Monday, January 11, 2016

My People: Real Americans, Refugees Running from Killers


Millions of Americans came here from around the globe running from torment and death. They came here as my grandparents did, running from persecution and wanting a place where they could live and raise kids without being suddenly murdered in God's name or the Tsar's name.

My grandparents, Hyman and Esther Gussman, came to America from Odessa, Russia, in about 1900, coming ashore in Boston.  The picture above is one of the big reasons they left--pogroms by the Cossacks that killed at least a million Russian Jews.

It is clear when you look at other countries around the world that America does a better job of assimilation, of making immigrants into Americans, than any other country.

The reason, I believe, is that we have a common culture that is easy to understand and easy to adopt.

For good or for ill, the common culture of America is success and money.  To become American is to leave extremism and make money.  It used to be called making good.

In a cruel parody of faith, America even assimilated Christianity.  We lead the world in millionaire preachers.  Hellfire has almost disappeared from our pulpits.  Now the most popular Churches preach some version of health, wealth and success.  These Churches love celebrities and millionaires, and set them up as the Blessed, replacing the martyrs of the suffering Church.

My grandparents went from being oppressed Jews in Russia to being Americans.  In Russia a million Jews were killed for being Jews.  America takes people suffering under radicals of all kinds and gives them the possibility of health and wealth.

My father was the fourth if six boys born to Esther and Hyman Gussman.  In the names of the six boys you see assimilation. Beginning with the oldest they are Abraham, Emmanuel, Ralph, George, Lewis and Harold.  Every time my father spoke of his oldest brothers they were Abe and Manny.  The Gussmans lived on Blue Hill Avenue, a street known as Jew Hill Avenue at the beginning of the 20th Century.  In the 1920s, the Gussmans had 14 cars, trucks and motorcycles parked somewhere in the vicinity of the family home.  Hyman had a successful fruit business.  And his one return trip to the old country turned into two years of being hunted by the Russian Army.  He never left Boston again.

Although all of my uncles married Jewish women, none of my relatives were particularly religious. My mother was not Jewish.  Growing up we had a small tinsel tree Dad called a Channukah Bush.   My father stayed home from work on some Jewish holidays because the warehouse where he worked was owned by Jews from the old neighborhood.  But we never went to Synagogue.  We went out to eat.

My father's family are real Americans.  They went from a place where religion meant death, and they embraced life in America.  Grandpa ran a successful business most of his life.  My uncle Lewis went into the same business and became a millionaire when that was a lot of money.  Lewis, like my grandmother Esther, lived to be 100. All of the the other brothers had houses in the suburbs and families.

Of all the uncles and cousins in the Gussman clan, only my father and I ever served in the Army.  We both were very old soldiers.  The rest of the family, like nearly all well off families in the northeast, did not join the military.  I enlisted partly because I had heard my Dad's stories from World War 2 all the time I was growing up and it was clear they were the best years of his life.  I also enlisted because my favorite uncle, Jack, my mother's half brother, was on his third tour in Viet Nam when I graduated high school.  Jack was the coolest guy in our family by far.

My aversion to Fundamentalism in any form, to religious extremism especially in politics, and to religion masquerading as science comes from my upbringing.  Because my family has kids later than most, I am just one generation away from people who escaped the Pogroms of Tsarist Russia.

My people run away from religious radicals.

When real Americans see fanatics, they change the channel.