I’ve mentioned before what a privilege it is to live in a city where many cultures mix and thrive. Lately I keep thinking about how much I have learned from casual meetings.
In the 1990s, one of my university students — a little older than the others — was a recent immigrant from Russia. One day, before class, I asked him how he wound up in California.
Ilya said, “I was born in Moscow. My parents were born in Moscow. But do you know what it said on my Russian passport? Under ‘nationality’ it said ‘Armenian/Jew.’ ”
“Two persecuted minorities!” I gasped. Ilya laughed and nodded vigorously. That’s why he decided to become an American.
Imagine going through life knowing that you would always be an “outsider,” never considered a “real” citizen, even after many generations. I told him, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Once again this week, the current President of the United States suggested that people of Jewish ancestry or belief owe their loyalty to the nation of Israel, rather than the United States. I urge you to read this post at Envisioning the American Dream, in which Sally Edelstein explains — yet again — that she is an American. As you read it, remember what was written on Ilya’s Russian passport.
Around 2007, I joined a neighborhood society for artists. After a meeting, I found myself chatting with a painter named Marina — a Russian emigrant who was old enough to be Ilya’s grandmother.
Marina told me her story: “I was always good at learning languages. By the time I was fifteen I was getting work as a translator. I used to work with foreign businessmen who needed help getting around in Moscow. One week I worked for an American businessman; after a few days he asked if it would be possible to visit a synagogue. He wanted to pray there. I told him ‘yes’ — that my family was Jewish, too. Then he said, ‘I want to show you something.’ He took out his passport and opened it. He said, ‘I’m a Jew, like you. But look what it says on my passport.’ Under ‘nationality,’ it said, ‘American.’ ”
“From that moment,” Marina told me, “I was determined to become an American. I finished school, I attended university, I worked…. But always in my mind I had this goal: I would be an American, no matter how hard or how long it took. And here I am, for many years now. I raised my family here.”
What can you say to a story like that? I say, “I’m glad you’re here.”
If you asked me fifty years ago whether I led a life of privilege, I would have said, “No.” My father did manual labor. Money was scarce. But my parents managed to build a little house, with a little apartment behind it, then buy the lot next door and build a little duplex on that…. Which eventually gave me the freedom to choose a career that didn’t provide much income. (You can work very hard in the theater and never make a living wage consistently.) So I was lucky. I was born in the U.S.A. (like my parents and their parents. They were lucky, too.) We never had to make the hard choices Ilya and Marina had to make. We didn’t have to leave everything behind and struggle to begin a new life.
Another story that I remembered today: My husband is an amateur violinist; about a decade ago his string quartet played a concert at the Sherith Israel temple. I was amazed by the huge building, the beautiful dome, the stained glass windows, the balcony and all the polished wood that contributed to great acoustics. At intermission, in the ladies’ restroom, I found a woman bathing her face in cold water, trying to stop her tears. When I asked if I could help her, she told me that she was crying with joy. I don’t know if she was Russian or Ukrainian or what country she came from, but her accent suggested the former USSR.
“I’m crying because this place is so beautiful…. And because you can tell it’s been here for a long, long time….”
She was right. I just learned that Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. It was founded during the Gold Rush — before California became a state. Over the years its physical location changed, but the current building on California Street was begun in 1904. The lady with tears running down her face was thinking of all the generations who worshiped freely, who were part of the larger community, who prospered and were able to build a place of worship equal to any in this city.
I don’t know where she came from, but clearly, her family had not experienced seven generations without persecution.
How lucky I am to take such freedom for granted. Perhaps you are that lucky, too.
I never want to see the day when an American citizen’s passport says “something /something” instead of “American.” ***
In case you’re wondering: I don’t have any Jewish ancestors — that I know of. Genealogy is turning up surprises: a Methodist elder here, a suicide there, and quite a lot of relatives who were deliberately forgotten. I’m the product of parents who had no religious beliefs, but who started me on ten years of Catholic education, the last four at a college where everyone graduated with a minor in theology and philosophy. Let’s say I’m still open to new ideas.
In some towns, it’s easy to assume that everyone has the same background. Not here. Because I live in a large urban area, it’s possible for me to be friends with people for decades without ever hearing about their religious affiliations, unless it comes up in casual conversation. (I figure that, if you judge the tree by the fruit it bears, and the fruit is good, the name of the tree may be irrelevant.) At a dinner party, an old friend seated me next to her pastor, a Unitarian minister. [Deduction: Barbara is a Unitarian! Surprise!] A co-worker once mentioned that she was dreading Chinese New Year at her mother’s house, because she would have to spend hours on her knees, worshiping her ancestors. She also mentioned that she would have to dress in new — or at least, clean — clothes from the skin out. [Nice coincidence: Scrubbing the house and paying all your debts for the New Year is a Scottish tradition and a Chinese tradition.] Once, my father’s boss invited us to watch the Chinese New Year’s parade from the balcony at a large Buddhist church, where he was a Board Member. [He’d never mentioned his religion, but perhaps Buddhist compassion made him give my 65 year old father a job when no one else would hire him? Those eight extra quarters of work qualified my father for Social Security and Medicare, so it was a very big deal. Thank you, Mr. Yee.] My husband’s quartet had to reschedule their weekend practice day when the cellist was elected president of her [very] liberal Congregation. “I thought you were a Catholic,” my husband said. “I am,” she replied, “but my husband and my son are Jewish, so….” [So, she observes one Sabbath on Saturday, another Sabbath on Sunday….]
I love the way we all fit together. Incidentally, I’m one of those people who wishes strangers “Happy Holidays,” because around here you make friends with people from all over the world. I don’t assume that everyone celebrates the same holy days — or even the same “new year.” (I joke that, if I fail to keep the New Year’s resolutions I made on January 1st, I’ll get another chance on Chinese New Year, or even Nowruz (my dentist’s parents were born in Persia.)
So — Happy holidays, whatever you celebrate. Count your blessings.
*** Technically, the “nationality” line on my passport says “United States of America.”