It never seems to fail, that just as I’m getting used to one thing, another comes along and takes its place. And the start of a new year is no different.
I must admit, I’m glad the holidays are now behind me. I don’t do parties anymore. I’m not much of a drinker and I personally don’t feel any great need for a crowd around. To me small talk is just that—small talk. Though the whole celebrating thing was great when I was younger. When Jack Daniels and I were on a first-name basis, when it wall all about the gathering of family where gifts, love and food overflowed in some magical abundance beneath wintry skies, snowmen and stories of Hanukkah, a requisite not just for me but for the children I would one day have. But now, now that they are grown and gone from my nest, I’m quite content to simply immerse myself in this sense of quietude I feel I richly deserve while assimilating all this newness in my own uniquely me fashion.
Cleaning. Closets, drawers, cupboards. All those projects that require my utmost attention that I’ve managed to put off for some phantom rainy day. However, once I get started, and once there’s a pile of paperwork sitting in the middle of the living room that I know needs at least an hour or two of shredding, I lose interest. I’m already onto something else. And after a few days, or as long as it takes to acknowledge this monstrous heap on the floor isn’t going to get done anytime soon, I shove the papers back into the bottom of the closet with the hope that I’ll at least get to it before the year is out.
Then somewhere in between all that, when the urge tugs at me the hardest, I find myself rummaging through all the family photos. Photos smooshed haphazardly into three huge sweater bins that I’ve managed to have fit snugly underneath my bed. You see . . . I no longer live in a big house. Over the years my living space has dwindled considerably from four bedrooms to one. And through no quest of my own, I somehow in all that moving, became the designated guardian of these photos. These faces lost in the shuffle of time, more precious than gold. My sister as a teenager, lying on the beach looking up at me, her smile full of promise. My parents, both vibrantly young and glamorous. My cousins, my grandparents, my children, old boyfriends, and an ex-husband whose photos I should have put a match to. They’re all there. Even the pictures of me as a curious toddler, as a young girl showing off her white Go-Go boots, granny glasses and frizzy hair out to the wall. God, I was so crazy then. Struggling like everyone else in the business of navigating through the hurtful and muddy waters of trying to fit in. Oh yeah, I remember those years. And well.
As I linger nostalgically over these snapshots, now yellowed and worn, I can’t help but wonder where would they all be now if my grandparents didn’t come to America? Or worse, if the doors at Ellis Island were locked?
To them and all the other Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Chinese, Italians, Irish that fought tooth and nail to get here? Where would I be? Where would any of us be for that matter? Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Aldous Huxley, Helena Rubinstein, I.M. Pei, W.H. Auden. Can you imagine what America’s postcard would look like without these geniuses and giants? Or the generation that followed and their contributions we’d never enjoy? There’d be no Steve Jobs. No Walt Disney. Which means no iPhone, Mickey, Minnie and Donald. You can kiss them all goodbye!
As children we’re created to see the world through innocent wonder. We leave the chaos of it in the hands of those we imagine to be older and wiser. But that sense of purity only lasts so long, because the way of the world intrudes its ugly head and forces us to endure small skirmishes of hatred and bigotry dished out by neighborhood bullies labeled as nothing more than rites of youthful passage—when in fact they’re anything but, leaving us stained forever. I remember the first time I heard the world “kike.” My sister was eight and I six and we were in the school playground. I needed to go the bathroom and my sister being the eldest, led me there by the hand. Little did we both know that a group of older girls would storm in after us, would grab my sister by the hair, turn her upside down and beat the shit out of her, while I watched on sobbing. As the word continued to pummel into her, I knew it was just a word, but it sliced through me like a knife, nevertheless.
I suppose the seed of bitterness starts at moments just like this. And while that day remained seared to my brain throughout my life, that and many others that somehow could have, should have broken me, I refused to allow that type of thinking to color my world.
I refused to hate back. Coming from a family whose culture was terrorized and annihilated by the swift arm of anti-Semitism, the idea of doing likewise seemed abominable to me. I only had to look at my grandmother, a women I adored tremendously, a woman of Russian roots who spoke not a lick of English and stood no taller than a breadbox with breasts that swallowed you whole as they sucked you into her embrace, to know that everything I am, I owed to her. A woman of good stock. Someone from humble beginnings that despite the grave risks ahead, trekked willingly across dangerous waters in search of something more out of life, something better.
Who doesn’t want these things? Aren’t we getting tired, getting angry that a day doesn’t go by without news of yet another school shooting? What does it matter that we don’t all look the same, dress the same, pray the same? Isn’t a donut still a donut even if it doesn’t have a hole? Isn’t it much more important for us to see past those differences of ethnicities and focus on all those commonalities of emotion we do share? I’m talking about the basic stuff. The critical and inherent things. Wanting a long life, a healthy life, not to be poor or alone, and a safe place for our children, all our children to thrive and aspire.
Sometimes we easily forget that while the face of America has changed, its beating heart remains very much the same.
Yes, things have gotten more complex. Even scary. Yes, we need to take different measures to protect and preserve. But in doing so, we can’t ever lose sight of our most basic premise: We are a nation of immigrants. Those blending cultures, seasoned ideas and colorful talents which in every surging wave built bridges, dams and railroads, towns, villages and cities that in time transformed and spanned across a wondrous and sprawling continent as far as the eye could see.
In Hebrew, the word “reshit” means beginning. Now, I’m not so sure one always needs to hit rock bottom before acknowledging it’s time for a change and to start over, but I do believe that’s exactly where we are. At the bottom. And the best I can do is hope, no pray that we collectively, as people branching out from this magnificently rich pot of immigrant strew, embrace the new year as the beginning to our something better. Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. Maybe I’m just California dreaming here. But miracles do happen every day.
Or so I’ve been told.
Photo credits: gallica.bnf.fr, gjenvick.com, Donsky/Phillips archive