Every American is descended from immigrants. If you go back far enough, even Native Americans migrated to the Americas tens of thousands of years ago. America’s foundational myths are celebrated in a Kumbaya imagining of white settlers peaceably sitting down to dinner with the descendants of those paleoindian pioneers…not long before other Europeans began slaughtering them.
We’re a nation in which some of our erstwhile immigrants arrived on our shores in manacles, destined to be auctioned like cattle and treated worse.
We’re living in an age in which the progeny of those white European immigrants are now setting up the barricades to bar new settlers. Not all of these white descendants, but the ones with their hands on the reins of power.
I found myself reflecting on these dichotomies after I left my last session with my speech therapist. She’s been helping me with my GERD-caused hoarseness and teaching me to talk in ways that are more audible and don’t strain my swollen vocal cords.
Jennifer is an extremely nice — and very chatty — immigrant from Colombia. Her English is flawless, with barely a hint of an accent, though she self-deprecatingly referred to a grammatical uncertainty on her part as an ESL issue.
A quick glance of any online discussion will show you that native English speakers frequently reveal a much weaker grasp of English grammar and idiom than she has.
Immigrants Amongst the Descendants of Others
Toward the end of the session, our conversations shifted to ethnic and religious identities. She and her husband are originally from New York. He’s a Jewish-American.
On a trip back to the Big Apple, her husband took her to a Russian restaurant that holds regular Jewish-themed nights. (I myself am of Russian-Jewish ancestry).
A hackneyed Jewish comedian borscht-belted a bunch of diners he had gathered on the stage, making a dated deal about the “shiksas.”
Jennifer later, good-naturedly, began referring to herself as a shiksa. But some people pulled her aside to gently advise her not to call herself that.
“Yeah, that’s definitely not a term your husband would use about you,” I seconded, further assuring Jennifer that she was far from the shiksa clichés.
The stereotype comes from the idea of the sons of Jewish immigrants trying to fit in by marrying a symbolic goddess of gentile culture.
Shiksa is a pejorative term which Jennifer correctly intuited implies a tramp. Goy, I explained, can be neutral, but the way it’s often used is usually pejorative. An amusing discussion of the various shades of meaning of schmuck and putz and their literal and figurative definitions followed.
It occurred to me that Jennifer and I were both coming into Jewish culture from the outside. Having been raised mostly outside of Jewish culture, I had to learn about Jewishness once I became interesting in my heritage.
Call it JSL: Jewishness as a Second Language.
Jennifer is starting to see herself as Jewish, and her husband is becoming Colombian, as he’s exposed to her native foods and culture. Their marriage is a melting pot.
Or a maybe a lox and schmear empanada.
Jennifer said that she’s always identified as Colombian first, and Catholic second. She didn’t even think of Colombia as a Catholic country until she married her husband. And it wasn’t until she married a Jew that she realized that Jewishness is an ethnicity, not just a religion.
Thank you! — that’s what I’ve always contended. I explained to her that some Jews and atheists deny that I can be Jewish because I don’t practice Judaism (and never have).
Repeat after me: Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people.
As our session was wrapping up, Jennifer told me that it’s always hard to say goodbye to patients. Indeed, it was. And as I walked out of the room, I couldn’t stop thinking about loss.
What would our country have been if Jennifer had been turned away from its gates? How many patients has she helped with her friendly, kind, and empathetic touch?
I suspect Jennifer trained to be a speech therapist in the US. And even if she hadn’t, would our vocabulary- and diction-challenged president even value the teaching of effective communication as a useful skill?
I also don’t know if Jennifer could speak English before she immigrated to America. But it seems likely that she didn’t. If so, she would’ve been banned by the nativist, white-nationalist-pandering, Trump administration immigration proposal. According to this abhorrent policy, my great-grandparents would’ve been barred. And so would Der Trumpf”s German grandfather.
Recently, White House advisor Stephen Miller, a descendant of Jewish immigrants, got into
a sparring match with CNN’s Jim Acosta — son of a Cuban refugee — over Emma Lazarus’s humanistic paean to the world’s “wretched refuse yearning to breath free.” Refugees and immigrants she herself was descended from.
Miller delegitimized Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” because it was added after the Statue of Liberty was unveiled.
We could say the same for “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God.”
Immigrants: Smelting the Melting Pot
We’ve all been taught that our nation is a melting pot (though some would like to melt the pot). Yet I think America is more like a mixed salad.
When I belly up to a salad bar, I love to add a little bit of every flavor, texture, and color of fixing available to create a varied mix. Each addition adds a distinctive taste, but together they create a diverse, flavorful, and complete whole.
Yet President Trump and his anti-immigrant base have a very different view of our country. Theirs is a Fortress America where lives are only valued by their economic potential…if they have the right skin color and practice the religion of the evangelicals who helped elect him.
Who am I kidding? Like the Trump administration’s so-called travel ban, the RAISE Act’s revised admittance policies are a cover for the total immigration ban that wish they could impose.
If only they didn’t have to comply with that pesky constitution.
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