Immigrants are in the news – again. They are on the move. They are crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to the island of Lesbos. They are crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas. And, they are being rounded up by the Immigration Service to be deported.
And according to the latest from Europe, there is an agreement that those who successfully crossed the Mediterranean and have been on the roads in Greece will now be returned to Turkey to be held in a mega refugee camp.
We have a strange relationship with immigrants. Nearly all of us are immigrants yet now that we’re here, we don’t quite know what to do with more recent arrivals. The shoe is on the other foot. We are told not to trust them and that they are dangerous. Even when they “wait their turn” and come to our shores legally, we humiliate them with bureaucratic red tape and years of waiting and uncertainty.
I know about immigrants. I had to find my naturalization papers the other day because I’m looking into social security benefits. My parents and I came to America from Bremmerhaven Germany on a boat – the General Holbrook, a refitted troop carrier. We landed in Boston. We became naturalized citizens. My parents studied English in night school, voted, paid taxes and considered themselves Americans. But in so many ways they never left their homes.
Most of the immigrants who built Temple Beth Israel were Holocaust Survivors who never fully assimilated. They spoke Yiddish, they spoke of their places of birth as “in der heym” “back home” and their English was heavily accented. Yet they made new lives in America, they had children, jobs and professions. But the old country was always a part of who they were.
When I first saw the movie, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, I remember being stunned by the opening segment where a very old Rabbi — miraculously embodied by –I didn’t realize it at the time – Meryl Streep, — eulogizes an old Jewish woman who had just died. The deceased woman was an immigrant who had come to America many years before. The Rabbi describes how the deceased woman “brought the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat,” how she was not merely “a person” but “a whole kind of a person,” how there isn’t any “America” qua “America” for immigrants “the melting pot where nothing melted” — and the Rabbi then spoke about how that kind of journey, from the Old World to the New, does not and cannot take place any longer in our world today. But, the Rabbi said, the deceased’s offspring internally recreate that journey every day: He says: “In you, that journey…is.”
For for those of us on the board of directors of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society whose parents were survivors – immigrants, we understand the journey. We heard about their lives on their farms, in their ancient cities, in their villages. We felt our parents’ heart wrenching loss of their homes. They told us about life on the road, carrying their meagre belongings, walking along the roads and railways, encountering border guards and barbed wire. We could feel their terror – just as we can feel it when we look at today’s migrants gathered behind barbed wire.
We know their anxiety as they crossed the Atlantic not knowing what lay before them. And when they built Temple Beth Israel, this new gathering place, we watched them with amazement and experienced their cautious joy. We saw the hope in their eyes but we also held their regret and pain in our chests.
And now our hearts break again as we see achingly familiar images of desperate migrants from the Middle East huddled at the borders of Europe. That is why we were moved to call for action to help Syrian refuges. [LINK] We understand immigrants. In us that journey is.