BOSTON – In a trip back in time, Boston’s Vilna Shul virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service watchers looked into their Zoom screens and saw a Pilgrim greeting them from the site of the historic Plymouth landing in 1620.
The Pilgrim was Malka Benjamin, a Weymouth resident who works at the recently renamed Plimoth Patuxet Museums, previously known as Plimoth Plantation. As associate director of interpretation and training, Benjamin trains the staff at the museum, which includes recreations of a 17th-century village of English settlers and of the original Wampanoag Native American community. In addition, the Mayflower II, a replica of the ship that brought the Pilgrims from England to North America, sits in the adjacent harbor.
Last Friday night, Benjamin appeared in the character of a real-life Pilgrim ‒ Susanna White Winslow ‒ in a pre-holiday program timed to take place in the 400th anniversary year of the Pilgrims’ arrival. One of the event organizers, Shoshana Fagen, quipped that it might be called “Erev Thanksgiving.”
Wearing a 17th-century woolen waistcoat and speaking in an English accent differing dramatically from today’s, Benjamin recounted her journey as White. She was part of a group of five ‒ with husband William White, their son Resolved, and their two manservants — who joined the 100 or so Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, enduring about two months at sea before landing, first off Cape James (now Cape Cod) and then at Plymouth. Her second son, Peregrine, was born after they arrived. Like the Jews who escaped Egypt, the Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution in their native England.
As “Mistress Winslow” recounted, it was a hard first year in North America. In February 1621, her husband died. With bitter cold and lack of food, half of the 102 original settlers would perish. Yet the survivors found hope from members of the indigenous community, including a friendly visitor named Samoset, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit and his companion Tisquantum, whose name some Colonists pronounced “Squanto.” Sometime between late September and mid-November 1621, Colonists and Native Americans celebrated the first Thanksgiving, with turkey, deer, and maize corn among the foods served. By that time, Susanna had married Edward Winslow, who would go on to become governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony and write an account of that historic celebration.
Benjamin has been working at Plimoth Patuxet for about a decade. She has also been a member of the council at the Vilna Shul’s program for young Jews in their 20s and 30s, Havurah on the Hill, having recently stepped down in that capacity.
Growing up in Brookline and Newton, she attended Solomon Schechter Day School from kindergarten to eighth grade and went to services at the Havurah Minyan in Brookline. Another formative experience from childhood was a trip to what was then called Plimoth Plantation, where a friendly historical reenactor invited her to help wash dishes and collect warm, freshly laid eggs from the chicken coop. Benjamin wrote a fan letter to the museum a few years later, and not only did the same historical reenactor write back, she also suggested she join a volunteer program offered to children. Benjamin took her up on the offer.
Later after college, Benjamin went on to work at the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., built in 1763 and considered to be the oldest synagogue in the U.S. However, she eventually decided to fulfill a longstanding dream by working at the site in Plymouth that first fascinated her as a child.
“I mean it truly, I love going into work every day,” Benjamin said. “I’m blessed.”
“The way we teach history at Plimoth Patuxet Museums is to create an immersive historical environment so guests feel they step back in time,” she explained. “It’s real sensory learning that we distill to guests.”
Although she has never reenacted a historical Jewish individual, she notes that some of the Pilgrims she has portrayed did have a significant understanding of the Old Testament. That’s because they belonged to a sect called the Separatists that rigorously studied the Hebrew Bible. Susanna White Winslow was among the Separatists and at the Vilna Shul event, she showed her knowledge of scripture, quoting the account of Gideon’s army from the Book of Judges while talking about losing her first husband.
“Having that understanding of the Old Testament, I’m already in character of a Separatist,” Benjamin said. “I throw in a lot more Biblical references that many people today are not necessarily familiar with. The way people thought and lived their lives, everything goes back to religion. In this way, it makes me better able to portray a Separatist a little bit more.”
COVID-19 hit Plimoth Patuxet hard at a time when it was gearing up to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. However, Benjamin said the museum has been back up and running since June, and will remain open through Sunday, Nov. 29.
The museum’s name has changed from Plimoth Plantation to Plimoth Patuxet to honor both the settlers and the Native Americans. Benjamin said that the name change has been in the works for some time. It combines the Pilgrims’ name for their colony ‒ Plimoth ‒ with the Wampanoag name of Patuxet, “place of running water” or “place of little falls,” referring to a waterfall near the site of the Mayflower II.
“I’m really proud of the museum for doing this,” Benjamin said. “I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Visitors to the museums these days might see reenactors staying in character while using COVID-era protocols such as masks and microphones. She was planning to celebrate Thanksgiving a little early, on the Sunday before with a family lunch.
As for the actual holiday, she said, “I will be celebrating Thanksgiving by working. It’s one of the facts of life when you work at Plimoth Patuxet Museums.”