My father's father was a draft dodger, trying to avoid becoming cannon fodder in the Tsar's Army. It was the very beginning of the 20th century, and my grandfather was a teenager, studying Torah in a shtetl town in Lithuania, which was part of the Russian Empire at that time. My grandfather's father was a Rabbi, and my grandfather, a yeshiva student spending his days in religious studies, was far too young and inexperienced to know how to serve in anyone's army. However, the Russian army didn't need my grandfather to know how to fight; as a Jewish child of the shtetl, he just needed to know how to die.
His parents looked for a way to save him. First, they arranged an early marriage - to a young woman six years his senior. According to family lore, Grandma and Grandpa never got along particularly well. But worst of all, the marriage would not save him from being eligible for the draft. So in desperation, they got on a boat together, to make a home for themselves in the New World.
My father was the first Jewish baby born in the little town in New Jersey where Grandpa worked in a women's shoe factory; and the neighbors came to view the newborn child, to see what a Jewish baby looked like (did he have horns?). Eventually, the anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the community became too much for Grandpa to handle. So, when my father was nine years old, with two more siblings now part of the family, they all moved to Brooklyn. There, the family prospered, and two more children were born.
While my grandparents spoke and read no English when they first arrived on our shores, their five children were outstanding first generation Americans. My father wound up going to Harvard Law School, and helped pay for his youngest brother's university education. My father enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor, and became a captain during World War Two. The youngest brother died in that war. My father married and produced my brother and me, two upright citizens who produced five children between us. So our particular story continues.... And some version of this story exists in most households in America today....
All of us human beings are descendants of migrants, taking our first journeys out of the Cradle of Humankind, in Africa. And we've been on the move ever since, sometimes displacing the earlier residents; sometimes assimilating into their dominant culture; and sometimes remaining separate, perhaps unwanted....
But I keep thinking my grandparents, two young Eastern European Jews coming into the US in the early 1900s. To the Americans already here, they probably seemed dirty, foul-smelling, ignorant, and particularly undesirable, being Jewish. Some of the siblings they came with were definitely left leaning, as well (or, in the current parlance, potential terrorists).
And I keep wondering what would have happened if my grandfather had been born twenty years or so later. What would have happened if he had tried to emigrate to the US in the 1920s, after Congress had passed laws that prevented all those immigrants, "yearning to breathe free", from coming to America. Then, he would have joined the millions of others, the "huddled masses... the wretched refuse" who were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Have we learned nothing from the past?
I keep thinking about all the people today, trying to escape to another place - so that they can worship as they wish; so they can work to provide for their families; so they can make a better life for their families, for themselves. When we read about what is going on in so many parts of the world today - the civil wars, the political repression, the impact of climate change on communities, the conditions of poverty and hopelessness - is it any wonder that people want to find other places to create a life? Who wouldn't try to go somewhere else, no matter the difficulty and danger involved, to make things better for a child, a parent?
How can we turn our backs on millions of people - people just like our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors? How can we live with ourselves, if we fail them? How can we read the poem by Emma Lazarus, carved on the Lady with the Lamp standing in New York Harbor, without blushing in shame?
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teaming shores.
Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me.
I life my lamp beside the Golden Door."