Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Transition from Russia to America

I'm at home under the monsoon skies, occasionally out in the garden digging out my proverbial rock garden, listening to Van sing about the "Philosopher's Stone".  Perfect!

Most of the day, and last night til 1:30 am, I am laying out the facts of my great-grandfather Morris (Moses) Rose's immigration to the US.  Maybe it was reading 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes', about another European family's personal narrative, or simply wading through Dad's scores of scrapbooks when I was home at Mom's and Claudia's this summer, or simply that time in life... I have the urge for going once again...  only this time it's not out and about in that glorious world outside, but deeper inside the stories of my family and our late 19th C. transition from Russia to America... 

As I say, 'from the shtetl to the suburbs'...  from Russia with love...

For me, there lies in this passage an epochal transition in history and culture, of not merely in our individual lives, but in the whole Jewish and even modern experience.  That ocean voyage was the start of the deeper journey from the 19th to 21st centuries; from our great-grandparents to our children.

Of course, I can't capture that in a few pages of a family histoire, but it seems that between the specific chapters on my historical family members, there is a need to step back, occasionally, to reflect on what transpired to us emotionally as individuals and on a larger scale culturally and historically... 

This is what I wrote this morning... 

The Transition from Russia to America:
The transformation of a young man born as Moses Lifshcitz in the traditional Yiddish world of orthodox religious Judaism and the autocracy of the Tsar’s Imperial Court to the mature, patriarch Morris Rose living comfortably in the United States, speaking English and voting in democratic elections marks the historic transition of a centuries old lineage of Jewish rabbis in Eastern Europe to Jewish doctors on the East Coast of America (at least in my family). 
This was the culmination of the 19th C. Jewish immigration from the isolation and insular Russian shtetl to the openness and wealth of the American suburbia. 
This was the great challenge for the modern Jew of how to reconcile his devotion and respect for his parents and heritage with the opportunities, freedom and social diversity of his new world across the ocean from the old.  How to maintain the traditions and identity that had anchored and centered the Jewish community for millennium when his new society offered the opportunity to chose not to be as thoroughly Jewish or to continue to live in a tightly regulated religious community.
Not only could these new Jewish immigrants to America chose to leave the faith of their forefathers behind and create a new identity, a la the Great Gatsby (who may, indeed, have been Jewish).  They could also transform their Jewishness to a more urbane, cosmopolitan and less doctrinal identification.  No longer was the rabbinate the only profession available to these shtetl kids, but they could aspire to become professionals in the attractive and monied secular world around them.
Although inter-marriage outside of the Jewish community was rare among the first-generation immigrants, the widespread assimilation of cultures in the American urban environment and increasing immigration meant that such opportunities became more plentiful and accessible.  After another generation, among Morris Rose’s grandchildren, inter-faith marriage became a much more common and, even, accepted reality. 
The prescient question posed by Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch-Jewish philosopher, in the 17th C. (1632-77) became even more poignant two centuries later for the educated Jews departing Eastern Europe for the United States.  In a modern country more tolerant socially, culturally and economically, as well as in personal religious affairs, how could one remain an observant, practicing Jew? 
Spinoza disputed Maimonides's optimistic belief that for Jews reason and faith could be reconciled. Spinoza asserted that as biblical texts were believed to have been inspired by G-d, they were supernatural, i.e., beyond reason. Therefore, Spinoza felt that religious texts could be interpreted only through faith or reason -- but not both. Spinoza was one of the first Jewish intellectuals to raise the growing contradiction between Jewish community values and secular liberal ones. He posed a question that remains relevant to this day: Is it possible to be a true liberal and a traditional Jew?
This question, too, informs the passage of the Rose-Lifschitz family’s migration from the shtetl of Eastern Europe to an America cleansed of history.  The fervent anti-Semitism of the old world with its deep-seated hates and prejudices were more subtle and less virulent in the States.  Although the United States was clearly a dominant white, English-speaking Christian culture, there was not the same influence of centuries of anti-Semitism, Jewish regulations or religious separation in the new country.  The horrors of the 20th century in Europe, by and large, remained on the other side of the Atlantic.
Yet, without a voice to speak or children or grandchildren with long memories, it’s impossible to know exactly what was in the minds of Morris and Deborah Rose when the made the decision to leave Oshmyany, Russia and set sail for a fresh future in America.
Did they have relatives or friends who were already across who wrote letters encouraging them to come.  Did they actually think that the streets of New York were paved with gold?  What were their visual or emotional images of the world they were heading toward?  Who paid for their journey?  Did they, as is said, travel second class, above the multitudes in steerage?  Did they travel with others from their community or family? 
Did they have an idea of how they would support themselves once they arrived in America?  Did they have a home to go to upon arrival or were there refugee or immigrant centers where they could stay until finding work?  Who would have been the friend or family member who would take in a Jewish family of five with no job, no home and, no doubt, limited facility to speak English?   Would we?
How apprehensive were they about this journey?  What were Moses and Deborah saying to each other those weeks leading up to the journey?  What were they saying to their young children, Anna, Jack and Samuel?   Did they have the blessings of their parents?  What was the orthodox rabbi father, Meir Ezekiel, saying to his son as he left, possibly never to see him again?  Was the great Gaon Rabbi Baruch Mordecai still alive?  Did he say a last blessing on his grandson the Shabat they shared before sailing to America? 
Was Moses (Morris) the first of Baruch Mordecai’s grandchildren to leave the landscape of Russia and head off to start his life across the ocean?  Had other grandchildren already moved to the burgeoning cities of Western Europe by 1892?  Were they able to travel freely from the Tsarist Empire to either Berlin or Vienna or even beyond to Hamburg, Amsterdam or even America?  Who authorized their travel?  What served in place of a passport or a visa? How was the distant travel arranged?  Were there brokers who came to the towns and villages promising wealth and opportunity on the other side of the world?  Had others come back, like in the villages of Nepal today, to tell of the money that could be made working for the ‘foreigner’ in a foreign land? 
What did Deborah and Moses (Morris) pack to take with them to America?  What was in their home in Meriden, CN, then on Henry St. on the Lower East Side, that they carried from Oshmyany?  Were there Jewish ritual objects?  A menorah?  A Yiddish prayer book?  Morris’ father or grandfather’s prayer shawl?  Photographs of the family and homes left behind?  A scrap of a Russian or Yiddish newspaper?  The tickets from their passage over from the S.S. California?  Their Russian Imperial travel documents?  The birth registration certificates for their children?  Legal documents regarding any family property in Oshmyany or their original citizenship papers?
This was a passage of exceptional courage and perserverence.  No matter that millions of other Jews may have been making the same voyage.  For each person, it was their life and the lives of their family members who were about to be tossed on that ocean of change.  Few could have left for such a momentous journey without some trepidation mixed with their hopes and anticipation. 
For us, Moses-Morris and Deborah (Bogad) Rose were our grandfather or great-grandfather and our grandmother or great-grandmother.  If not for their evocative decision, our lives would have remained in towns between Bialystok and Vilna, along the contentious Nemen River, the traditional boundary between West and East in Europe – not along the more placid Hudson River in New York.
In retrospect, knowing the history of the 20th Century, few of us would probably have survived the coming cataclysms that were to follow during the First World War and then the final destruction of these traditional Jewish communities that lay fragilely and dangerously between the growing military might of the German Reich and Soviet Union during the 1930s and 40s.   
If not for their decision to find a new life in America in 1892, it is quite likely that no one would be here writing this story, nor few left to read it.

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