Friday, January 11, 2008

From Romania to Brooklyn

The last time I made a point of watching a TV show was probably sometime around 1991, and—while I’m sheepish to admit it—there’s a good chance it was Beverly Hills 90210. Since then, it’s coincidental when I actually remember to sit down and watch something. So when my cell phone alarm started manically buzzing and beeping at 8:45 Wednesday night, it took me a minute to register why I set it in the first place. Aha! I was supposed to watch The Jewish Americans, a new three-part PBS documentary about the history of Jews in the United States. I figured it would be good to watch. Worst case scenario, it’d be less than thrilling and I might absorb a little something I didn’t know before. Best case scenario, I may actually manage to learn about my ancestry.

Two days later, I’m still flabbergasted by how much it helped me understand my heritage. As I watched the show, it was like all these disparate pieces of my life and memory finally came together—all the stories my grandmother told me about growing up in Brooklyn and Bayonne, New Jersey; what my father told me about his mother’s immigration to Philadelphia; the mysterious class trips we had in Hebrew school to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Everything that didn’t quite gel from my Jewish American history class from college started to make sense.

I’ve always thought there’s a big disconnect between knowing something and truly understanding it. When you truly understand something, you can feel it—it becomes palpable. I knew that, generations ago, my family immigrated to America from Eastern Europe (Ukraine and Lithuania on my father’s side; Romania and Belarus on my mother’s), but I didn’t feel it. There was a disconnect. The show made their experiences a lot more tangible. It finally occurred to me how hard they must have struggled to make it here—living in cramped quarters, desperately trying to feel comfortable in a foreign place while holding onto to their roots, struggling just to get by.

It’s mind-blowing to me that here I am, just two generations later on my father’s side and three generations on my mother’s, as American as can be. Unlike my grandparents and great grandparents, I’ve never struggled to be Jewish. And I’ve been lucky to grow up and live in areas (northern New Jersey outside of New York City, Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs and now Baltimore) where I can feel 100 percent comfortable as a practicing Jew. I wonder if my ancestors could have possibly imagined that not even a hundred years later, all of their sacrifices, their long trip across the ocean to live freely as Jews and embrace an unknown country would result in someone like me—a feisty journalist and public television employee who’s as thoroughly American as she is Jewish.

As I stared at the television screen, I felt immeasurable gratitude to these ancestors (most of whom, with the exception of my paternal grandmother, I never met) who risked everything to come to America. That they decided to leave the comfort, customs and language of their homelands to travel thousands of miles for freedom and opportunities and a better life for themselves and their families. (If they hadn’t left when they did, there’s a strong possibility they would have been killed by the Nazis and I wouldn’t be here at all.)

This summer, it will be eight years since my grandmother’s passing. She was my mother’s mother, my best friend and confidante. She used to tell me stories of how she spent her youngest years in a cramped two-room tenement in Brooklyn. “I had to share a bed with my grandmother,” she’d recollect as we sipped coffee together in her apartment. Her brothers put wooden chairs together as makeshift beds next to their sister and grandmother. Her mother—my great grandmother who spoke mostly Yiddish—always managed to make something out of nothing, and served steaming hot food—recipes from the old country, I’m sure—from a single bowl in the middle of the family table. Her father was a tailor, and her grandmother was so observant that she fasted every day that the Torah was read aloud in synagogue. The day she graduated college (a big deal for sure), “You know what I did afterwards?” she’d ask me with equal parts laughter and heartbreak. “I came home and scrubbed my mother’s kitchen floor on my hands and knees.” It was only through hard work and a whopping dose of elbow grease that her large family got by. But they did. And after watching The Jewish Americans, I wish more than ever that she was here today to tell me more stories from her youth.

My father’s mother came to America when she was 14 years old. Her family immigrated here to save theirs lives, bringing only what they could carry in their arms. They were fleeing a widespread hatred of the Jews, specifically the Cossacks—skilled militants on horseback—sent by the czar with specific instructions to kill any Jew within sight. (She told my father stories of how she and her sisters would hide under the family table while the Cossacks came through town.) When she arrived here, she was put in the third grade—as a teenager. She studied and studied and skipped ahead, grade after grade. She read aloud from the dictionary before she went to bed and lost her strong Russian accent. Anne, my late grandmother, grew into a beautiful American woman—a seamstress and beautician, a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.

To my grandmothers and grandfathers, great grandparents and great-great grandparents, I never knew most of you, but thank you. Thank you for struggling for my sake, and the sake of my children and my children’s children. Thank you for making the long and unfamiliar journey here, and having faith in this wonderful country and making it your own. I’m a Jewish American and I couldn’t be more proud.

(The remaining two parts of The Jewish Americans air on MPT Wednesday, Jan. 23 and Jan. 30 at 9 p.m.)

Jessica Leshnoff
Communications Specialist & Blog Administrator


Anonymous said...

I watched, too - Even though I am not Jewish, many of my friends are and it did truly connect the dots. I also throughly enjoyed the history lesson in the origin retail! I'm not Jewish, but I love denim - thank God for Levi Strauss.

nicole said...

Beautiful post, Jessica -- thank you for sharing so much of your grandmother with us.