Tuesday, April 5, 2016


"Kiddo, what is this?" 

"My report on the family!" 

"I gathered that. But who's family?" 

I managed to squelch my feelings of violence towards my (beloved) niece. I had carefully, thoroughly dictated to her our history. She had chosen to ignore it. Her paper was pure fiction. 

Like her insertion that my grandparents were longing for the opportunity to migrate to the "goldene medina." 
"Dearest, that was a popular term at the turn of the century, when the Jews of Poland and Russia were fleeing pogroms and starvation, not when Zeidy and Babi came much much later. They certainly never used that phrase . . . stop texting and listen to me!" 

After the war, my mother's parents had returned to their hometown. She was born there, and recalls a happy childhood (in vivid detail). After Zeidy and Babi had rebuilt and established a pleasant life, a more intense crop of communists arose. 

They didn't leave because they dreamed for years about going to America. They had a lovely home, plenty of food, and nice neighbors. They didn't fantasize about a magical country with streets paved with gold that would make all their problems disappear. (I rewrote her report just to protect the family name. I don't intend for that to become a trend. Oh, Jane Austen? Okay, maybe one more.) 

Tara Zhara's "America, the Not So Promised Land" attempts to scrape away that gleaming veneer from nostalgic history. 
Contrary to popular imagination, 30 to 40 percent of immigrants from Europe before the First World War ultimately returned home. For many this was always the plan. But others returned disappointed and disillusioned. They found little reward for their hard work, lack of support in times of illness and old age and questionable moral values in an ego-driven society. . .
As European migrants were recruited to replace the plantation labor of freed slaves, some feared that they would be no better treated. Emigration, they insisted, was more likely to deliver migrants to a new form of slavery than greater freedom.
Not all Jews thought it was grand, either: 
In 1912, a letter signed “the unlucky one” reached the editors of Forverts, a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York. The writer was contemplating a return to Warsaw after 22 miserable years in America: “All these years I’ve struggled because I never made a living. I know English, I am not lazy, I’ve tried everything and never succeeded.” Now that his children were grown, he just wanted to go home.
“It seems strange to me that I must go away from the free America in order to better my condition. But the chances for me are still better there,” he insisted.
None of my grandmother's aides had any intention of staying indefinitely in America. The financial condition in Hungary has been so bad in the last few years that with whatever they save up, they can go back and live like queens. Marika gleefully shopped for clothing and pots, sending it all home to her new apartment in a charming seaside town. 

Yes, America is awesome. (The shopping! It's just so delicious!) Yet we can get a little narcissistic. Not everyone wants to be here, not everyone thinks it outshines their home countries, nor do they want to be here indefinitely.    


Daniel Saunders said...

As a Brit I think of America as being the land of runaway gun crime, racial tensions and inadequate healthcare. Just kidding! OK, partly kidding, I think of more positive things too. But certainly lots of people outside America are not longing to immigrate.

I do wonder what I would do if I end up marrying an American. It's possible, as the marriageable frum population in the UK is not so large. Would I want to live in America? Not sure.

Did your Zeidy and Babi leave in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising? There was a Hungarian man in my previous shul who left then.

Princess Lea said...

Yup. They are known as "'56ers."