American Exceptionalism & Immigration
hundred years ago, in 1911, a bearded Jew arrived on a ship in New York. His
brother, who had been here for two years, met him at the dock. Both men wore
black clothes, earlocks and “tzitses” fringes. Moyshe, the “New Yorker,”
greeted “Yankele,” his brother, and reminded him that it was Shabbes, the
Sabbath, and that they would have to walk to his apartment on this beautiful day
in June. As they walked, they came to a small park where a number of people were
sitting on benches, including one bald man without any hat,
wearing rust colored slacks and a Hawaiian shirt and smoking a cigar. He
was reading a Yiddish newspaper.
shouted Yankele, “The U.S. is so great for us Jews!” “How do you know that
when you’ve only been here for ten minutes?” said Moyshe. “I know it,”
shouted Yankele, “because here even the goyim read Yiddish!”
We arrived on the dock in Hoboken, New
Jersey, on the Staatendam from Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It was a cold day
in November. Having been driven through
a tunnel, we arrived in Manhattan on a street called a Throughway. I noticed
that almost all the women walking about were prostitutes and that poison was
being sold in nearly every store.
it turned out that the “throughway” was Audubon Avenue, which I thought was
the American word for the German “Autobahn.” “Gift” is German for
poison, and at that time, and perhaps even now, German women did not shave their
legs nor wear makeup unless they were prostitutes.
no English whatever, I could not ask anyone about this. Six weeks later I
arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, on an overnight bus. I knew how to read a few words
in English but could not speak it. At the bus terminal I looked through a
newspaper to see what I could read. To my horror I noticed the word
“Indian.” I could not read any of it but I “knew” that the Indians
were coming to kill the white man and I couldn’t understand why everyone in
the bus terminal was walking about unconcerned. I had never heard of baseball,
which is not played in Europe, nor could I ask anyone about this danger as I
could not speak the language. I did know from reading the stories of Karl May, a
German author who wrote stories about “Indianer,” that the “red men”
would kill and scalp us all. It turns out that May penned most of his books
before ever seeing America and wrote from imagination alone.
Now it is evident that the most
important thing an immigrant must do is to learn the language. Without English
one cannot achieve very much in this country. Of course, there are those who
never learn English in a lifetime. Others, although born here, are functionally
illiterate. I found this out while serving in the U.S. 94th Infantry.
We had soldiers who could not understand the manuals concerning cleaning a rifle
or patrolling a hilly area, etc.
Because language is so important,
immigrants usually move into enclaves where their native tongue is spoken. This
was true of the two million Jews who came here from the Russian Empire between
1891 and 1924 and who spoke Yiddish among each other. Irving Howe, in his
magnificent book, World of Our Fathers, describes how it took three
generations for the Jews to become assimilated to American life and speak the
language fluently. For us, who came from the Nazi horrors, a different problem
arose. Unlike our Russian brethren, we seldom had a family either here or in
Europe, as most had been murdered. In addition, we could not speak Yiddish. So
when we entered a synagogue, we were greeted in Yiddish because we evidently did
not know English. We answered in German, which enraged the Yiddish speakers who
viewed us as arrogant for using German and “refusing” to speak Yiddish. We
were told we were responsible for the demeaning manner in which they or their
relatives were treated in Germany by the Jews they accosted on their way from
Russia to America. In short, we were rejected by the Jewish community. There
were of course Germans here, but for obvious reasons we German Jews did not
Therefore, German Jews founded German
speaking congregations. In Cleveland it was called “The Gates of Hope.”
That congregation still exists and is now called “Shaarey Tikvah.” It is all
English speaking now. Then, a German rabbi, Krohnheim, ran the service in
a loft over a restaurant.
Even if an immigrant learns the language, more or less, he is still confronted with making a living. Usually this meant doing manual labor at a low wage. That is no cause for complaint, since the alternative would have been to remain in Europe, the locale of our worst nightmares. In fact, the United States was under no obligation to let any of us in but did so because this is an exceptional country.
We are now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of
our 40th president, Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly reminded us of
This “exceptionalism” includes
allowing a foreigner with a bad accent to enter the armed services (name another
country which allows that). Not only that, but those of us who passed basic
training were sworn in as citizens after being here only three years despite the
usual civilian rule that one must be here five years and pass an English and
history examination. Those of us who were not citizens were driven to Columbus,
Georgia, near Fort Benning, and became citizens in a short ceremony just because
we passed basic training (name another country which permits that). That was not
all. Two weeks after I was discharged, I received a letter from the Veterans
Administration to the effect that the V.A. would pay for my college education
for four years In any university willing to accept the veteran. In addition, the
V.A. paid my living expenses during those four years. Well, believe it or not,
the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act” paid for my B.A. and M.A. degrees at
the expensive private Western Reserve University and gave me $120 a month to
live on. That is about the same as $1200 a month today. They even paid for all
my books (name another country willing or able to do that).
Thereafter, the State of New York paid
my tuition toward the doctor’s degree, allowing me to become a professor (name
another country whose taxpayer would do that).
Meanwhile I met a gorgeous, brilliant
German immigrant girl whom I married when we were a good deal younger than is
customary today. In the next generation our three children became professional
people and our five grandchildren exceeded us all (name another country where
that is possible).
The truth is that Ronald Reagan was
right. We cannot name another country where any of this could have occurred.
Multiply my experience by millions of others and you will agree that this is an
exceptional country for all who have the good fortune of being here.
pains me, therefore, that so many of my native born colleagues “knock” this
country in the classroom and tell students that “Nine-eleven” is our fault
and the dictators are great men. It pains me to hear President Obama “kiss
up” to the Arab terrorists and it pains me even more to hear my fellow Jews
vote for those who despise their own country and promote the interests of
Was it Hegel who famously said, “All
we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history?”