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Molly's Pilgrim Teaches Tolerance for Immigrants

Immigrants have always been an integral part of the fabric of the United States, and continue to be so today. Most Americans take for granted the presence of immigrants in their workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. But familiarity does not always equal tolerance. Today on New American Voices we talk about a popular book and a play that speak to children about the immigrant experience, and about the need to appreciate and enjoy the differences among people.

In the play Molly's Pilgrim, two little American girls make fun of their classmate Molly (previously known as Malka) an immigrant from Russia with a sing-song chant: "Molly dear, your clothes are quite humdrum, Molly, please, go back where you come from!" [They sing]

Based on an award-winning children's book of the same name, the story of Molly's Pilgrim takes place a hundred years ago. But Patti Green Roth, who directed the play's recent production at the Washington area Adventure Theatre, believes it is still relevant today.

"The story teaches tolerance. The story teaches acceptance. And the story teaches how in America in 1904 when a young Jewish family comes over from Russia, it was the last thing that was thought of," says Mrs. Roth. "The little girl walked into a classroom and was totally made fun of -- her clothes, her accent, her inability to pick up right away on the things they were learning in school. I'd like to think that that would not be as common now as it was in 1904. There's a lot more interaction in schools, meaning there are a lot more immigrants from a lot of different places. But I don't believe that that means we have any less need for understanding tolerance."

In the story, Molly and her mother flee anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia to settle in the United States. While Molly has her troubles with her schoolmates, Molly's mother is ecstatic about the opportunities their new life offers them.

MOTHER: "Do you know, Molly, that some mornings when I wake up the first thing I do is pinch myself? I still can't believe I'm here, in America!"

MOLLY: (sarcastically) "America, where the streets are paved with gold."

MOTHER: "Gold? That is an old wives' tale. You won't find gold on the streets here. But you will find everything else for sale right outside your door. It is like the Garden of Eden!"

Molly's story centers on pilgrim dolls that the class is assigned to make as a project for Thanksgiving. At home, Molly tells her mother that she needs to create a girl doll from a clothespin, and explains that the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the Plymouth colony were people who came to America from England in the sixteen-hundreds to find religious freedom. Molly's mother has a revelation. "Didn't you just tell me that a Pilgrim is someone who came to this country from the other side of the world to find freedom?" she asks. " Well, Molly, that describes me! I'm a Pilgrim!"

Accordingly, the doll that Molly and her mother create for Thanksgiving looks more like an immigrant from Russia than a somber 17th century Pilgrim. It's dressed in a bright red skirt, an embroidered yellow blouse and a colorful kerchief. Molly has some doubts about how the teacher and the class will respond to her doll. That night in a dream the Statue of Liberty appears to her, and reassures her in a song sequence. [She sings]

"I'm an immigrant too, from across the blue. First my home was in France, but then I got the chance to come here like you, start my life brand new," the Statue sings. "You should never be ashamed of who you are and what's your name. Be proud of where you're from, and who you will become, a real American, from many we are one!"

At the end of the dream scene, as the play's director Patti Green Roth explains, the Statue of Liberty has a final comforting word for Molly. "Miss Liberty starts to exit, then she goes back, and she says, 'Molly, one more thing I need to tell you. At the base of my statue is a quote' - and she quotes the Emma Lazarus poem - 'and Emma Lazarus, she was Jewish, just like you.' Liberty leaves; the spot[light] goes to Molly, and Molly goes 'Wow!'" Mrs. Roth laughs adding "It's just beautiful!"

Of course, the story has a happy ending. At first, Molly's classmates make fun of her doll, which doesn't look anything like the pictures of Pilgrims in their books. But then Molly tells them what she learned from the dream. The teacher puts the doll in a prominent place on her desk, and tells her students that there are all kinds of pilgrims, and that coming from a different country is something to cherish and be proud of. Molly's classmates decide that her doll is the most beautiful one of all. For everyone - Molly's classmates in the play, as well as children who read the book Molly's Pilgrim and attend the play's performances - it's an engaging lesson about tolerance and embracing differences.

The Adventure Theatre's musical production of Molly's Pilgrim was the play's world premier. The adaptation and lyrics were written by Sandra Eskin. The book, by Barbara Cohen, has received numerous awards, and in 1986, three years after its publication, it was made into a movie, which received the Best Short Film Oscar at the Academy Awards.