By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
The Passover seder begins by welcoming anyone who is hungry, an idea that comes straight from the Book of Exodus (23:9), which states, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Later in the Torah, Leviticus 19:33 says, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.” Leviticus 19:34 repeats this refrain, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
Over the generations, the Jewish people have been “aliens” more than once. Well-known examples of Jews leaving their perceived homeland include the Jewish exile to Babylonia after the destruction for the first Temple, those who were fortunate enough to escape Nazi persecution for Israel or the U.S., expelled Middle Eastern Jews who were moved to Israel after its founding, or residents of the former Soviet Union who left a life of religious oppression.
The immigrant experience is different for everyone, says Aaron Gershowitz, senior director for U.S. programs at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). He says that the challenges of an individual’s journey often depend on the environment they are leaving and the community to which they are relocating.
Take Inge “Irene” Brenner. She escaped from Nazi Germany on Dec. 28, 1938, for Havana, Cuba. From there, she traveled to the U.S., arriving to join her husband in April 1939 at age 19. She immediately took up work at a small factory where she steamed hat plumes. Her employer provided her with the required documentation to book passage for her mother, father, and sister to the U.S.
Due to lack of funds, the family all lived together in a tiny apartment in New York.
“When I left Berlin I was 19 and completely single-minded, [telling myself] ‘I must get out and save myself and my parents,’” Brenner says. “We just couldn’t have existed anymore. That is what happened to the rest of my family that didn’t get out—all of them were murdered in the gas chambers. There was nothing else I could do but make it. You just had to make it.”
Gershowitz says that “the economics of surviving” often mark the first several years (or longer) of the immigrant experience. It is only after that period that immigrants become more like others—focused on family life, a career, and a future for their children.
Over time, this was the case for Brenner. Once she and her husband could afford to leave the rest of the family and live on their own, they had two daughters whom they raised to be American Jews, as opposed to Jewish Americans. Brenner says she wanted to leave her horrible past behind for a new life, which she feels she received “by the grace of God.”
“She was always proud to be Jewish, but it was always extremely hard for her to talk about how she got here,” says Benjamin Kopelman, Brenner’s grandson.
Lev Golinkin, author of a memoir on the immigrant experienced titled “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka,” noted the irony that Soviet Jews came to the U.S. in search of religious freedom, yet many of them choose not to practice Jewish traditions, his family included.
“As soon as we could, we got away from the synagogue and Jewish organizations and melded into the secular American world,” he says.
Golinkin, who arrived in the U.S. from eastern Ukraine in 1989 at the age of 9, surmised that people turned away from religious observance because it was precisely the Jewish faith that made them targets for persecution in the former Soviet Union. Before escaping, Golinkin was being homeschooled because he had been regularly teased and beaten for his Judaism. Religion, therefore, was nothing to celebrate for him.
“I wanted nothing to do with that. I saw being a Jew as a stigma, a disability,” says Golinkin.
But as he grew up, Golinkin’s opinion changed.
“I think it is interesting that the Israelites stayed in the desert and didn’t start over until that generation had passed away. They needed a clean slate, they needed people whose memories are formed in the new land with the new traditions,” he says.
Joe Berry of Stoneham, Maine, was born in Berlin in 1948 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1954. He says that when he arrived in the U.S. his native language was German, but at that time it was “not very popular to be a foreigner and I was very embarrassed speaking German in public.”
Berry started speaking to his parents only in English, losing his German after a short time. He also recalled that people made fun of his German last name, “Be’er,” pronounced like the alcoholic beverage. When the family became citizens, they changed their name to Berry, pronounced like the fruit.
Today, he says he wishes he could have learned more about his parents’ past.
Barbara Kopelman—Irene Brenner’s daughter, who lives in Northbrook, Ill.—says that she has indeed thought about her family history. Once her four children got older and she had time to better understand that history, she realized every day of her life is a blessing.
“Now, I give regularly to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and I try to help fight against anti-Semitism, keep peace and understanding alive,” she says.
Each immigrant says that they have a great appreciation for the U.S., and that just as the Torah requires Jews to welcome the stranger and treat him well, Jews need to be grateful for the freedom and welcoming atmosphere they experience in America.
“It’s extremely important to love America and the benefits we have,” says Benjamin Kopelman.
In the Book of Jeremiah (7:6-7), we read about the consequences of loving the stranger, “If you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”
Golinkin says that one can only truly understand the story of the immigrant by going to “live in a strange land, to a place where people do not speak your tongue. It could be very powerful and humbling.”
Understanding the immigrant, he says, is understanding the plight of the stranger and the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt.
Maayan Jaffe is an Overland Park-based freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.