My daughter is the fourth generation in a row of our family born in a different country. What does this mean for our family? And what does it say, if it says anything at all, about the society around us? At the mere attempt to answer these questions, I realize how many words have been lost during these experiences. Different alphabets flattened shades of thoughts, and lessons by fathers to sons were polluted by diverse backgrounds. Identity feels more like a work in progress to nurture than a root that strengthens you.
My wife and I moved to the U.S. in 2009, and last month we applied for U.S. citizenship. I couldn’t help but think about all the different countries members of my family were born in: my mom, sister, and I in Italy, my dad in Egypt, my grandfather in Greece, my grandmother’s parents born in Morocco and Turkey, and my daughter born in the USA. Yes, I’ve always looked at my family as a Mediterranean mix salad. Each country is an ingredient to the identity of my family. Still, my grandparents and parents never spoke too much about their backgrounds. When I was a kid my imagination, and later on my studies as an adult, would fill that void. The most beautiful colors, inspiring literature, and popular music would be molded to shape my identity. And the food, of course. The socially essential food experience, around a table with relatives, friends, unfamiliar guest faces and words; lots of words. During a dinner here in the U.S., I stumbled on my chair when I first heard my dad speaking fluent Arabic to my Rabbi, who lives in Chicago but is from Morocco. I was in my early 40s.
A couple of days ago, I was at the table having dinner with my wife and my 9-year-old daughter. Instinctively, as it happens to every parent, I addressed my daughter using an expression similar to ‘sweetie’ in English. I called her ” Sacaró ” (Sah-Ka-raw). Sacaró was the word used by my great-aunt Anna, sister to my grandfather Sami, born in Corfu, Greece. From the Greek word záchari (sugar). For centuries, the Greek island was home to my family, Vital, until the 1920s. We were part of the Apulian Jews from southern Italy. Corfu was considered a safe place for Jews to live. Until the late 1891 blood libel accusation, then everything changed. Many Jews decided it was time to leave the island. My family moved to Egypt, as King Farouk welcomed Jewish families. At that time, Egypt was a land of opportunity. So my grandfather moved out of the island to reach Alexandria.
My daughter didn’t really grasp what happened during our family dinner, just like I didn’t fully get it. But now I realize that history embraced us traveling through one hundred years and six thousand six hundred and thirty-seven miles at the sound of one word. We were included in a bigger story unfolding from different backgrounds and languages while laughing at the table, eating our meals, and proudly speaking our trembling English.
Moving out of Corfu was undoubtedly a significant shock to my family’s identity. There was no real Corfiot solid community outside Corfu. There was no group to instantly connect to. But leaving the island was a blessing. Corfu was then invaded by the fascist Italians in 1941. And in 1943 by the Nazis. On June 10, 1944, out of the remaining 2000 Jews, 1,800 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Blessed be their memory. The war was almost over, but the hate towards us Jews was not.
I have some old Super 8 footage my grandfather used to record about their life in Egypt. Happy faces of three different generations gathering together. Until Nasser came to power in 1954 and, in 1957, they were forced to leave. My father, born in Alexandria, had to leave his native town at 16 years of age because he was Jewish. And just like my family, all the Jews living in Egypt had to go. Authoritarianism and Jew-hatred were not exclusive to western society.
Once in France, while waiting for a VISA to Canada, my grandfather found a job opportunity in the most unlikely places for a Jew just a decade earlier: Rome, Italy.
When my wife and I decided to move to the U.S., we did it with our hearts in our hands. We were leaving our families and friends, I left my job, and we moved to Chicago with no personal or professional connections. We were not moving to the U.S.; we were moving out of Europe. I don’t know about you, but we didn’t consider it acceptable to be beaten up because you’re a Jew or being mocked weekly at work. When I approached my first employer in Milan, I remember asking him for a small raise. He started to laugh and shout all around the office, “I found the only Jew with no money! And now he wants a raise!”. It was a joke, of course. It’s always a joke. Jokes continued almost on a weekly bases until they got even worse when Israel came into the picture. But the problem with jokes is that words matter.
Chicago was the place that allowed us to start a new life. It was 2009. Since then, we have been blessed with the birth of our daughter Mimi (Miriam Chaya) and were able to overcome all the challenging curve balls that life threw at us. Today, I look at our daughter, and I wonder how much I will be able to share with her about our family history. This includes my wife’s Italian-Eastern European mix, and I can assure you it’s not less complicated than mine.
I feel blessed to be in the U.S., a country I love. As an immigrant, I think I should make mine not only the opportunities this country offers but also the challenges it deals with. Respectfully including people from all backgrounds is a noble idea. At the same time, I am aware of the distance between abstract thought and applying that same thought. Expelling Jewish kids from college social justice groups just because they support the existence of the state of Israel is probably not in line with that noble intent. Something to think about, as the context you live in may change. At the same time, the USA still allows you to be an active part in it. The opportunity to improve society is a blessing for everyone.
I selfishly hope my daughter will read as many books as she can about Jewish life, will continue traveling to Italy as an adult, will develop a strong understanding and love for Israel, and will cherish all the family stories she will hear from my wife and me. Probably while having lunch or dinner. Maybe she will learn to cook some Corfiot recipes (why not my favorite dish made with rice, pine-nuts, green peas, raisins, cumin, and a boiled egg on top of it!). But most importantly, I hope she will be able to live her life freely without discrimination of any kind. It is tough, but an immigrant does not have any other option than to be optimistic about the future after turning the world upside down.