By Eleanor Jaffe
During Thanksgiving, I told my four Salt Lake City grandchildren about the lives, challenges, and sacrifices of my parents’ generation. My mother, their Great-Grandma Fannie, had just died four months earlier. I showed them documents and photographs of her grade school and high school graduations, my parents’ courtship, and their young children, including me, their second of four.
I also told them about the generation that preceded my parents, the children’s great-great grandparents. All four of them had emigrated from Poland/Russia. All four of them suffered poverty and persecution, fear of conscription into the czar’s army, and traumatic family separations. They had, in fact, survived the hardships of most Jewish immigrants to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century.
I tried to impress on the children that we are all incredibly more fortunate to have grown up in the U.S. than in Eastern Europe. Or even more to the point, the Holocaust would have ensured our deaths and the end of our lineage. Their survival made our fifth generation possible. We owe these great-great grandparents our gratitude.
When the visit ended, my husband and I flew east across the vastness that is our country, and I thought about “allegiance,” loyalty to these great United States that enabled our five generations to not only survive but be educated and thrive. I thought about my cousins, on both sides of our family, and realized–as if for the first time–that five of my sixteen first cousins had left the U.S. to live elsewhere. One married a Frenchman and has live din Marseilles for almost fifty years. One married a Japanese woman and has lived in Tokyo for twenty-five years. Three female cousins, who grew up just blocks away from my home, moved to Israel. In fact, two of my aunts and one uncle followed their children and are buried in Jerusalem.
What happened to their “allegiance” to the United States, their gratitude for what this nation made possible for our family? What happened to their first language, English? Was it supplanted by the languages of their adopted countries? In what languages do they dream? Are their attachments to the stories of what their grandparents suffered, the summer camps they attended, their colleges, and their loyalty to the land where three of their fathers served in World War II still strong?
I recall that, when I was young, the romance of becoming a “sabra,” a pioneer in the new land of Israel seemed heroic, almost compelling. It seemed to be the Ultimate in Leaving Home–I could go without being challenged. And yet, after all that day dreaming, the ties that bind me to the U.S. have held tight, and I have stayed.
Today, huge political divisions assail our country. Nevertheless, my sense of allegiance, of loyalty, to the land that made our family’s survival possible and democracy’s hopes still percolate within me. They animate me to take political action because I can no longer take our freedoms for granted.
We cannot know what effects these family stories will have on our children and their children, but I hope that they are filled with awe and gratitude for those who came before them. I hope their allegiance motivates them to make this country as great as it may yet become, almost as great as our grandparents hoped it would be.
“As I grow older,” Eleanor says, “I am more interested in the conditions, changes, services, culture, and even politics affecting me, my husband of over 50 years, and my friends.” To that end, she has led BOLLI study groups focused on aging, immigration, and more. In addition, along with Elaine Dohan, she chairs BOLLI’s political action special interest group.