A heritage of immigration
Our Dual Heritage Series
Jewish Family Education With Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Some of the most memorable images of aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) reveal the sheer jubilation and incredulity of travel-weary, barefoot Ethiopians, from toddlers to the aged, kneeling to kiss the ground as they step off planes in Israel.
This scene echoes across the centuries. In the Talmud, we read “Rabbi Abba would kiss the rocks of Akko (when he returned to Israel),” and “Rabbi Hiyya bar Gamda would roll in the dust (of the land).
It’s a scene that continues to be echoed today by olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel) from across the religious, political, and social spectrum and around the world: Russia, India, France, South Africa, America.
“That eloquent kiss tells me that loving The Promised Land is loving a promise before we love a land,” writes blogger Rachel Danziger.
This spontaneous expression of “loving a promise” isn’t limited to the land of Israel; it shows up in American images as well.
The WPA archival film library features a Liberty Island scene of 32 newly arrived Greek displaced persons captioned, “In their heart-felt joy they kneel down to kiss the earth.”
Similarly, in a Wexler Oral History Project interview, the Polish-born mathematician Irwin Kra recalls the journey to America from Poland via Cuba: “When my father gets off the plane in Miami…he lies down on the ground and kisses the ground. That’s probably my first memory of the United States.”
Perhaps no other people can speak as authoritatively on the issue of immigration as the Jews. Throughout its existence, beginning with God’s command to Abraham, “Lech lecha, go forth,” to migrations between Canaan and Egypt, to settlement of the Promised Land under Joshua, to dispersion in Babylonia and beyond until today, the Jewish people has endlessly journeyed and settled across the globe.
“As a matter of fact,” writes historian Rabbi Ken Spiro, “in human history, multiple exiles and dispersions are unique only to the Jewish people…after the first one, the people generally disappear — they simply become assimilated among other peoples.” Not the Jews.
Welcomed or marginalized, esteemed or disdained, wherever they have settled, Jews have flourished, developing “a set of institutions, social patterns, and ethnonational and/or religious symbols that held it together, including the language, religion, values, social norms, and narratives of the homeland,” according to political science author William Safran.
Significantly, wherever Jewish immigrants settled, they didn’t just yearn to be a successful community, or expect it to be provided for them; they worked to create it.
At the same time, these immigrant communities rarely remained fully isolated. Jews regularly adopted elements of the local culture: cuisine, couture, and cantillation, just for starters.
As they integrated into the host society, Jews contributed to commerce, science and technology, medicine, business and finance, politics, law, philosophy, education, and literature.
These developments reinforce Jewish historian Robert Chazen’s observation that, while often spurred by less-than-ideal personal and local realities or the occasional catastrophe, Jewish migration has been largely “voluntary migration in search of better circumstances.”
Such acculturation and contribution also suggest a sense of appreciation and a willingness to strengthen and improve the larger society, foundational Jewish values of gratitude and tikun olam (repair of the world).
Migrating Jews, both groups and individuals, brought along with them distinctive sets of religious, moral, social, and political values. If their values weren’t shared by the host community, as in death-centered ancient Egypt, Alexander’s beauty-focused Hellenistic empire, or collectivist China, Jews generally remained on the periphery, if at all.
Jews have fully embraced American identity largely because of their communities’ shared values.
For at least 500 years, America has been “a nation of immigrants,” a single locale for observing the diversity of immigrant experiences.
On the other hand, Jewish history, with its 3,000 years of immigrant experience, highlights commonalities among the success stories and offers consequent advice.
View immigration as voluntary migration toward something better, not escape. Don’t wait for the promise: build it. Integrate, acculturate, and contribute. Align your values.
Like Jewish immigrants across the globe, the most successful and contented American immigrants aspired to The Golden Land in search of a better life, but didn’t wait for the promise of America to turn into reality.
Instead, they built communities and institutions that supported their own identities and interests. At the same time, they embraced an American identity by assimilating local culture into their daily life and adopting America’s founding values.
Grateful for every opportunity, they were motivated to give back, contributing to every element of society from the arts and business to politics and technology.
Israel’s immigrants kiss the land when they arrive, but at that moment they can only love its promise. Maimonides wrote a relevant halacha (law) in the Mishneh Torah: “Great rabbis would kiss the ground of Eretz Yisrael, and kiss its stones as well as roll in its dust,” Rabbi Eliezer Melamed explains, “Indeed this is a great halacha to learn: It is not enough to live in Eretz Yisrael, one should also love the land.”
So, too, with America’s immigrants. It’s not enough to love the promise of America alone. It’s not enough to simply live in the land, existing but never taking part, benefiting but never giving back. Whether immigrant or native, one must learn to love both the promise and the reality, working to turn the reality into the promise.
Literature to share
Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen by Adeena Sussman. How do Israelis make such delicious eggplant? Can you really make pita at home? And the salads! The Mediterranean diet has long been acknowledged as excellent for the heart and overall health, and Israelis are masters of delicious, varied foods. If you’re looking for unique recipes, this is an excellent volume to explore. Gorgeous pictures and interesting notes about cultural origins and ingredients make the book itself a feast. Highly recommended.
My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks and Other Funny Family Portraits by Hanoch Piven. If you love children’s books that work on many levels, this is a terrific find. At its simplest level, it’s a picture book about describing various members of a family. Along the way, it introduces the concepts of portrait, found objects, assemblage (or collage), and similes in a most engaging manner. There’s even a project page included. For preschool through elementary ages, My Dog is a delight for reading, creative thinking, artistic expression, and writing inspiration. Don’t miss the endpapers and the author’s explanation. His iPad app Faces iMake received the Parents Gold Choice Award.