When I was growing up in-what-seems-like-2004-but-was-actually-the-1930s, calling America THE GOLDEN LAND!!!! was an understatement. To us, America was the mother of all paradises: the Garden of Eden before the appearance of the snake.
My mother's family arrived in Philadelphia together, and -- with the exception of Aunt Bessie who shuffled off to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. -- either shared a communal North Philadelphia brownstone or lived within walking distance of it. They were not shtetl Jews; they came from Zhytomyr, a fairly prosperous, sophisticated Ukrainian city where my grandfather made a substantial living as a lumber merchant, despite distressing complications, like the time Cossacks ripped off Uncle David's beard and threw my 5-year-old mother and her younger brother Morris down the basement stairs after promising to come back and kill them.
Chaim Itzi, my entrepreneurial paternal grandfather was born in Buki, a small Ukrainian farming hamlet and found a livelihood here transforming horseradish roots into chrain-- a ground sellable bottled version -- on a pushcart parked at an outdoor street market. He also found the U.S. materialistic, saved his money and returned to Buki where he invested his hard-earned Yankee dollahs in a farm which soon went bust. His dream of becoming the Buki Rothschild temporarily squelched, he returned to Philadelphia alone, ground his roots and saved his profits with the intention of making the same mistake again. When he revealed his plans to a fellow member of the Buki Beneficial Association, his compatriot stood up and screamed at him, "You're doing what? Are you completely nuts?" which sounds even more derisive yelled in Yiddish, and brought Chaim Itzi back to his senses. Instead he bought ship tickets for his wife and children and brought them here to prosperity -- note the lower case c -- in a South Philadelphia always-in-need-of-repair three-story row house which doubled as the manufacturing, bottling and distribution facilities of Pine Brand Horseradish, whose mighty fumes equaled the power of Dristan in clearing nasal passages.
The first language I spoke was Yiddish. The first songs I sang were in Yiddish. Their minor key melodies still tug at my heartstrings and bring tears of joys to my eyes. I am a perfect Golden Land consumer, because I am familiar with the immigrant world from every angle. Also my mother worked in a sweatshop and considered David Dubinsky, the CEO of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Messiah.
The Golden Land dramatizes, in song and story, the collective experiences which shaped the American Jewish identity. Originally created by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld in 1984 it told the poignant yet joyous saga of the Eastern European Jewish immigration to America from their first breathless, confused, impoverished glimpses of the Statue of Liberty through their battles for social justice and fair wages to their attainment of the social and financial mobility aka The American Dream, with a detour through Second Avenue, the onetime Jewish cultural mecca.
I loved The Golden Land when I saw it in 1984 and I love it today in 2012 because they sing the songs I learned at the International Workers Order communist-oriented Jewish schools and at the Workman's Circle socialist-oriented Jewish schools from which I had been expelled. They also tell the jokes my fun-loving, womanizing Uncle Joe whispered to me when no one was around. My husband Alvin, a non-sentimental, non-religious, tuches oifen tisch (no BS) Philadelphia lawyer, saw The Golden Land twice in Philly. He was totally distraught when some meshuganer broke into his car and stole, among other more-but-less-precious-to-him objects, his turned-out-to-be-irreplaceable 1984 Golden Land CD. Oy vey.
Now, 30 years later, Zalmen Mlotek, Moishe Rosenfeld and Jacques Levy have extended the time frame of The Golden Land to include the Holocaust and the birth of Israel and translated most of the lyrics into contemporary English. Thanks to six young, immensely talented, sexy, didn't-grow-up-speaking-Yiddish, young performers, Bob Ader, Cooper Grodin, Stacey Harris, Andrew Keltz, Daniella Rabbani and Sandy Rosenberg, The Golden Land still delights, touches and shines. Emphasizing how the Jewish story is a quintessentially American one should extend its appeal to a younger, more diverse audience. The upbeat, melodic score made up of klezmer, Tin Pan Alley and Yiddish pop and folk melodies played by a rousing to-die-for seven-piece band will have your feet tapping all the way home.
The Golden Land has proved to be golden with the critics -- even those kvetches at the NY Times called "it a love letter to America" which the NY Post said "is sung with delicious gusto."
Even better, it's been extended. The dark-horse hit from the National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene is playing an additional three weeks through Jan. 6 at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue at 25th Street. If being Jewish or horseradish roots mean anything to you, this is a treat you won't want to miss. And unless you're a native American lived here from the get-go, The Golden Land relates the same joy and heartaches your immigrant forbearers endured except in a different language.