June 20, 2018
Today, for the second year, OJMCHE hosted a naturalization ceremony for ten new citizens. We were honored to host the event and to welcome these new citizens to our community. The event had many poignant and beautiful moments and brought delight to all of us in the room.
Today, fittingly, is also World Refugee Day. On this day the United Nations, United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and numerous civic groups around the world hold events to draw attention to the millions of refugees and Internally displaced persons worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, conflict and persecution.
Whatever celebratory emotions we felt at the ceremony, however, were accompanied by the deafening roar of current news regarding the current administration’s immigration policy. We are worried sick about the future of our country. The policy to force children to be separated from their parents at the U.S-Mexico border defiles American ideals of democratic values and basic human decency. Have we forgotten the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty that call upon us to protect “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?
American Jews comprise a community deeply connected to the immigrant story. This history encourages us to shed light on the path that brought us here, for those who come after us. Central European Jews, the first Jewish arrivals in the mid-nineteenth century, fled an economic depression and restriction on their abilities to earn a living, marry, and feed their families. A wave of eastern European Jews followed at the turn of the 20th century and they too fled the hardship of persecution and pogroms that made their lives untenable. In the 1930s with the threat of war, some European Jews were able to get. And after Second World War and the Holocaust, survivors – and there weren’t that many of them – took refuge in Portland where they were able to rebuild their lives and start anew. All have become Oregonians, sharing new American’s exciting firsts: finding work and a place to live, learning the language, and forging a community.
At OJMCHE we seek stories that humanize the collective themes of assimilation and acculturation; citizenship and belonging; values and social differences; social justice; and the varied reinventions of individual, national, and cultural identity. The lessons are universal: the experiences of assimilation, cultural retention and transmission faced by 21st century immigrants to Oregon recapitulate the experiences that Jewish immigrants faced 100 years ago, just as they parallel such experiences around the globe today.
OJMCHE’s Oral History Project holds numerous stories that illustrate the universality of the cultural challenges faced by Eastern European Jewish immigrants arriving at the turn of the 20th century.
From Boris Geller: We were all immigrants at the turn of the century. My father worked for five dollars a week. There were three hundred to four hundred newsboy on the streets of Portland. For every quarter that came in, the boys could buy food for their parents. There were seven in our family and someone had to help. Meat was ten cents a pound in those days. If you had fifty cents you could feed a family of six.
Or this story from Flora Steinberg: In the old country, we couldn’t wait to get to America, because America was supposed to be the land of plenty for everyone, and we found exactly the opposite. I remember distinctly on that particular night in the year of 1921, we had huddled together and we all made up our minds that on the next day we were going back to where we came from. Flora’s family, wracked with such doubts even after passing through “the golden door,” fortunately persisted in their pursuit of the American dream. These stories humanize the struggles of moving to a new country, setting up a home and finding a place in the larger social fabric of a new community.
Let us all take a moment, this World Refugee Day, and reflect on how we or our ancestors came to this country. I am thinking about last years’ campaign released by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), “My People Were Refugees Too,” a vivid reminder of the Jewish immigrants who arrived in Oregon, fleeing wars and seeking freedom, opportunity, and a better life. Voices of despair are pointing out the parallels between Hitler’s Germany and our current administration, and they are also saying, “This is not who we are as a country.” Let’s reflect for a moment and then follow this adage to “be the change that you want to see in the world.”