Above my bed in the house I grew up in, I keep a mortar and pestle with the year 1909 carved into its base. My grandmother told me it belonged to her moth- er, who brought it with her when she came to America. My great-grandmother left her home when she was fifteen, the story goes, bringing with her nothing except the mortar and pestle, a set of copper pots, and a pair of Shabbat candleholders. The mortar and pestle used to live on a bookshelf by my grandmother’s front door.
At the nearly entirely white middle school I went to, kids raised on legends of their grandparents and great-grandparents’ arrivals to the US asked each other, “where are you from?” My friends would say they were Irish and Italian, Dutch and German. They came to school wearing t-shirts with the flags of countries we had never seen and joked about which of us would have fought against each other had we been alive during World War II—a joke that I remember finding distinctly un-funny. But instead of sharing spaghetti or bratwurst (or in my case borscht), we all sat in the cafeteria together and ate peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches everyday.
The romantic retelling of immigrant stories isn’t an exclusively Jewish habit, but my family and friends do it with the devotion and frequency of a religious ritual. This practice reinforces a sort of uniform Jewish trajectory on stories that were almost definitely more complex than we usually acknowledge: we are prosperous now because we escaped our suffering then. It gives a reason for why the children and grand-children of impoverished villagers are now successful doctors and lawyers. The narrative of my great-grandmother’s escape from Cossack pogroms made my family’s more recent history just make sense. That the actual details of her flight from persecution were always pretty murky never mattered much.
My great-grandmother’s name was Basha, or, in English, Bessie. According to my grandmother, she was born in what today is most likely Belarus, in a small town with a name that begins with a “p” ends with an “itch” and has what sounds like the Hebrew letter “khet” in the middle. All I really know for sure is that she came from somewhere in the vast expanse of what the poet Philip Levine called “Russia with another name.”
One year, during Passover, my grandmother asked me to come with her to Ellis Island. We walked through the museum together. She read and translated for me the Yiddish posters that had been preserved. When we went to the wall of the names of those who immigrated, she couldn’t find her mother’s name. My grandmother said this must have been because her mother had come through Castle Garden at the time when Ellis Island had been damaged by a fire. The point of the visit, and of the constant retelling of this vague but important-feeling story, though, was that Basha had arrived in the general area south of the tip of Manhattan, becom- ing Bessie and completing her journey from grey East-European poverty to the goldene medina— the golden land. Her story was an Exodus at the turn of the twentieth century, which I guess makes the wide, grassy streets of Bergen County, where I grew up, the promised land. In the telling of this story my grandmother main- tained, there was a sense that it had to have ended the way it did. Fleeing oppression had to end in prosperity and freedom.
The common narrative of American Jewish success is often told as a redemption story. The pogroms and hardships faced in Europe become the reasons for affluence and achievement in the US. Present success gives past suffering meaning. This is a messianic way of thinking about history. Redemption was predestined, the logical conclusion to an extended period of suffering. And this makes sense—Judaism is a messianic religion. But this way of thinking, so common in the kind of community I grew up in, also risks turning into a politically poisonous creed. The shtetl to suburb narrative papers over parts of Jewish history that diverge from the redemption story. The mythology of the meritorious ascent, from rags in Russia to relative riches in America, closes comparisons to other experiences of triumph over suffering. It morphs into a kind of exceptionalism and a monopoly claim on persecution. It becomes an idea at odds with standing in solidarity with others whose struggles against oppression are still ongoing. When I was a kid I often heard relatives or community members say things like “we should show support and love for the downtrodden.” This was never a deep theological statement as much as it was a statement of faith in a particular political vision. But now, at Princeton and with people who come from the place I come from, I hear things like that less and less.
In the kind of conversation that happens in ugly chairs and an apartment overheated by holiday anxiety, an older Jewish relative leaned close to me and told me what the difference was between “other minorities” and Jews: Jews chose to come to America, and were successful because they had learned hard work from their past hardships. The implication was that the minorities and immigrants who didn’t find themselves living successful upper middle class lives weren’t trying hard enough. This relative was far from the only person to tell me something like this, but the repetition has never made it true. And while it’s tempting to think of this kind of prejudice as peculiar to an older generation that was born and raised in the working-class Bronx, similar things are said today by young people whose upbringings can only be described as privileged.
“It is wrong to claim our present circumstance,” writes Ta- Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, “as the redemption of people who never asked for the posthumous untouchable glory of dying for their children.” Here, Coates speaks specifically about African American history and the enduring racial inequality in America. But his approach to suffering in history can be related to other histories of suffering. I don’t mean to make a false comparison between the African American and Jewish experiences. Anti-Semitism has always existed in America, but it was never written into the law; it was not, as anti-black racism and slavery were, enshrined in the Constitution. Jews in America never faced the legal and extralegal violence African American continue to face. Most significantly, Jews today are undisputedly considered white. We accepted this and have enjoyed the benefits that come with it ever since.
Still, Coates’ demand that the reader “resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice” echoes across different time periods and experiences. At its core, it is a demand to accept contingency in life and history— to recognize that what has happened was never guaranteed to happen. And this recognition, in the case that the present is better than the past, can be the root of empathy and graciousness towards others, particularly those who history has not favored. The immigrant story’s happy ending was never a given.
I don’t believe the callousness and disdain for the oppressed and the downtrodden shown by people whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were oppressed and downtrodden themselves would be possible if they remembered the incredible contingency of their own histories. Because if they did, they would see that the people who struggle against systematic oppression and structural inequalities remain op- pressed and unequal not because they aren’t trying hard enough to free themselves, but because the forces of oppression and inequality are stronger than they are right now. And this doesn’t mean that struggle and resistance are futile, it means the opposite: that with the support of those who now are free, those who aren’t might be better positioned to fight back.
Misusing history isn’t unique to one side of the political spectrum. I’ve heard liberal aunts and uncles say that because we suffered in the past, Jews should help those who suffer in the present. I think this frames things the wrong way. Suffering in the past is not the source of ethical obliga- tion: prosperity in the present is. The obligation to support those who are oppressed would remain even without any history of past oppression. Sanctifying suffering, what Coates warns against, eras- es the truth that suffering should never be necessary. It effaces the dignity of those who didn’t choose to suffer. My great-grand- mother’s escape from the pogrom, in a logical sense, created the con- ditions that made the kind of life I live possible. But I have no doubt that she would have preferred her life to have been free from the arbitrary violence she faced. And when she left her home, she could not have known the kind of life her descendants would live decades after her death.
My great-grandmother was not acting out some cosmic Jewish drama of suffering destined to culminate in American comfort. Her narrative, and the American Jewish narrative more broadly, demonstrates not a divinely preordained or mythological rise to prosperity but the incredible randomness of history—the luck that at some time around 1909 my great-grandmother arrived in a country that had not codified anti-Semitism into laws that subordinated her to second-class citizenship, and that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of her coreligionists did not lead to a spasm of nativist or anti-Semitic violence that would have forced her to leave a home again.
I worry that instead of making us feel lucky or grateful, the myths we tell ourselves insulate us from the hardships of others, even in ways we least expect. I fear our reliance on over-simplified stories and carefully constructed narratives has limited our moral imagination. I shouldn’t need a great-grandmother who was a refugee to feel sympathy for the millions of people made homeless by war. I don’t need ancestors who were persecuted to stand in solidarity with those facing persecution today.
It is easier to abuse history than it is to abuse memory. I don’t remember my great-grandmother. I never met her. I cannot describe what she looks like. I don’t even know the exact year she arrived in this country. But the ritualized retelling of her story has given me images of a place and a life that probably aren’t true. A recent article in the travel section of The New York Times described the tours American Jews were taking around Eastern Europe to find the villages where their ancestors lived. The article featured pictures of the Belarussian forest, which I was surprised to see was lush and colorful—deep green pines and dark soil. In one picture, there was a pristine lake. The tourists, like me, hadn’t found the muddy villages they had expected. The place my family claims to come from, the place so many other American Jews claim, is a place most of us have never been.