It’s the eternal Jewish question, isn’t it?
How do you know if it’s time to go? To quit the place you’ve called home all your life. To pack up and leave, perhaps even to flee, and then try to build a life somewhere else.
These questions have haunted me more than usual lately, along with images of murdered French Jews, cars that mysteriously explode outside a Paris synagogue, Jews huddled in the freezer of the kosher market, hiding from Islamists on a rampage for Jewish blood.
Due to growing, virulent anti-Semitism, many Jews have left France in recent years. After last week, more are sure to follow.
When you stroll in Jerusalem or in seaside Netanya you hear French spoken everywhere. For years friends in Israel have told me about the French Jews buying up apartments so that they’d be ready if and when life in France became intolerable. “If the time comes to leave, they’ll be all set,” they say.
How do you know if–and when–it’s time to go?
My great-grandparents had to confront this question when they left their shtetl in Ilitsny, Ukraine. So did the ancestors of virtually every American Jew, making my great-grandparents’ story both universal and particular.
Following a wave of pogroms in the 1880s, Abraham and Nellie Pentelovitch and most of their shtetl neighbors decided it was time to go. They were aided by none other than Baron Hirsch, the Jewish philanthropist, who was, ironically, living in Paris. Baron Hirsch underwrote the cost of resettling these poor shtetl Jews to “Hirsch settlements” on the Canadian prairie.
Whether my great-grandparents ended up in Hirsch, Saskatchewan or Hirsch, Manitoba is unclear, but to the bitterly cold, desolate prairie they went, along with the first of many children that would be born to them. The harsh conditions and unforgiving climate killed off scores of these immigrants in the first year.
According to family lore, a few of the men, including my great-grandfather, traveled back to Europe to beg Baron Hirsch for money to enable them to move somewhere else. Eventually, my family made its way to St. Paul, Minnesota, where my grandmother, mother, and I were all born.
Knowing that their move to frigid Minnesota was an upgrade tells me all I need to know about the howling Canadian prairie they left behind.
But what of Ilitsny, their Ukrainian shtetl? It’s impossible to know how many generations of my family called it home. I think about what it took for them to leave, in an age long before commercial air travel. In those days, if you left home, you did so knowing you would almost certainly never set eyes on the place again. Maybe life in Ilitsny had become so dreadful that when they left they thought, “Good riddance.” Or maybe not. Maybe something in the landscape, the light, the scent of damp ground or spring flowers stayed with them forever. Perhaps they missed the place that had always been home.
Jewish history is filled with such stories. Our people hold keys to homes all over the world that we can never return to.
The immigrant story, the tough calculus that leads to the decision that it is time to go, is shared by many people, not only Jews. Syrians fleeing civil war, Yazidis running for their lives, and persecuted Christians all over the Middle East. The list is long. Minnesota has been home to two enormous recent migrations: Hmong refugees in the 1970s and Somali refugees in the last decade.
Yet, it seems that it’s only the Jews for whom relentless hatred and persecution leading to exile is an existential condition. Not in every time and in every place, but anti-Semitism has been a dominant feature of our history for millennia.
French Jews, whose schools are now guarded by soldiers and for whom the simple act of wearing a kippa is a risk, have to engage in the same tough calculus as my great-grandparents. Stay or go? Hope that things will get better or act on the fear that they will only get worse?
There is one enormous difference between the world of today’s Jews and that of my great-grandparents. Today we Jews have a state and an army. French Jews, all Jews, have a place to go where they are wanted and will be welcomed.
The adjustment will be easier for people of means. Housing and general cost of living is very high in Israel. The economic realities for many olim are not insignificant.
There are French Jews who have spoken up defiantly to say that they absolutely will not leave France. I understand that. They feel as French as I feel American.
And what of elderly parents, adult children, grandchildren? How do you stay if they leave? How do you leave if they stay? Thinking of the potential fractured families makes me ill.
France’s prime minister, Manual Valls, spoke of what a mass exodus of Jews would mean for France — a catastrophe. “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” It was a strong and important statement to make.
But right now I am not thinking about what this means for the French nation. I am only thinking of the individual Jews, the couples, the families. The eternal Jewish question–Is it time to go?– is upon them and must be answered.