By Elise Kigner
Jewish Advocate Staff
A century ago, Mary Antin published her autobiography "The Promised Land," about her new life in Boston filled with opportunities, as compared with the oppression of Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement.
Antin writes, for example, about lingering to read the inscription on the Boston Public Library- "Built by the People - Free to All."
"That an outcast should become a privileged citizen, that a beggar should dwell in a palace - this was a romance more thrilling than [any] poet ever sung," she writes, thinking of her childhood in a Jewish shtetl.
Excerpts from Antin's book, and the writings of other immigrants, will be brought to the stage in “The Promised Land: Celebrating the Stories of Boston's Jewish Immigrants" Oct. 30 (2012) at 7:30 p.m. at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.
The performance, which consists of dramatic readings, video and music, is sponsored by the New Center for Arts and Culture.
The cast is an unusual mix of figures. Actress Liz Hayes is playing Antin. The narrators are Barbara Grossman, a Tufts drama professor; actress Annette Miller; Ted Reinstein, a correspondent for “Chronicle" on WCVB-TV; and Boston City Councilor Michael Ross.
The show traces the history of Jewish immigration to the United States through the stories of individuals, beginning with Solomon Franco, a Sephardic Jewish merchant who landed in Boston in 1649, and ending with stories of recent Russian immigrants such as Yevgeny Kutik. In 1991, Combined Jewish Philanthropies raised $17 million to bring Soviet Jews to America; Kutik was among the refugees helped by the fund .
As part of "The Promised Land,” Kutik, an accomplished violinist, will perform Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish," and a solo violin version of the Yiddish folk song Oyfin Pripitchik. Another one of the immigrants featured is the late Gussie Wyner, an immigrant from Minsk. Her grandson Justin helped come up with the idea for the New Center program.
Gussie met her future husband George Wyner, an ostrich farmer in South Africa, when he was ordered by his father in Vilna to go to Boston to marry George's brother's sister-in-law, Justin said.
George headed to the United States, stopping first in New York to see his sister. His sister told him that before he went to Boston, he should meet someone else.
After some consideration, he told her he would go to Central Park. "Walk her by," he said. "If I like her, I'll come crawling."
That woman was Gussie. After getting George’s father's blessing, the couple married. George asked Gussie to return to South Africa with him. “If after 10 years you don’t want to stay, I'll move," he told her.
A decade later, the couple and their children were back in the States - this time, in Boston.
The couple helped found Beth Israel Hospital in 1916 as a place for Jewish doctors who were shut out from other hospitals.
Gussie created the idea of life membership, used to raise money both for Beth Israel, and Hadssah. A fervent Zionist, she traveled to Israel several times during the 1920s, once with Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah.
Her grandson Justin, 87, is the former president of the American Jewish Historical Society, which supplied immigrant diaries, letters, newspaper articles and oral history transcripts used to write the script for “The Promised Land.”
He said the society's founding in 1892 was in part prompted by Eastern European immigration to the States in the late 1800s.
"'There were people who were fleeing the pogroms, and some people who were established here were embarrassed by all these people, so they started to collect the history of the Jews in America to prove Jews were not these funny-looking people who didn't speak English and came rag-tag from Europe," he said.
Organizers plan to create an exhibit based on the stories and videos in “The Promised Land to display in the restored Ohabei Shalom Chapel in East Boston. The chapel is in the Ohabei Shalom cemetery, established in 1844 as the first Jewish cemetery in the state.
Leaders of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts are raising money to preserve the chapel, which they envision will serve both as a museum on Jewish immigrant history, and as a community space for new immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa who live in East Boston.
Leaders expect major restoration work to being this spring. They are hoping to raise $1 million more in pledges toward the $2-$2.5 million project before beginning work.
Stephen Dickerman, who produced the performance with Francine Achbar, director of the New Center, is managing the chapel project. The son of a Russian immigrant, he said the stories in “The Promised Land'' seem personal.
"I felt like I was in an extended family, getting tidbits about very familiar people,” he said.
For more information call 617-531-4610.
Article reproduced from the Oct. 26th, 2012 edition of The Jewish Advocate.
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