My grandfather arrived in the United States 103 years ago. “My father was a wandering Aramean,” the Passover Haggadah teaches, compelling us to feel as if we personally were part of the story of leaving and arriving. Jewish history is full of tales of our ancestors making repeated journeys from one place to another, always hoping that things will improve. Mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal, we’re taught – change your place, and your luck will change. And so we did, repeatedly. The Trump Administration’s attempted ban on refugees and immigrants is personal to me, as it is for so many Jews, because we remember. Coming to the United States is not ancient history, it is our personal history.
My grandfather, Louis (Leizer) Person arrived here from Russia, purportedly having escaped the Tzar’s army like so many other Jewish men of his era. He died before I was born and many details of his story are unknown to me, but what I do know is that Russia was not a place he wanted to be. It was not a place where he saw a viable future, and he came here to make a fresh start, a modern day Moses. Like so many of his landsmen, he arrived in New York and stayed here, eking out a living as a watchmaker.
He and my grandmother, also a Russian immigrant, had five living children, the youngest of whom was my father. Those children went on to have a total of eleven children, and there are now two more generations after that. From those two immigrants, there are now many descendants spread across the United States.
My grandfather was lucky because he had a place to go, a way to get there, and a route to citizenship once here. He was able to become an American. Though his life here was difficult, it was nothing compared to what he would have faced if he had stayed in Russia. Because he chose to leave, his children, and then his grandchildren, and all the subsequent generations have opportunities, freedoms, and bright futures.
I don’t know all of the descendants of my grandparents. But I do know a lot of them. One hundred years later, who are we? We are many things, but collectively, we are America.
We live in different states, red and blue and purple. We are Democrats and Republicans and those who choose not to vote. Some of us are fervently for gun control and others own guns. Some of us support women’s reproductive rights and some don’t. Some of us read books, some of us write books, some of us haven’t read in a while. We are highly educated with multiple master’s degrees, haven’t gone beyond high school diplomas, and looking forward to having a PhD or two in the next generation. Our diets span the spectrum from vegan, to vegetarian, to kosher, to hoof-to-tail carnivores. Among us are those who are variously passionate about animal rights and marijuana legalization and climate change and defending the Constitution and a good day for fishing.
We are light skinned and dark, our eyes are blue and green and hazel and brown. We are tall and short, slim and athletic, buff from working out, agile from yoga, and always struggling with our weight. We speak, at minimum, English and Spanish and Hebrew. Our children’s names are sourced from Yiddish, or modern Hebrew, or the Bible, or Spanish, or English. Some of us have photos on our Facebook pages posed in front of Christmas trees, and others are lighting menorahs or showing off the Seder table. Some have both. Some of us spend Friday nights or Saturdays at synagogue, while some of us spend Sunday mornings in church. Some of us have lived in Israel, though most of us have never been. Some of us have tattoos, some of us have beards, some us shave our heads, some of us don’t shave our legs, some of us shave our chests. We are accountants, truck drivers, artists, grad students, venture capitalists, grant writers, computer programmers, salesmen, antique dealers, a rabbi, retired from the military, homemakers, healthcare activists, repairmen, community organizers, writers, managers, event planners, and all kinds of other things. We are gay, straight, queer, and really uncomfortable talking about this; we are married, divorced, and single. We are everything Americans can be.
Despite our dissimilarities and different lifestyle choices, we are all testaments to survival, inheritors of a dream. We are Americans because this country opened its doors to our grandfathers, and to so many like them. We know what it’s like to be strangers. We owe enormous debts we are obligated to pay forward by welcoming immigrants in memory of all the grandparents and great-grandparents and generations back who risked everything and set off into the unknown so that we, their descendants, could have freedom and the right to make choices.
My grandfather was a wandering Aramean. One hundred years ago a young Jewish man left his familiar world, got on a boat, and sailed to New York. He left his family behind, as well as the reality of oppression and violence. He set out on his way, choosing to become a stranger in a strange land. Whatever lay in front of him had to be better than what he was leaving behind. America opened its doors to him. And with that, a new world began.