Published in the Globe Magazine
His grandparents were happy to leave Czarist Russia and settle in the U.S. Their unexpected destination was Hamilton, a rural, central Texas, Southern Baptist town of 3,000 — none of them Jews. What kind of legacy did they leave for their children and grandchildren?
This question haunted veteran actor Mark Harelik. In 1985, he wrote his first play, “The Immigrant,” which chronicled his grandparents’ life in a new land. In 1991, it was the most widely produced play in the country, mounted at colleges, community theaters, and most of the major regional theaters. “It became the ‘Forever Plaid’ of the Jewish community,” quips Harelik.
But that play, says the intense, soft-spoken 45-year old, was “about my paternal group.” The second play in his family-history trilogy, “The Legacy,” “is about my generation, and the challenges of finding their faith. In the final installment, “The Merchant,” the father closes down the family “shmatta” (clothing/dry goods) business; he had hoped his children would continue the tradition.
With Harelik, the conversation often returns to traditions and legacies.
“In ‘The Immigrant,’ this young displaced Jewish couple landed in the middle of Christian America and established a happy and productive life for themselves. They did not become less Jewish; they retained the seeds of their faith. But the next generation did not. ‘The Legacy’ explores the theme of feeling lost, marginalized, cut adrift from your roots.”
In the play, the mother is diagnosed with cancer. The son, isolated from any Jewish feeling or identity, is being forced to have a Bar Mitzvah, to study an ancient language from old, scratchy recordings of his grandfather. The mother is unable to accept her illness. The father is trying desperately to hold the family together. In steps an aunt, a former Jew and current Christian Scientist, who tries to provide a different way of approaching illness and death.
The play is more than a trifle autobiographical.
“When I was about 15, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Harelik, “and was sick for a couple years before she died. I checked out entirely. A situation like disease, dying, tragedy in the house, is not something a child can deal with directly. So he hides behind a compensating activity. Like Nathan [the character in the play], I was a smartass, the class clown. At 12, Nathan tries to bring life into the house. He becomes the merry prankster. I was a little older. I had access to much more anger, and I retreated from the family.”
There was a real aunt, too, a Christian Scientist who took care of his mother during her last months. This aunt believed that faith is something you choose, and through the power of prayer and practice, you can heal yourself. In the play, this character becomes the dramatic foil for the father, a total pragmatist, according to Harelik, “who feels that you just scrape through the best you can, because the more you ask the unanswerable questions, the more pain you bring into your life. ”
In addressing both philosophy and theology, in forcing a confrontation of faith and identity, the play poses profound questions, but offers no answers. Some see it as pitting Judaism against Christian Science. “It has angered some Jews,” admits Harelik. “The Christian Scientists who saw it actually appreciated it. But the Jews say, ‘Why couldn’t the rabbi have been more successful?’
“In fact, this was an autobiographical element I had to change. The student rabbi who actually came to our house at that time was so shaken by his inability to answer the simple question of ‘Why?’ that he dropped out of the seminary… I don’t advocate either religion or deny either. My focus is on the family situation. I want the audience to be as upset and confused as this family is.”
In the play, it’s not clear whether or not Nathan actually goes through with the bar mitzvah. But Harelik did. Like the character, “I spent hours and hours phonetically memorizing the Hebrew. I just couldn’t get it. My father tried to take me to Hebrew school 80 miles away in Waco. But I felt so out of place… I’m fairly knowledgeable about Jewish spiritual life, but I don’t practice and I don’t care to. But I do maintain a strong sentimental attachment to all things Jewish, and I know I always will. I’m fascinated by the symbology and mythology. It’s very beautiful and deeply poetic.
“And I appreciated the intellectual challenge of the bar mitzvah. Once I was standing up on the bima [pulpit] leading the prayers, and there was this big audience, I felt a surge of power.”
That feeling never left him. Harelik went on to play leading roles on stages across the country, including the Old Globe (where he starred in ‘Lost Highway,’ a musical he co-conceived, about the life of legendary country singer Hank Williams) and the La Jolla Playhouse, where he played the title character in the musical, ‘Elmer Gantry’). He’s made television and film appearances, and is currently working on a musical version of “The Immigrant” and the final segment of the family trilogy.
“The Legacy” has appeared twice before in San Diego: as a staged reading at the Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays (under the more presumptuous name of “What The Jews Believe”) and later at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. In the Old Globe production, Harelik plays the father.
“This play is really for my father, and the revelation for me has been understanding him. Because he’s the central character, the intersection of all the roads between all the people. His job was to keep a family functioning, to somehow make the experience endurable… Not only is the character near and dear to me, it’s a very complex person.
“Both I and my father take a pragmatic view of life. I wonder if — and my secret answer is ‘Yes’ — a pragmatic person can have a strong inner spiritual life. That’s a question posed by having a character like this. Questioning fills me spiritually. Watching how people question and why they need to inspires me.”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.