by Celia Y. Weisman (Painting by Pat Matthews)
Whenever one of us kids sassed him at the dinner table, my father would say “America!” with that bemused yet humorous smile lingering on his lips, right below that bushy signature mustache. He’d say it twice, and we always waited for the second pronouncement, because it was delivered with such perfection of timing and intonation: “America!” Though he held the entire family captive as audience, this moment of theater was directed specifically to his father, the Austrian-born Jew Sam Weisman, former rag peddler of Manhattan’s lower East side, who watched his son grow up to become a big-time NYC doctor. But when one of us kids went too far in challenging his authority, and if Daddy was feeling less in touch with American liberty, then watch out. Daddy would instantaneously revert to tyrannical Old Country ways. This would happen faster than you could switch the dial on the TV from channel 2 to 4. Before we had time to duck or run, that smack would sting behind the head, or that powerful swat across the tush would land hard.
Even though my father had been born and raised in the Bronx, and never experienced the devastating pogroms our ancestors survived, Daddy had a robust regard for the freedoms we Jews enjoyed in this new land, which sometimes included talking back to one’s elders. Babe Ruth and other Yankee greats had been the passion of his youth. But by the time we kids finally arrived, Daddy was in his forties, and his top heroes were Abraham Lincoln and FDR, though he and his first wife named their French poodle DeGaulle right after WWII.
My mother shared Daddy’s passion for FDR, but by the mid-60’s had shifted much of her political allegiance to MLK, Jr., having given up on America’s two main political parties in her lefty, unionist youth. She was the one who insisted upon sending us kids to a small progressive private school dedicated to social justice and racial equality, located in Harlem, and aptly (at least according to my father’s worldview), named “New Lincoln.” Our classmates included the descendants of those who made the 1920s Harlem Renaissance shine, along with kids whose parents had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. But it was my father who drove us in the funky Rambler station wagon to school each day, and who paid the tuition. My brothers were routinely mugged on the way home, and lurking men – making lewd comments and gestures — frequently followed me and my sis during the four block walk from the bus stop to home. Nonetheless, my parents believed in that school and kept us enrolled there. A creative synergy of allegiance to Lincoln’s past and MLK’s vision for the future fueled the outlooks and activism of our household.
We girls swooned for two top music groups in the ‘60s: those four lads from gritty Liverpool and the more folksy artists Simon & Garfunkel. We nearly wore out the latter’s “Bookends” LP on the cheap plastic record player we earned by licking enough S&H green stamps. A half-century later the lyrics to their “America” still resonate: “Kathy I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m lost and I’m lonely and I don’t know why. It took me four days to hitch hike from Saginaw…Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike they’ve all come to look for America…All come to look for America…Playing games with the faces…She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy…I said be careful his bow tie is really a camera…” Simon & Garfunkel were two more New York City Jews of that time trying to figure out the promise of America.
All these decades later, after the dramatic 60’s have long come and gone, seems that some of us are still searching for that promise that is America…Today, this grandchild of immigrants and product of an old lefty Mama and a Lincoln-loving Dad despairs over the institutionalized racism that continues to poison our country. Black lives matter. The lives of all people of color are important, and must be cherished. Immigrant lives matters. And while we Jews do have the privilege of white skin in America, on the inside (even if we don’t talk about it) we are haunted by memories and nightmares of what it is to be a slave, and how it feels to be the object of genocide. It’s in our DNA, and no matter how hard we try to “fit in,” these truths insist upon not being erased.
“It’s the da struggle,” said the tiny little bird-like grandmother of one of my friends, in her Yiddish accent. My friend was trying to explain to other family members why he’d spent his life helping to organize Latino Oregon farmworkers, and never made enough money to buy a house, nor had time to have a family. His grandma understood. May the struggle continue until this poison that is killing America stop…If not within my lifetime, then perhaps within yours?
I write this on May Day 2015. The news of the six cops arrested in Baltimore for the death of Freddie Gray has just been announced. There is reason in this season, right here, right now, for hope.