My Father’s Promised Land
As election day nears, my thoughts keep going to my father, at whose knee I had my first political lessons. My father was a Socialist (probably, at one point, a Communist), whose most fervent compliment to anyone was that he/she was “a principled person”. He firmly believed that America could not fall under an authoritarian regime, as we were too big and too diverse to accede to one point of view. I wonder what my father would think about present day politics and Trumpworld. Actually, I don’t really wonder. I know.
My father emigrated at the age of 13 to this country from Czarist Russia with his younger sister in tow. He remembers his mother running after the train that took them from Kiev to their next destination, crying and waving to them. Somehow, they made their way from Kiev through a part of China, to the ship that gave them passage to America. He was the next-to-youngest of 14 children, some of whom had emigrated to England and Canada, fleeing the pogroms. I assume that he stayed with some distant family when he got to New York’s lower East side , though he never spoke about the details, and I was foolish enough not to try to pry them out of him. He worked as a waiter in some high end establishments, and managed to earn enough to bring his widowed mother to New York. In keeping with the American dream, he made his way up the socio-economic ladder to begin making cosmetic products, and opened a small store on Upper Broadway to sell them. In his forties, or, as I later learned, perhaps his fifties, he met my mother, a second generation American from a middle class, assimilated and aspirational family with roots in Hungary. She was a beauty from a family with a touch of madness; my father remembered his first dinner at her family’s home near Riverdale, when my crazy uncle (yes, Donald Trump wasn’t the only crazy uncle) chased my mother around the dinner table with a bread knife after she had said something that rankled him, both of them screaming at one another. They then continued their dinner. My father was mystified. He said that if anyone in his family had acted like that, they’d never be let in the house again. He soon learned that this, in my mother’s family, was not unusual behavior.
My father was in his fifties when I was born. We thought he was 10 years younger, but he “came out” for his 90th birthday, which we all thought was his 80th. He’d obtained his citizenship without a birth certificate (one didn’t have those in Czarist Russia), and lied about his age. My mother went to her grave never knowing his age.
My father was self-educated. His formal schooling was minimal because of the frequent Russian pogroms, and the edicts forbidding Jewish children to attend Russian schools. He spoke Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and a smattering of Chinese learned on his journey, and, later, English. When he came to America, he read everything that he could get his hands on. His proudest possession was his collection of Harvard Classic books. They were leatherbound (he bought them one by one) and spanned history from the Greek philosophers to Mark Twain, mostly in their original format. I can remember reading Plato with my father when I was 4, and just beginning to read. I didn’t understand the text, but I knew that he was happy when I read it with him. I still have his Harvard Classics on my bookshelf, and just gave The Odyssey to my eldest grandson as a graduation present.
( I’m just realizing that my father’s story will take more than one blog post, so, if you’d like to hear more about him, tune into my next blog…Thursday, Nov. 12th…for the another episode!)