Once, when my mother was a nurse, she was assigned a patient coming out of eye surgery. He was very friendly until she unwrapped his bandages. “I would rather die than be treated by a Jew!” he said upon seeing her for the first time. Then he spat on her.
My father was refused by a university because of quotas. Then he was denied his PhD, because he is Jewish too.
They had no options.
To escape the rampant anti-Semitism of the former U.S.S.R., my family emigrated to San Francisco in the 1970s. International condemnation pressured their government to let their people go; but the authorities didn’t make it easy. Laws such as a “Diploma Tax” penalized anyone with a college degree when they tried to leave the country. This meant that before they were fortunate enough to be ludicrously taxed and stripped of their citizenship, my family, along with all the other immigrant families, were publicly shunned.
“Want to leave Soviet Russia? Ok. But, you’ll put your whole family in danger of being fired from their jobs or kicked out of school,” was the gist. “One less Enemy of the State in our midst! Woot! Your uncle is an Enemy of the People, remember? I heard he wants to go ELSEWHERE. So, your kids shouldn’t benefit from our schools! No third grade for you! No college for your cousin either. You know which cousin, the one with the nose.”
The refugees all feared the vast pre-internet unknown, but they had high hopes of building a better life for themselves. Think of the children!
I was born in San Francisco, California, one of those children in the hallowed USA. My parents were quite proud of this. They believed their sacrifices and suffering had paid off. My brother had to adjust to all the newness as well. As a teenager, his challenges were unique, like regular teenage issues but juiced up, with completely different customs and social norms and in two foreign languages because he went to Hebrew Academy. Shalom!
My family weathered many missteps. For instance, Dad solved a complex problem at work and his boss said “Get out of here!” so he went home and spent a few days thinking that he had been fired. They worked incredibly hard and accomplished what has been typically defined as the “American Dream.”
As a result of their efforts, I was the American girl who had been given freedom on a silver platter. No one outwardly hated me because I was Jewish. The only anti-Semitism I encountered was a few backhanded comments in grade school. Nothing had been denied to me because of the six-sided star that represented my religion. Not my nationality.
But that silver platter of freedom had spaghetti strings attached, spaghetti strings with so many options.
I have always been the happy American, personified. Unlike the natural tendencies my family I was smiley girl with a joyful optimistic disposition. I grew up completely sheltered and thus naïve about present-day America. I was brought up on horror stories of the past: Communists and Nazis and segregation.
I was also seeded with a deep sense of guilt about the endless opportunity I had been born into. Calling it survivor’s guilt would be dramatic. The pressure, habitually unspoken, hovered perennially like a cloud: do well in school, and work, and life because of all your parents sacrificed to come to America, the greatest country in the world. The one with all the options.
America gave my family the option to succeed. I should have studied harder for that test, played the piano a little bit longer… Not accepted that B+ as a good grade. I worked hard and still felt like I could be doing more.
I taught elementary school for a while during grad school, and successfully directed children’s musical theatre for almost a decade. Then I became a mom and through very careful budgeting, I chose the option of staying home to raise our two boys myself. Those boys fill me with joy and crazies every day. So. Many. Crazies. However, every night I unceasingly feel like I should be doing more. Mentally, financially, and creatively. Are my choices good enough? I doubt my dad would agree. How could I be so content at home, here in America, where there are so opportunities outside the house?
And yet when I think about it, I know that a result of that opportunity was the privilege to choose the best option for me and I hope for the future generations of my family. I’m raising the boys to be mensches. Unfortunately, even right now, many people around us don’t have the options or freedom that we do—people who fall victim to religious and racial persecution. My family benefited tremendously from America, and I hope everyone (natives and transplants) get all those opportunities, too.
Our oldest boy goes to Jewish day school. He (and soon his brother) will freely learn about his culture, people, and language. He can become a Rabbi or a doctor who won’t be spit on when someone sees his face. If someone spits on him, I think and hope it will be because he deserves it. And that keeps me hopeful, even with all the guilt.