“Welcome to America,” an official greets me. “Do you speak English?” asks another, handing me an ID card. “Are you Jewish?”
It’s 1909, and I’m at Ellis Island. OK, a reimagined Ellis Island at the Soho Playhouse. The officials/actors move us through the various bureaucratic channels our great-grandparents had to face. At one point, I meet with Rabbi Ahron. “Do you have a place to live? A job?” he asks. I didn’t answer because I began thinking about all of the questions I had never asked my grandparents. Did their parents speak any English when they arrived from Russia? Did they live in the Lower East Side tenements before making their way to Pennsylvania and New Jersey?
“New York, Circa 1909” is an innovative, interactive theatrical experience exploring Jewish immigration in America. Conceived by Rabbi Shmuel Lynn, founder of the Olami Manhattan Theater Company, the play transports us back to 1909, during the second major wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. Both the actors and audience traipse through the Playhouse, engaged in often tumultuous scenes that begin just before Shabbat and end with a Sunday wedding.
The play was directed and co-written by Geoffrey Cantor, known for his TV roles in “Daredevil” and “The Punisher.” Simon Feil, seen on “The Blacklist” and “Orange Is The New Black,” produced and acted in the play. After two prior productions in Spain, Cantor, Feil, and Rabbi Lynn launched the Olami Manhattan Theater Company and anticipate a longer run of the show in the fall.
“Theater is a powerful, unique medium that can be used to educate and impact young Jewish communities,” Rabbi Lynn told the Journal. “Lecturing to young Jews doesn’t always work. They need to feel an emotional connection: feel like it’s theirs. What’s their family’s story?”
Olami is an outgrowth of Meor Manhattan, which since 2004 has been working on college campuses to educate and empower young Jews. The goal of Olami, according to the playbill, is to touch “the soul of the next generation” through theater and other creative mediums. “Our fervent hope is to spark thought-provoking conversations around Jewish identity.”
As we worked our way through the weekend, two main tensions emerged: safer vs. safe; and tradition vs. assimilation.
Yes, Jewish immigrants had freedom from state persecution here — the land of hope — but not freedom from hatred. Two guys try to start a fight with Avi, the groom, and his black friend, Tarrell. They call Avi a Heeb and a kike. Avi lunges at them, and a fight ensues. Not surprisingly, it’s Avi and Tarrell who get arrested. Later at home, his father is livid. But Avi stands his ground. “I am going to fight back,” Avi says. “I’m going to be a Maccabi.”
Yes, Jewish immigrants had freedom from state persecution here — the land of hope — but not freedom from hatred.
Yes, our families were much safer here — but they weren’t safe.
The other tension is holding onto tradition vs. assimilating.
“We are an adaptable people,” says Elke, mother of the groom. “Had to be. Countless assimilations. Integrations. Immigrations. A friend once asked me what it is to be a Jew here. We land here. Often traumatized. Sometimes not, sometimes it’s just — a better chance. We go to English classes at night. We learn to fit in. To act like Americans. Think like Americans. Be like Americans. Which is nonsense — everyone is an immigrant.”
“What do we do when we come to a new world?” asks Rabbi Ahron in his rather transcendent Shabbat sermon. “This is not a new question. Since the beginning, since Abraham left Ur Kasdim, we have faced this question. Egypt. Babylonia. Rome. How do we maintain the wisdom of our ancient ways, and when do we show our wisdom in learning from the new?”
“There are those who say that for all its gifts of safety and freedom, maybe because of them, America is dangerous,” he continues. “That the risk of embracing all of this freedom will cost us our souls. Others say America is a place unlike any we, or indeed anyone, have ever known. Freedom from oppression, freedom of worship. The very notion that we are all equal under the law and before God is almost Messianic. That this country, while not the Promised Land, is a land of promise. There is something new here, something wise.”
“And I see the struggle. I see our children, drawn to new ways of being that our ancestors have never known. That I’ve never known. And I see them wrestling with new ideas that have wisdom. So what do we do? The question. But we are the people of questions. How do we choose? When do we say no and when do we say yes? I’m not sure there is an easy answer. One answer. Only that we need to keep asking the question. It’s when we think we know that we risk our integrity. There’s God there, in the space in between.”
His poetic words resonate today. Most of our families fully assimilated. Was that a good thing? We’ve stopped asking that question. And as Jews, that’s never a good thing.
Our exile from incessant persecution is a key part of our story, the Jewish story. And it should never be left for others to deny or intentionally misinterpret, as it has been today.
Rabbi Lynn’s primary intent is to educate young Jews about our history and identity. He didn’t intend for it to be directly used to counter today’s hatred — in Congress, universities, the media — which our great-grandparents could not have imagined. But our exile from incessant persecution is a key part of our story, the Jewish story. And it should never be left for others to deny or intentionally misinterpret, as it has been today.
“I do hope the play has a residual effect for both Jews and non-Jews in changing the conversation,” Rabbi Lynn said.
“It is in these deep dark spaces that we can touch the hand of God,” Rabbi Ahron continues in his sermon. “We wrestle with fear and doubt to find meaning. To find ourselves.”
And that, hopefully, is just the beginning.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine.