Immigrant revives family story of new life in dusty Texas town

Kinky Friedman ain’t the only Texas Jewboy out there. Around the turn of the last century, thousands of Jews skipped the Lower East Side and headed straight for the plains of the Lone Star State.

Jewish migration to Texas is one of the lesser-known tales of Jewish American history, but playwright Mark Harelik sought to correct that with his 1986 play, “The Immigrant.” It had a decent run off-Broadway, played in regional theaters across the country and was even turned into a musical in 2002.

“The Immigrant” comes to the Bay Area with a revival at the San Jose Repertory, now running through Feb. 26.

Most playwrights are happy to have their work produced, and Harelik is no different. However, his delight comes with a warning label.

“It’s almost always a crushingly disappointing thing,” he says of previous productions of his play. “Writers have very specific images in their minds. But I don’t want that to be cast over the San Jose production. I can be astonished, impressed and delighted.”

Harelik takes “The Immigrant” so personally because it is based on the life of his own Jewish immigrant grandparents who came from Russia to the dusty Texas town of Hamilton to start a new life.

Haskell and Leah are the names of his grandparents and also the characters in the play. They settle in with a hardscrabble Baptist couple, Milton and Ima Perry, in a tenant-landlord relationship that over the years mellows into friendship, despite profound cultural and religious differences. Haskell eventually becomes a successful shopkeeper and merchant.

Today the playwright lives in Los Angeles, but he grew up in Hamilton (just north of Austin) before embarking on a career as a writer and actor. He starred in early productions of “The Immigrant” and went on to write a sequel, “The Legacy,” which told the story of the next generation in his family.

“Jewish audiences tend to take the play very seriously,” he says. “It’s part of American Jewish history, the waves of pioneers that came out west with the Gold Rush.”

He also notes that individuals from those audiences often approach him to offer critiques of the play’s depiction of turn-of-the-century Jewish life. “I was frequently lectured by people who would say, ‘That’s not how we did it,'” he says. “I guess every Jewish house is its own kingdom.”

Working on the musical version of “The Immigrant” was “a very satisfying experience,” says Harelik. But, he adds, “it was something of a reduction of the play. A play has time to explore things more deeply. Musicals are of necessity spare in terms of emotional exploration. Ultimately, I find that more interesting. The play would kick the musical’s ass.”

Over the years, “The Immigrant” has played in many venues, including distinctly Jewish venues like JCCs. But Harelik does not label it as a “Jewish play” per se. “It’s very much an American story,” he says. “Only two characters are Jewish, one is Christian and one is agnostic. One observant Jew is willing to let go of tradition, the other is horrified of letting go.”

Harelik himself is no longer a religious Jew but, he says, “My Jewish history and interest in things Jewish fill my head constantly.”

His newest project is a musical based on the life of country music legend Hank Williams, using the singer’s own songs. While seemingly as different from “The Immigrant” as is possible, the Williams musical is another American success story retold for the stage.

And while both are based on history, Harelik likes to take as much creative license as he needs to tell his stories.

“The cloth is never whole,” he says about retelling personal stories. “Everybody’s family [story] is both fictional and true.”

“The Immigrant” plays 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. with 3 p.m. weekend matinees, Jan. 28-Feb. 26, at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets: $11-$45. Information: (408) 367-7255.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.