Kindness to Strangers

By S.T.

 

Wednesday night – which happened to be both the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th Amendment and the fourth night of Chanukah – I stood in the White House, listening to President Barack Obama and a Rabbi (whose parents were both Holocaust survivors) talk about the origins of the holiday. Relative to Christmas, Chanukah is minor, but the story fits in with several other Jewish holidays – “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” But I was pleased by the serious tone both the President and the Rabbi took; they both talked about the refugee and immigrant experiences of Jews, and how now, it is a different group that is in trouble, a different group to whom we must extend a helping hand. Both leaders drew a connection I often feel, between Judaism and compassion to those in need, and to hear a similar message from my president was deeply moving.

My grandpa was born outside Boston in 1918, just a couple years after his parents had immigrated from Russia. They had come to America to flee religious persecution, as is true of many of our ancestors. The name my great-grandparents had in Russia, the name they had when they boarded that boat, not knowing what their future held, was Tomarkin. The name they received as they passed through Ellis Island was Tomachevsky, because a customs agent thought my great-grandfather looked like a famous Jewish actor of the time, and because my great-grandparents were at the mercy of this custom agent’s whims. They had no power, and in that moment, he had all of it. My grandpa, the youngest of three brothers, was born to the last name Taylor, because my great-grandparents had learned very quickly that sounding Jewish did one no favors, and they, like any immigrant family, wanted the best for their children.

 

This name turned out to be an enormous gift; my grandpa’s family was as poor as could be throughout the depression, but due to the Anglican nature of his name, the whiteness of his skin, the education his parents had brought over from Russia, and a stroke of luck (in addition to my grandpa’s own brilliance), he was not only admitted to Harvard, but got a full-ride scholarship designated exclusively for the “great Anglican race who built this nation.” Definitely not for the children of Russian Jewish immigrants. With his ability to pass for white and his excellent education, my grandpa was able to secure a job after the war at HUD, and from there, built a good life for his own sons.

 

My grandfather on my mom’s side, a second-generation American rather than first, grew up with the distinctly Jewish last name “Jacobson”; when he was applying to Columbia University, he changed his last name to “Jackson” and concealed his Jewish identity, because Columbia had a very small quotient on the number of Jews they would accept. Both of my grandfathers, then, owe much of their success in life to their ability to pass for white in a time when being Jewish meant being distinctly ­non-white. Things were certainly easier for my parents, although my father and uncle recall having to say the Lord’s Prayer in elementary school, and my mom has stories of the anti-Semitism she encountered through college and even law school.

Me, I’ve had it easy. I’ve had a handful of gross, racist/anti-Semitic encounters – I’ve been called a “kike” probably twice in my life, occasionally get asked a series of tired questions about my ethnicity, about why my hair looks like it does and where are my parents really from, and I was once told that I was “surprisingly nice for a nice Jew.” But these are isolated encounters, easy to shake because, for me, they have never been connected to oppressive power structures, they have never been threatening, and I have always been offered immediate sympathy from the people around me. Still, I always remember where I came from, and that history determines a big part of my identity.

 

Like roughly a third of Jewish millenials, I consider myself both very culturally Jewish and agnostic. For the most part, my Judaism is anchored in my family: Shabbat was less about anything religious and more about having dinner with my parents, brothers, and grandparents; our homemade Haggadah quotes the New Testament and the Koran in addition to the Old Testament; my grandparents’ funerals blended Jewish traditions with cremation (verboten for Jews) and military burials at Arlington.

 

Passover has always been my favorite holiday; I get to see a ton of cousins, aunts, and uncles, and we cook enough delicious food for thirty-plus with leftovers for days. But I am also drawn to the Passover story – that of Exodus – and, in particular one line in the Passover Seder speaks to my most deeply-held beliefs: Be kind to strangers, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. There are variations on this line – Do not oppress the stranger, for we were once oppressed – and it might not be said at every Seder.

 

This, to me, goes above and beyond “Do unto others.” The word “stranger” (sometimes translated as “foreigner”) orders us to reach out to the Other, whomever that may be at a given time and place. To me, there is nothing vague about this command. Kindness is – should be – active. We are commanded to be kind, to act with kindness, and we are also commanded to remember; to look back at a history, whether personal or cultural, of oppression. We repeat the Passover story, like we repeat the story of the Holocaust, of Pogroms, not only so they will not happen to us again, but so they will not happen again, period.

 

Do not oppress the stranger, for we were once oppressed.

 

Today, the world is hurting. Today, to be black in America – no matter your level education, your job – is to be at a much higher risk of violence, often from those who are sworn to protect and serve. To be told that your desire not to see fellow students in blackface is asking to be “coddled,” rather than asking for a bit of basic respect. To have your first-amendment-protected protests met with KKK-esque chants and threats of explicitly racist violence. To be told that despite the overwhelming evidence, this is all in your head, you’re just being oversensitive, it’s 2015 and we have a black president and racism is over. As Jews, many of whom have grown up with white privilege (although many American Jews are not white), it is our duty to stand in solidarity. I have seen Jewish friends of mine echo this sentiment, but I have also seen those who seem to forget where we came from, forget our own history of oppression, forget that we too once lived in  fear.

 

Be kind to strangers, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

 

Even more terrifyingly resonant, for me at least, is America’s response to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. What happened in Paris is a horrible tragedy, and I cannot imagine the collective grief and trauma of the city right now. My heart goes out to Paris, both for its enormous loss and the beautiful humanity France has shown by opening their doors wider to Syrian refugees. Here, it is a different story. Thirty-one state governors have said that they will not accept Syrian refugees because of the Paris attacks – these governors say their first job is to protect their own citizens.

StLouisPorthole

Jewish refugees of the Holocaust, aboard the M.S. St. Louis

During the Holocaust, thousands of Jews seeking refuge were turned away, along similar lines of reasoning. In 1939, a majority of Americans did not support accepting Jewish refugees. Anne Frank herself applied for a U.S. Visa, and was denied. She would have been 77 this year.

 

Donald Trump declared publicly that he thinks we should have a “Muslim registry,” and, on a separate occasion, that America should stop allowing Muslims into the country at all. Even typing these words makes my heart quicken and my blood run cold. That is how the Holocaust began in the first place. As Jews, as a people whose population was decimated by a genocide that began with a “Jewish registry,” it is our duty to stand up to this display of fascism. The Rabbi who spoke at the White House told the audience that his father came to the United States on the St. Louis, its last journey to the United States before making its famous “Voyage of the Damned.” As Obama said Wednesday night, now, it is other boats being turned away from potential asylum. Thus, as Jews, as people who have ourselves been turned away when seeking refuge, or have been accepted, begrudgingly and with a high tax for being who we are, we must open our doors to refugees, open our doors to the stranger as we are commanded to do each year on Passover.

 

***

 

In my favorite family tradition, we update our Haggadah (the prayer book specific to Passover) with news stories every year to remember that xenophobia and oppression have not gone away, that the fight is far from won (the McKinney, TX police raid on a teen pool party, included in our last Haggadah, is only one of far too many recent examples). We close our Seder with a reminder that we, ourselves, were “Others,” and thus have a special obligation to prevent and fight cruelty in any form.

 

Our history, here and abroad, our current relative privilege, and the teachings of Passover obligate us to recognize injustice, to listen, carefully, when others tell their stories of oppression, and to fight injustice as a means of practicing active kindness.

 

 

 

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