I spent my time in New York at the Borough Park Symposium, where I presented a paper on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which you can read right here. After the symposium, I decided to walk the mile or so from the Yale Club, where it was held, to Penn Station, where I’d take the train to Newark International for my flight to Moscow. I changed out of my suit and into more casual garb in the overheated Yale Club men’s room, repacked my 50-lb. roller bag, and set out.
To me, New York is the City with a capital C, the City of distant memories in my parents’ scattered tales of their early years. Its sidewalks are thoroughly 21st century, but they somehow take me back two generations to the days of grandpas Sam Mandel and Sam Resnik, who made their living somewhere on these same pavements. It’s motherland.
The Yale Club is just across the street from Grand Central, so it was on my left for the first block, until I took a right to Fifth Avenue, and then left, or south, toward Penn Station, past the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, guarded by its two stone-cold lions. I was talking with Jane on the cell phone for this part of the walk, narrating as I went, which brought it all into even better focus. Yes, it was cold, not that cold, really at 30 degrees and sunny, but cold enough to be compared countless times with California weather, and a big reason for my parents’ migration to California as they told it. After a few blocks, it was right again on 34th Street under the vast shadow of the Empire State Building, past Macy’s on the other side and then Madison Square Garden on this side, and the big, rather uninspired façade of Pennsylvania Station. All of this is Manhattan for everyone, but somehow for me, it’s the landscape of my Jewish past, the most recent of my motherlands.
As I arrived at Penn Station (which was an impossible chaos at rush hour to my uninitiated eyes), and starting to think about my red-eye flight to Moscow, I was also thinking of my two Russian-born grandfathers who walked these same streets after they arrived in America. Sadly, I heard little of their personal stories, beyond the shared saga of insecurity and threat and limited horizons in the old country, and the dogged struggle to create something different in the new. New York City in those days was the most densely populated spot on earth, and the crowds were largely Jewish—Jewish men, women, and children pressured out of Russia by the Czarist government and desperately regrouping in this new country.
The story goes that my grandfather Resnik noticed lots of broken windows when he arrived and soon started carrying panes of glass on his back in some sort of frame he’d devised, and hawking them on the streets. He persevered and made his fortune, a good portion of which he lost in the Great Depression, but managed to remain at least middle-class.
It’s a tale typical of Russian Jews who took a chance on the journey to America and made it work out. I also admire the Russian Jewish community that didn’t leave, which survived decades of repression under Communist rule—and an interlude of Nazi terror during the German invasion of World War II—as well as deep-rooted anti-Semitism before and since. It’s my first visit to Russia, but we’ve had the privilege of knowing a Russian Jews in Albuquerque who emigrated in more recent years, as Soviet rule collapsed. Our friend Anatoliy, who passed away not long ago, served as a field surgeon with the Red Army in the struggle against Hitler, performing thousands of operations just behind the battle lines, and then became a world-renowned authority on vascular surgery, who spent most of his professional years practicing in Siberia because Jewish doctors had limited opportunities in Moscow. Another friend, Michael, who is still among us, survived the war by joining the partisan resistance in the forests of Belarus as a teenager. After the war he became a truck driver, and eventually made aliyah as a grandpa by driving his well-maintained 70s vintage Lada sedan from Russia, through the Balkan states and Greece, and then onto a freighter bound for Israel.
Who knows what other heroic tales I might hear from the Russian Jews I meet on this journey?