder what it meant for our own community to land on these shores. The musical is a story of hope, disillusionment, and then hope again.”

For his part, Mlotek called the songs “living documents of the history of Jewish life in America,” coming as they do from the actual periods in which the show is based. When the show first ran in the early 1980s, he noted, it capitalized on a growing interest in the history of immigrant Jewish life in America, as demonstrated by E.L Doctorow’s bestselling novel, “Ragtime,” published in 1975 (and made into a Broadway musical two decades later), and by Irving Howe’s National Book Award-winning history, “World of Our Fathers,” published in 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial.

The debut of “The Golden Land” also coincided with a klezmer revival, in which American musicians began to discover and popularize Eastern European Jewish music. And it came just two years after “Tintypes,” a patriotic chamber musical about famous immigrants, including Emma Goldman, the Jewish anarchist.

With “The Golden Land” under their belts, Rosenfeld and Mlotek went on to produce the Yiddish-English revues “On Second Avenue” and “Those Were the Days,” along with solo concerts of Yiddish music at Carnegie Hall by Neil Sedaka and Mandy Patinkin. “The Golden Land” was “a watershed, the first production to make Yiddish culture accessible to the next generation,” said Rosenfeld in an interview.

Rosenfeld conceded that a show about immigration, especially during election season, is a “hot topic,” given that “xenophobia is on the rise and labor unions are under assault.” Nevertheless, he suggested that the musical demonstrates how Jews “never stop evolving and never stop contributing to American life.” He hopes that “The Golden Land” will attract a diverse audience of Jews and non-Jews, and immigrants of all backgrounds. “We’d love it to tour and become part of the American repertoire,” he said.

The Golden Land” begins previews on Oct. 28 and opens on Nov. 4. It runs through Dec. 2 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. The performance schedule varies, but is typically Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m., and Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $45-$55, call the box office at (646) 312-5073 or visit www.nationalyiddishtheatre.org.

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