Here I am in Takoma Park, Maryland, with Bernie, visiting his daughter and family, no desire to blog, just a wish to eat barbecued dinners or go out and walk along Sligo Creek. Till last night, when I opened the news and saw Trump and various Republicans’ latest proposal to cut immigration by 50%, allocating what spots remain to English-speaking, well-educated people. Not the thin, hungry ones, they’ll make do with special visas giving them the privilege of working at beneath-market wages for companies like Trump’s, and then getting shipped right back home.
Jon Katz wrote about being the son of immigrants, and how that has affected him to this very day. I am an immigrant, having arrived here when I was 7. We came by ship, four of us in a tiny cabin. Nobody spoke any English.
Till the day he died my father, a rabbi and teacher, loved to tell the tales of all the misunderstandings that arose when he tried to work to make some money, not understanding what people were really asking of him. When he was paid pittances to give a speech at the local synagogue on the Sabbath, my uncle not just wrote it out for him but would review it by telephone with him every Friday afternoon, especially my father’s pronunciation.
My younger sister had polio, and my mother would carry her aboard three buses in Jamaica, Queens, to the rehab center that helped her walk again. I remember when my mother, who was very lonely, was invited to a party. She was thrilled, only to remember that she had no dress. So she took an old fabric she had that had been used for curtains and sewed it into a dress, and loved to tell about raves she got (What store did you get that fabulous dress?).
I spoke no English at all in a public school in the Bronx. One day the teacher announced something and gave out a page of lined paper to each pupil. Then she said some words, none of which I understood, and picked up the papers. I gave back the empty sheet and got a 0 because I didn’t understand that this was a spelling test.
But a week later I had my revenge. She held a competition to see who could write the longest word correctly on the board. One by one the children went to the board, choosing to write cat, dog, or even bird. When it was my turn everybody laughed, but I confidently walked to the board and wrote out the word spelling, which was written on the top right of the board where she always wrote the name of the class. I won the competition hands-down.
Years later, when I “dropped out” to be a writer and then join a religious community, in the face of my parents’ opposition, I never forgot what fueled their dream for me to join the middle class, how their opposition came about because they knew about war, poverty, and starvation—and I did not, thanks to them.
Nobody leaves behind a familiar land, culture, and language with any ease in order to go to a place where you’re a stranger, starting from zero, where the cashier in the supermarket sneers because you’re stumbling over the language or hoarding your pennies. You do it because of war, holocaust, illness, and poverty. And you never forget the kindness of teachers who take extra care with your children, the landlord who forgives a month or two delays with the rent, the low-income grandmother who buys chicken for you for Friday night because you can’t afford it.
Whether you’re from East Europe or West, from Africa, Asia, or south of the border, one of your ancestors thought it was worthwhile making this drastic change, taking terrible risks, for the sake of the children and their descendants. You are that descendant.
In that sense, when you shut the door on refugees and impoverished immigrants, you’re shutting the door on your own parent, or the parent of your parent. You’re shutting the door on entire family trees and histories, including your own. You turn your back on your own history and your ancestors’ courage and resilience.
In a funny way, I feel more love for this country than I ever felt in my life, maybe because I can’t take its virtues any longer for granted. This land of hope and generosity is lurching and wobbling, led by a demagogue in the White House and a party that has sold its own conservative soul down the river for the sake of power.
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