Pope Francis introduced himself to the American people this week by noting that “as the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
While the crowd on White House’s South Lawn responded with rousing applause, the veiled critique was hard to ignore. Much like Frederick Douglas who stood before a gathering of white New Yorkers on July 4 1852 and praised our Founding Fathers as “peace men” who nonetheless “preferred revolution to… bondage” and for whom “justice, liberty, and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression,” the Pope’s comments were equal parts praise of the American past and condemnation of the American present.
As my own attention swayed these past few weeks from the media to the machzor and back again, I found the refugee crisis raising questions that struck at the core of my identity as an American Jew.
Like Pope Francis, and like most American Jews, I too am the product of an immigrant family. In fact, in many ways my family’s story is frighteningly similar to the one playing out today across the Mediterranean coast. My great-grandfather also fled the only home he ever knew – the home he once fought to protect – when it became clear that staying was a sentence to death. He too boarded a boat and crossed a vast ocean with little knowledge of what to expect on the other side. He too was the victim of a “trafficker” who had taken an exorbitant fee in exchange for a landing document whose legality was later revoked.
My great-grandfather's destination was not Crete, but Cuba. Like so many of today’s immigrants, he too saw one of his shipmates lying lifeless at his side. He hadn't been thrown from a dingy raft, though, by a turbulent sea. Rather, he had taken his own life when word came that Havana would not let him disembark and the thought of returning home loomed large.
My great-grandfather and the 907 remaining Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, then set sail for the United States in the desperate hope of seeking asylum in the “home of the free.” They could see the glimmering lights of Miami Beach and wanted nothing more than to touch its shores. The JDC pleaded their case. The press wrote of their plight. Passengers sent impassioned cables directly to President Roosevelt. All to no avail. On June 6, 1939 orders were given for the ship to return to Germany.
Germany... As I move from media to machzor I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t bearing witness to teshuvah in its highest form. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy refers explicitly to judgment passed for “countries.” On Yom Kippur afternoon we read of the repentance of the Assyrian city of Ninveh – a model intended for emulation. And today I read of the state that chased my great-grandfather from his home and slaughtered six million who remained, opening its doors to the homeless, temptest-tost masses yearning to breath free.
And yet when I move from the machzor back to the media, my awe and admiration are quickly tempered by fear. According to the Anti Defamation League, 74% of all residents in the Middle East and North Africa – the point of origin of today’s immigrants - harbor decidedly anti-Semitic attitudes. How, then, as American Jews can we not fear that an influx of hundreds of thousands Syrian, Afghan, and North African immigrants - so many of whom were taught to view Israel as the root of all evil and Jews as her international henchmen - may make the precarious state of Western European Jewry all the more perilous? How can we not fear that Germany’s embrace risks a return to the very sins that it is trying to absolve?
And so I return again to the machzor. This time to yizkor. I think of my great-grandparents, their suffering and their strength. And I ask that their souls – their spirit, their insight, their wisdom, and their light – be bound in the “Bond of Life.” A place where they can continue to inform and inspire the lives we live today.