Crossing the Atlantic

“When [Jewish immigrants fled their villages in Eastern Europe in the period 1881-1918], they moved to the most advanced industrial cities in Europe and America, but also away from an atmosphere of medieval [living conditions]. They found a world where many of the ideas they had brought with them could not stand up to scrutiny. In the Old World, women had learned to accept that only half their children would survive. A serious illness was a physical catastrophe whose cure, as everyone knew, lay in God’s will. […] Even the astonishing physical combination of lights, steam, and power that drove them across the Atlantic in ten days could hardly prepare them for the new Industrial Age of elevated railways, street lights, sewage disposal, safe drinking water available at the turn of a tap. In crossing the Atlantic they had made a leap of centuries in time.” (p. 118-119)

“All my friends came from identical immigrant families, [so] I was prepared for all kinds of revelations [the first time I visited] a non-Jewish family. The first surprise that awaited me was how the parents treated their children. Their style was something that I did not know — good-tempered, considerate, gentle. One day the mother observed that one of the little girls was not looking well. She had no fever, but did not seem to be her usual self — somewhat subdued and limp. Her mother suggested that she would make up a bed on the sofa where her daughter could lie and read and be comfortable. The little girl agreed, and snuggled down on the sofa under a paisley shawl with a sigh of relief and contentment. I watched all this closely and, I must confess, with a pang of longing for the quiet attentiveness I had never experienced.

“Here, the child was regarded as someone who had wishes and thoughts and desires — all of which were legitimate and to be considered in any dispositions made concerning that child. As to the child’s sickness, the mother was responding by taking a simple first precautionary step. But what impressed me was that she was thinking about the child. When I considered the world in which I had grown up, I saw a remarkable contrast.

“When I was sick, my parents responded first to the sickness — and always with alarm. They then took measures to allay their fears, but they were too frightened, paradoxically enough, to think about me. They watched the thermometer to see whether the fever was going up or down. But they did not ask me how I felt. My mother would wander white-lipped through the house, wringing her hands and murmuring in alliterative Yiddish, ‘Dear God frighten me, but do not punish me.’ On such occasions, my parents did not trouble to make fine distinctions between a fever brought on by a chest cold or by diphtheria; the response to illness was always to declare a state of emergency. Even as children, my friends and I perceived the disproportion between our common ailments and the storm of concern that they aroused. We mistook this intensity for love.” (p. 9-10)

-Ruth Gay, Unfinished People (1996)

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