By Tela Zasloff
My maternal great-grandfather, Aaron Gordin, was a balagola, a driver of a horse and cart-for-hire in the village (shtetl) of Rezhitsa (in present-day Latvia), in the Vitebsk area of Russia, one of the areas where the Czars permitted Jews to live. He must have often carried water to the local houses, since this was a poor village that assuredly had no central plumbing. But more important to the community was the fact that he was known as a chasid, a mystical kind of Jew who believed that God’s presence was in all of our surroundings and that we should honor God in our every word and deed.
I try to guess what this little bit of information says about my great-grandfather and horses. Being the only one in my family to care passionately about animals, especially horses, gave me a special lens through which to relate to my past. The one photo we have of my great-grandfather shows a middle-age, bearded man with a sharp, sensitive face and sad eyes. Did he talk to his horse, the way Tevya did when he drove his cart, about marrying off his daughters, or making his tenants pay the rent, or expanding his cart business? Or was he soul-searching, appealing to his listener’s philosophical and reflective cart-horse character? His horse would have understood, since he, too had a life of hard work, plain feed, rough and muddy roads, and the stress of constantly having to fulfill one’s duties no matter what. And my great-grandfather would have believed that his horse radiated God’s presence and that he must be kind to him.
I believe that, too. But what was the source of my childhood dreams to ride horses, to share their minds, to become their friend, even to become one of them? I doubt that my great-grandfather felt that way about his horse. But maybe he sang to him as they were trotting along the road, the way I sing to mine, maybe even the same Yiddish song that his daughter, my grandmother, taught us—“Abi Gezunt.” The song’s message is that you don’t need material comforts in life to make you happy—the main thing is to be healthy. That would have suited my great-grandfather and his hard life. My sister points out that this was the perfect song to persuade those repressed by ostracism and poverty, to accept their lot.
Aaron Gordin’s youngest daughter, my grandmother, thought otherwise. At age 21, in 1911, helped by her family, she packed her best clothes, the family samovar and several goose-down pillows, and took a train, then a boat to America, to Philadelphia, where she contacted her husband-to-be, my grandfather Abe Berman, and his family. They had all grown up together, since his family rented space in her father’s house, although, she remarked years later, they never had money to pay the rent. Abe, at age 10, had been picked up by the Czar’s military authorities (a common practice in the Jewish shtetls) and sent to St. Petersburg, where he was a servant and apprentice to a watchmaker who served the Russian army. He somehow managed to return to Rezhitsa at age 17 and immediately emigrated to the U.S. in 1908, preceded by several older sisters. For the next three years, he wrote to my grandmother and, as soon as she arrived in Philadelphia, they were married.
The rest of their lives, they lived out their dreams of a better life in their New World, nurturing five talented children and managing, through the Depression years, to send three of them to college. My grandfather built a comfortable business in small-town Altoona, Pennsylvania, selling jewelry, fixing people’s watches, and grinding lenses for eye glasses, while being active in the labor movement—he was famous locally for inviting Norman Thomas to his house during the 1930’s. My grandmother, emotional, fierce, with a literary flair and artistic sensitivities, learned English and American mores with a passion and commitment that expressed her devotion to becoming part of this new land. I remember her outrage mixed with exaltation, when religious solicitors came to the door wanting to leave a pamphlet with her: “This is America!” she would say. “My religion is my own business!”
She made one trip back to the old country in 1934, to see her family again, a year after a fascist coup had taken over Latvia. Then, she never saw them again, since all were lost in the Holocaust.
My grandparents’ story is a common one, especially during the period when they came here at the beginning of the 20th century, a time of high immigration numbers from eastern and southern Europe. Their grit and commitment to shaking off their old life and starting again in a new country they loved, always hovered over my growing up with them. I picked up, as a family duty, to always remember their story, keep albums, make personal contact with my past, keep it alive, talk to my children and grandchildren about it.
The present political climate in America has raised the question of immigrants in a new way—some people are challenging the desirability of keeping our doors open to new immigrants and integrating them into our way of life, particularly with the huge refugee problems now troubling the world as a result of political and environmental changes and unrest.
In an October 18 NYTimes article—“Experts say immigration is necessary for growth”—the Pew Research Center asserts, “Experts say that future immigrants and their children are expected to take the place of aging baby boomers in the workplace, and a major immigration restriction may leave the United States short of labor, potentially jeopardizing the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. . . .The growth that comes from [first-generation] immigrants and the second generation, is going to be the only source of growth in working-age people. We don’t have a choice right now.”
I would add that another reason we don’t have a choice is that we are still and always have been a country built by immigrants—it is our very nature and gives us our unique identity. If we lose touch with that, our survival is in danger.