Just about all the Jews I know are very near to the “old country” roots of their families. Children or grandchildren or immigrants themselves. This is true in both countries where I have passports, the USA and Israel.
Coming to America was literally a life saver for the Jews of 20th century Europe, whether they came as my grandparents did in the early part of the century to escape virtual enslavement in the Polish army like my grandfather Itzchak (who became Isadore!), or pogroms or poverty, or any number of other evils that man bestows on his fellow man. My grandfather became a clothes presser but he knew his children and grandchildren would have more satisfying careers. And he and my grandmother slaved and bought a hotel and a house in Brooklyn and lived the dream of the “goldena medina.”‘ And their children were college educated, theater going, cultured New York City Jews, one tiny generation out of Bialystok and Augustow, Poland. How did they manage to accomplish so much?
My father’s parents suffered and struggled to arrive in New Jersey. Zayda (who never changed his name from Kalman) arrived penniless, leaving behind my grandmother, for whom I am named) with 5 children under age 5. Unimaginable! And she ran a grocery store as well. How? Who knows? Zayda became a builder and some of the houses he built in Newark still stand. It makes me proud to see them to know that his efforts were so successful that the buildings are still homes a hundred years later. Unimaginable. He also managed to become a land owner and I often accompanied my father to collect the rents from Zayda’s many many tenants. And Zayda fathered yet a sixth child, this one a real American, who became an amazing only in America story rising from stockboy to CEO of a major American corporation. His wife, my grandmother, died very young and never saw his achievements. But her progeny grew and never knew the ravages of the Shoah.
My husband’s family is a similar immigrant story. Poverty to success in a mere generation. What a country! Proud to be an American indeed!
And in a parallel tale, 6,000 miles to the east of New York and New Jersey, my brother-in-law Zeev arrived on the Mediterranean shores, a refugee from Rumania, aged 18. The year was 1948 and the Rumanian immigrant was soon given a gun and a title: chayal. He was the right age to battle in every war from Independence through Yom Kippur and he fought for his country, and soon he also fought for his beloved family, a wonderful American born wife, my sister, and children and grandchildren, sabras all. Proud Israelis.
We are nearly all children of immigrants, grandchildren of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves. How lucky our families were to have been free to enter these two countries where freedom rings and we can live our lives and speak our minds and fulfill our prayers and dreams.
Sure, things won’t always go our way even in these best of countries. We know about sickness and accidents and unhappy events. Of course we do. Truly, that’s life. It’s rarely perfect.
But, if one has problems, it’s clearly better to have them in places where humanity reigns. Our countries are such countries!
At least they have been.
Now, in America, we are faced with an abyss. It has a name. You know what it is. And the first victims are the refugees, people who have suffered monumentally and, at long last, seen the dream of freedom beckoning them to her shores.
In South Orange-Maplewood, New Jersey, there are three synagogues.They have done an act of chesed so enormous that it’s hard to find words to describe it. They banded together and invited a family of Syrian refugees to live amongst them. But that’s not nearly all that they did. They provided and paid for housing. And food. And clothing. And furniture. They drove to appointments. They brought America to the doors of this family and welcomed them with infinite love and joy because they knew that the mitzvah was as much for themselves as for the refugees. It enabled them to feel, in one very large way, that they were confronting a powerful enemy, hatred, and replacing it with an even more powerful friend, love. Who among us wouldn’t trade places with any member of that community to have known the thrill and joy of saving lives. I know they would do it again. And I know they would inspire other communities to do the same.
And here in Israel, so close to Syria that we can actually see her from our northern towns, what is happening? Injured Syrians are being treated in Israeli hospitals. One hundred refugee children are being brought in to live in Eretz Yisrael. I know that more and more will be done as it is needed. We are not a fearful people. We will love those children and they will love us back. Of course.
Back in America, though, the trickle of immigrants has abruptly met a dam and it’s a damn shame. This new New Jersey refugee family will not commit acts of terror. They will assimilate and live their lives peacefully, and they will never forget those who helped them so profoundly, a group of righteous Jews. How unbelievably sad that goodness has been overrun by evil and hatred.
Many Jews know or knew what it was like to be refused entry to the United States and Israel. Maybe those painful times inspired the New Jersey synagogue Jews. Maybe they inspired the Israeli doctors to save lives of innocent victims of war. Maybe they had heard stories, not only from books, but from their own family lore. Maybe they have photos of Jews who never made it to a sanctuary country It’s very likely that some, or many, of them do. And they were told to never forget, and they didn’t.
And maybe, by the time you read this, the horrendous inhumane law barring certain immigrants from entering the US will be rescinded.
But, I really don’t believe that at all.