A Challenge From My Jewish Immigrant Grandfather: Leave The World Better Than You Found It
My mother would occasionally turn on the news on while I got ready for elementary school. Today, I still turn on the news while I get ready for work but with a cup of coffee instead of chocolate chip pancakes. Although, lately, I find it increasingly more difficult to turn on the news every morning without a feeling of despair settling in.
From riots to killings (intentional and not) to executive orders, my soul and spirit shudder every time I watch the news. Saturday morning, I sat in disbelief as I saw story after story of families being separated by Trump’s immigration ban, a breastfeeding baby separated from her mother. That was me just four months ago! I can’t even fathom the pain that mother felt. I find myself wondering, When did we become a country who separated parents from their children based on their place of origin and hold them hostage?!
In a quiet Texas neighborhood, one neighbor shoots and kills his next-door neighbor while she is walking her dogs. In Chicago, four kids attack and torture a teenager with special needs and stream it on Facebook Live. In Washington, a group of middle-aged men are debating my female reproductive rights, again. Every single time I turn on the news, I sit in disbelief and ponder the depressing news unfolding before me. I’m bewildered by the current state of our affairs in this country.
A horrendous economic, social, and political divide has continued to evolve over the years. This year will mark 25 years since the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. I turned 4 that year, and my grandfather sent me a birthday wish that I never knew existed until I was 19 years old. Well, he didn’t just send it, it was also published in the Boston Globe in May 1992. I find myself being engulfed in this birthday wish quite often lately. A combination of hearing his voice when I read his wish and the eerie declaration he leaves of what future generations — including ours — will battle. His birthday wish isn’t just for me, but for our country and all those who want to make a positive difference.
Oh, by the way, his parents (my amazing great grandparents) were Jewish immigrants.
A Birthday Wish
Yesterday, when you turned 4 years old, I became 54. There is clearly something we share in the stars. I write to you because I love you and want to share with you, when you care to read this and understand, something of my experience.
At first, you will be too young to comprehend this. Later, you will be too busy growing up and, therefore, too impatient to be bothered. But someday you might peruse this, and perhaps you can use a bit of it here or there.
Your birthday was, I hope, a fun day for you. I recall you telling me that your friends were coming over and that you would have cake and ice cream. Steve was planning to bring you a Barbie Nintendo, whatever that is, and Caryl and Alyssa bought you an alphabet book — you pull a letter, and there’s an animal — B for bear, C for crocodile.
Now, when I ask you how old you are, and you say, “This many,” you can hold up four fingers. And as you keep reminding us, one more year (or finger), and you can play tee-ball. You’ll knock it outta the park, kid.
But not everything was perfect for our birthdays. The world is an imperfect place. Your mom, who has done a wonderful job raising you, was going in for surgery today, and that’s never easy. And the news from elsewhere was filled with anguish.
In Los Angeles and other cities, people took brooms and shovels to clean up the litter of riots. These are not the first riots we have experienced in America, and I fear they will not be the last. The rioters, as always, included those feeling despair and oppression, to those on a lark, to those who simply want to loot and hurt. The victims, as usual, included the criminal and the innocent.
Brooms and shovels cannot clear away the litter cast about over years of neglect. It is the litter of unredressed grievances over race, class, and economic unfairness. I fear your generation will be asked to pay heavily for that neglect, for the unwillingness of previous generations to confront their responsibility to their contemporaries and descendants.
I want you to know that some of us tried. When too many complained, even in good times, that taxes were too high, although ours were lower than those of other countries; when Americans whined that registering to vote was inconvenient, even as others died for the right to vote; when people kept still in the face of bigotry, racism and just pure hatred, there were some who would not follow the mob and who would pray for the strength to stand tall.
But I write this not for you to despair, but, rather, for you to understand some of what has created the world that challenges you and your generation. In doing so, I would be remiss were I not to tell you how wonderful a world it can be, how much love and joy you and your mom bring me and my family, how friendships weather storms, how a sense of humor gets you through the day, how individuals can and do make a difference.
When I turned 4, millions of Americans lined up in front of their local schools. Not the kids, Lauren, but adults who waited for a long time that day while teachers did the paperwork that enabled those adults to get their first wartime ration books, allowing them one half-pound of sugar a week.
That night, the lights went out all along the New England coastline and for three miles inland. Nazi submarine crews had been silhouetting their targets, mostly merchant marine vessels, against the sky-glow and shorelights. The sirens would wail, and Steve’s grandfather and others would put on white helmets and patrol the streets.
The world was at war, and the news from Holland, Corregidor, Burma and the English Channel was not good. There are few left to remember how close we came, Lauren, to living in a world ruled by madmen. Millions sacrificed so that we would not.
So your birthday comes at better times than did my 4th year on this planet. Slowly and unsteadily, we do make progress, kid. For this imperfect world we leave you, I offer neither guilt nor apologies, but, rather, a challenge. Make it better.