HOPE AND CHANGE

What my Jewish, immigrant father taught me about the American Dream

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Hatred is not a new concept to Jews. We’ve been on the receiving end of it for more than 5,000 years, and our fear of violence and terror is as ingrained in our culture as gefilte fish, Friday night prayers, and self-deprecating jokes.

This past Wednesday, November 9th, marked the 78th anniversary of one of our most pivotal and tragic moments. Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” was a massive, state-sponsored act of terrorism in which synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, and homes throughout Germany and Austria were burned and vandalized. Some historians point to it as the “official” start of the Holocaust, but, more accurately, it was the moment when expressing long-festering hatred became normalized and was allowed to blossom out in the open.

The early hours of Wednesday the 9th were also, incidentally, when Donald Trump, a candidate known for tweeting anti-Semitic imagery and inciting violence against minorities, was elected the 45th president of the United States. Almost simultaneously, a store in Philadelphia was vandalized with Swastikas and other Nazi references, along with hastily scrawled pro-Trump graffiti. I would like to explicitly say that I am not calling Trump a Nazi or a fascist, as some writers have. Only history can decide that. I am merely stating the facts, and the fact of this incident is that it was abhorrent but not shocking. For Jews, well aware that we are still reviled in many places in the world, it just felt like history repeating itself.

As Wednesday trudged on, I heard about more hate crimes across the country and felt scared, so I called my father. Born in the shadow of the Nazi regime, an immigrant, but also the best embodiment of the American Dream I can think of—who came here with literally nothing but a weakened immune system and a legacy of trauma and rose to an exceptionally good life—I wanted his words of wisdom. I asked if he thought we were safe; if we needed to move.

Instead, in the calm, Buddha-like manner I’ve come to expect, he told me not to be terrified. There’s a minority in this country that’s filled with hate and rage, he said, emboldened by the Internet and endless media coverage. They are trying to intimidate and bully others into fear and passivity, but that’s not the real America—and you can’t let them rattle you and keep you scared and silent. That’s what terrorists want. We’re a nation of immigrants, he reminded me—one of the most heterogeneous in the world, and our hope and values will sustain us.

That my father, who should have so many reasons to be angry, nervous, resentful, and nihilistic, could retain his optimism made me feel ashamed for my own fearful thoughts. It also made me feel something I didn’t think was possible right now: pride.

In 1948, my father—before he changed his name from Shlomo to Michael in order to assimilate—was born in a small German town near Munich. After the end of WWII, it had been transformed into a makeshift displaced person’s camp by the U.S. military in order to house folks, mostly Jews, who could no longer safely return to their countries. (Imagine France’s refugee port of Calais, with even less food.) My grandparents had lost their entire families, but miraculously met and fell in love in this strange European purgatory. My dad was born there, surviving despite the lack of proper healthcare facilities or pre-natal nutrition. Because of latter, he would have health problems for the rest of his life, including rheumatoid fever, encephalitis, and a heart murmur all before the age of 10.

Ida Pearlman, my grandmother (farthest left with the black bob) protests a planned deportation to Cyprus with camp activists. She got to go to Brooklyn instead. (Pocking, Germany, sometime between 45-48).Courtesy of Yad Vashem

My grandmother, Ida Pearlman (farthest left with the black bob), is shown here protesting a planned deportation to Cyprus with fellow activists at her displaced persons camp in Pocking, Germany. She got to go to Brooklyn instead.

When he was still an infant, through an act of benevolence and a lenient immigration policy on the part of the U.S. government, he and my grandparents were allowed to come here and resettle in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

It wasn’t a fairytale. His parents were broken from what they’d experienced in Europe—especially my grandmother, who’d seen her brother die of starvation. Little things, like an extra portion of dinner she was too full to eat, would make her convulse in sobs. They were haunted by the knowledge that people, even neighbors, might want to kill you for your religion or ethnicity; that sometimes you can’t keep the people you love safe. But they also believed you should never stop striving, and sometimes all you need is a sliver of kindness to survive. As my grandma, my zayde, used to tell my father, “In every group there are both good and bad people. There were kind Germans who helped me, and fellow Jews who undermined me.” The real danger comes from lumping whole groups together as deplorables or saints.

Though my grandparents were incredibly poor, they somehow made sure my father and my aunts had food and a clean house, and felt loved. “I had Coney Island, friends, and family,” my father told me when I asked him if his economic status ever wore him down. “I was a train ride away from art and culture—what else did I need?”

Until he was in 5th grade, his first language was Yiddish, with only a smattering of English. Today, he frequently schools me on New Yorker articles with an unplaceable accent. I have no idea how he did it, but the son of a window washer put himself through college, and earned two Master’s degrees, becoming an engineer. As he entered adulthood, anti-Semitism persisted in this country; there were certain jobs he knew he was barred from attaining, or whole swaths of the country, sometimes controlled by the KKK, that “you just couldn’t visit.”

Despite his Eastern European heritage, he looks Latinx and would sometimes, accidentally, get a taste of that particular flavor of discrimination. He never got bitter, but he did get to work. His philosophy was to start small and stay focused on whatever was in front of him, whether it was learning English, applying to colleges, or attempting to join corporate America during the tech boom. He married a musician and they moved to the suburbs, where they had two loudmouth, opinionated daughters who would spend afternoons running and screaming through a lush, green yard.

My dad, Michael Feinstein, as a teen, living on Avenue Y in Brooklyn, New York.

My dad, Michael Feinstein, as a teen, living on Avenue Y in Brooklyn, New York.

Growing up, sometimes I would get frustrated at the injustices of the world, as most teens do. I would rage over income inequality, war, sexism, or even my own petty concerns. Why can’t I have a new car like my classmates? Why can’t we travel? Why do we always have to share fries at McDonalds? My father never let me indulge in these feelings. “America is the best country in the world,” he would say, as I rolled my eyes. “It’s the best place for immigrants, for opportunity. We have so much here.” He let me know that America was a place where, even if you faced adversity, you could rise above. It’s built into our Constitution. He never explicitly said this, but I always felt that if he could do it, there was no reason I couldn’t either. Even today, after so much has changed in the U.S. in terms of upward mobility, he still believes that in America, an outsider, a marginalized population, can raise themselves up—and points to the many disgraceful ways immigrant groups have been treated abroad.

My own life experiences have led me to believe there are those who will try to hold you back, hold you down, for no reason. They will tell you you’re less than; that this is as good as you can expect from life. But they’ve always, consistently been wrong. Change doesn’t happen overnight—it happens bit by bit, small action by action. It cannot evolve in a bubble. You need other people, the warmth of a community, and just the smallest sliver of light to crawl through.

On Wednesday night, as it sunk in that a Trump presidency was a reality, I couldn’t bring myself to go home and eat that whole pizza I was craving (ironically, as part of my “self-care,” I just keep eating junk food). My brain felt like it was on a rush hour train, flooded with rage and ideas and fear all pushing to get out at the next stop. Instead, I went with friends to Union Square to check out a protest I’d heard about on Facebook. It had started with a few hundred, but by the time we arrived there were thousands, shutting down 5th Avenue and marching like a liberal army toward Trump Tower.

During my morning commute the city had taken on a funereal cast, as people openly wept in silence. Now, I saw New Yorkers happy, singing, and holding hands despite honking cars and overhead helicopters. I don’t think anyone at that rally expected to change the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Trump came to power democratically, no matter how flawed our system may be. But it wasn’t about radical revolution, at least not in my mind. It was about hope, that you can move the dial of progress, even incrementally. That there will be setbacks and hardship, but you’re not alone if you have optimism. That those across the country expressing hateful sentiments are just a minority in a nation filled with all kinds of people: wonderful, hardworking, awful, petty, amazing, complicated, striving people. That there is no “us versus them,” there is only us versus us. No one person, or election, can decide the fate of such a diverse country. These setbacks are real, but temporary, and there’s always tomorrow. These, among many other thoughts, are the lessons my father taught me.