LOVE THE STRANGER

This stormy morning I drove to two supermarkets and bought more food gift cards for the undocumented families that I’ll be seeing tomorrow. My instinct was not to take the dogs, but they were out the door and in the garage before I knew it.

Sure enough, as soon as I pulled out in the gray, pouring rain, Harry started whining in my ear from the back seat: “Open the window! Open the window so I could stick my head out!”

No way I was going to open the window in that storm.

He started mewling, then crying, then screaming into my left ear: “Open the window! Open the window!” Now he’s sitting looking disconsolately at the rain outside: Another day of my life is wasted!

In about a week, we’ve raised over $3,800 for food gift cards. By “we” I mean you and me. Adding my own to this, this endeavor is nearing $4,500 in total. (When I started fundraising on behalf of the Greyston organizations begun by the Zen Community of New York many years ago, we were only being paid small monthly stipends, but Bernie was very clear: You never fundraise for anything without first donating yourself.)

Including the purchases today, I’ve spent some $1,750 covering two weeks of emergency food (and my own cash for a housing emergency). I want to stretch out the time for giving the cards because all indications are that this Time of the Virus will go on for a long while. With that in mind, I opened up a separate bank account online today, for greater ease and transparency.

I have been thinking a lot about the undocumented families living nearby. I grew up in an orthodox Jewish home and studied the Hebrew Bible extensively. Early on I was taught the commandment: Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. The Biblical Hebrew word for stranger is ger, meaning alien resident (as opposed to toshav, or regular resident).

The commandment to love the stranger is repeated more times in the Hebrew Bible than any other commandment, including the injunction to love and worship God. Some say that variations of that injunction (take care of the stranger, do not oppress the stranger, etc.) appears some 36 times; others say as many as 45 times. Either way, no other commandment is even close to that number of repetitions. And always it’s accompanied by the reminder: Because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Not just were we strangers, we were enslaved, and finally fled for our lives and freedom (celebrated now, during Passover). Not much different from the refugees arriving at our shores with only grinding poverty, political oppression, violence, and hopelessness to look back on.

Tomorrow I won’t be able to take photos of the people who come to get $50 food certificates. Due to the virus I can’t invite them to have coffee with me and tell me their stories. I won’t be able to photograph their homes though I know where they are. I won’t bother photographing the park where they take their children because it’s closed. For now, I’m not even naming my friend who calls to them to come out. ICE continues to be active even at this time.

Farmers are cutting down on hiring because of the closure of restaurants and hotels. There are no open bars or cafes where you can wash dishes, no open theaters where you can come in between shows to pick up popcorn containers and candy wrappers discarded between the seats. Even outdoors construction and maintenance work have been severely curtailed.

Most important are the closed schools. Most important because, just like my parents, the dream that brings immigrants here, through unimaginable risks and dangers, is to raise a family that has a future, children who could get decent jobs, go to college, have a life. I’ve often heard from them that for themselves, they’ve given up; for their children, they’ll never give up.

I mentioned that my parents were illegal refugees years ago. They went through the Holocaust separately, and having survived the war, each in turn decided to leave the ruins behind him/her and go to Israel.

“Why should I have stayed?” my mother said when I asked her. “Everybody was dead.”

They couldn’t get visas anywhere, including the US, and Israel was blockaded by the British Navy. My father arrived with false identity papers and was immediately sent to a refugee camp near Haifa. My mother didn’t even have that much.

She left Czechoslovakia with her orphaned 3 year-old nephew and traveled with him all the way to a refugee camp at La Ciotat in the southern coast of France. Hundreds of refugees were there, too, and one day practically all were taken on board a ship poised to break through the British blockade and arrive in Haifa. They wouldn’t take children since the trip was too dangerous and my mother was left alone with the little boy.

Desperate, she took him to the Marseilles harbor and saw a ship leaving for a cruise of the Mediterranean; one of the places where it was going to dock was Haifa, Israel. She watched folks go up the gangplank, their papers examined scrupulously onboard by the ship’s captain, who was well aware of efforts to break through the Israel blockade.

Suddenly she saw a group of young students lined up two by two, and as they came up to the ship they didn’t have to produce individual papers, they were simply counted and ushered onboard; clearly they had papers as a group, not as individuals.

She urged her little nephew forward, they joined the line, and as soon as they got onboard they disappeared.

This is not the place to tell of their adventures aboard that vessel, the people who helped them, and that terrible scene at the end, after the ship had docked in Haifa, when she had no recourse but to face the ship’s captain and tell him what she had done. If you want to read that story, you can write me and I’ll send you a copy of her book, or simply order the book, Childhood Lost, by Shoshana Brayer, from Amazon. Suffice it to say that the British sent her and her nephew to a refugee camp as well, where she met my father.

Ahead of them, just a year away, was another terrible war, and a year after that I was born.

As a young girl, it was hard for me to imagine the scene she described at the Marseilles port. There stood a small-boned, thin 18 year-old with a young child at her side, both having gone through hiding, starvation, terror, and violence, watching a group of affluent European school children beginning a Mediterranean cruise.

“A Mediterranean cruise!” I’d exclaim. For the young woman standing by the gangplank, after all she’d gone through, Israel was the Holy Grail; for the others it was one of several tourist drop-off ports, like the Bahamas for Caribbean cruisers. It was hard for me to believe that all this existed simultaneously in the same world.

But when she rushed forward with her little nephew and stood with them, they were all together in one line, two by two on one gangplank, for the briefest moments—till she disappeared with the little boy in order to hide onboard.

Similarly, many of us live in completely different worlds from the families struggling to survive nearby—but for some moments we can stand together. For me that moment is not just tomorrow, but every time I bring them to mind and then do something.

If you’d like to join this effort, you can use the “Donate to My Blog” button, which will send you to PayPal, and where it says “Add a Note” please write: for food gift cards. Or else send a check to me: Eve Marko, POB 194, Montague, MA 01351, and there, too, on the note please write the same.