Years ago, I read a magazine article by an American journalist who had travelled to South Africa, then under apartheid. He described being asked by an Afrikaner "are you a real American or are you Jewish?"
I don't recall knowing how the writer answered the question. I don't remember the writer's name, either, but that would do me little good. I mostly can't tell a Jewish name from any other.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I knew about the Trail of Tears. When I went to the movies, I often rooted for the Indians defending their homeland and way of life against thise who would take it from them. They were "real Americans," I knew, not the white guys.
But in a real sense, everyone whose ancestors made it here, whether decades or millenia in the past, is a "real American."
Soon after Columbus stole a hemisphere from its rightful owners, the interlopers decided that only white Europeans could be "real Americans" and ruled by divine right. That was the "white man's burden," as Kipling put it.
So what if you were a Ukrainian Jew relocating with your family to the US in the 1980's? Would you feel suddenly free to assert your Jewishness?
Apparently not so much.
In a new book, “A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka,” Lev Golivkin, a Ukrainian jew, relates the hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family’s escape from
oppression. As it turns out, as a nine-year old refugee, he knew little about Jewishness and had little interest in finding out more.
One paragraph in the New York Times review took my breath away. Lev asked his mother why she had been so insistent about leaving the Soviet Unionfor the US, where she had only been able to work as a security guard instead of the intellectual occupation she had been trained for.
“I didn’t want to be afraid of the government anymore, to live in fear
of them going to my home,” she told him. “I didn’t want to watch my
daughter suffer and be denied from school because she was Jewish. I
didn’t want to stand on the schoolhouse steps and worry to death about
explaining to my 9-year-old son why being a Jew was bad, and why he
should prepare for a long and painful life.”
What do you suppose Michael Brown's mother would say about fear, suffering and denial - or Trayvon Martin's mother?
We must think on these things.