Lesson 1: America Isn't Normal
Before she came to this country, my grandmother watched five of her six children die.
They were all girls, lost between the ages of three weeks and fourteen years, doomed by malnutrition, disease, persecution, and war.
There was nothing extraordinary, nothing exceptional about this series of tragedies; Eastern European parents commonly buried their children in the early decades of this century and learned to accept and expect a dismal pattern of suffering.
It was America, on the other hand, that proved radically different, utterly abnormal--a land bizarrely blessed in defiance of all laws of history. My grandmother understood American exceptionalism before she ever set eyes on the USA--in fact, she staked her life on it.
She was born in 1881 in the ramshackle village of Machnovka in the Ukraine, the blue-eyed, vivacious daughter of a slaughterer, a shochet, deemed respectable and comfortable by the standards of that time and place. At twenty-one, she married a barrel maker, Hershel Medved--hardworking, quiet, and reliable--who relocated to her town from Chmelnik, some twenty miles away, an even more remote and dreary corner of the Pale of Settlement. They bore children nearly every year that they lived together, before my grandfather made the journey to America in 1906. He traveled with his older brother and found work and lodgings in Philadelphia, living miserably but sending home money every month, saving his remaining pennies to pay for the steamship tickets that would bring his wife and children to the New World. After two years, he returned to Russia for a springtime visit that ended up lasting for nearly twelve months, long enough to produce another pregnancy. My grandfather returned to Philadelphia and never met the resulting twin girls, who barely clung to life--one of them lasting only three weeks and the other losing her fight for survival after several months. While my grandmother busied herself with the funeral arrangements for the second twin, she left her three-year-old in the care of a nearby relative. With the mourning period concluded, she reunited with her surviving children--immediately recognizing the deathly pallor of the youngest, Chansi, who had contracted one of the fevers ravaging the region. She died within days, enveloping my grandmother in overlapping cycles of grief.
In Philadelphia, through fanatical labor and self-denial, my grandfather sent money every month to Russia so that the blue-eyed wife he adored could accumulate enough to pay her way to America. She needed to save the cost of ship's passage across the Atlantic, train fare for herself and the children all the way to the Baltic port city of Riga, and bribe money to deal with the corrupt and sadistic Czarist bureaucrats who supervised the complicated border crossings. My grandmother painstakingly packed her nine-year-old son, Moshe (known a(c)ectionately as Moish), and her remaining two daughters, along with her elderly father, who refused to remain behind at home. They sold most of their meager belongings and tearfully departed their Ukrainian village in the summer of 1914.
They rode crowded trains, stifling with heat and sweat, herded together with other would-be emigrants. The swaggering immigration agents, demanding daily bribes to keep their unauthorized charges moving west, forced the mothers to tape shut the mouths of their children so they couldn't cry. When they arrived at Ostrolenka, on the border between Austria and Poland, the officials led the crowds to a row of huts where they could spend the night before crossing the frontier the next morning. According to my grandmother's vivid recollection it was a balmy, beautiful mid-summer evening with an orange-tinted half moon, a dazzling canopy of stars, and the fresh smell of pine forest drifting into the shack where the frightened refugees tried to sleep. That lovely night also happened to mark the beginning of World War I, with the weary Jews awakened before dawn and told to run for their lives ("Yiddin, loif!") and to find their way back to their home villages. With Russia and Austria-Hungary suddenly at war the border had been sealed and the police had begun rounding up or robbing all immigrant bands without the proper papers.
With three wailing children and her frail and ailing father, my grandmother straggled back to the Ukraine, dodging both police and bandits. By the time she arrived, the aborted journey had drained every kopek of the money her husband had sent her from America, as well as the funds she had assembled by selling her possessions. The war that began on that August night lasted for more than three bloody years, followed by revolution, civil war, starvation, persecution, and chaos. My grandmother watched her father die a slow, wasting death she could do nothing to stop, and then her two surviving daughters perished with merciful speed in the same grim and hungry year. Her son, Moshe, the only remaining member of the immediate family, became desperately ill and survived only through the ministrations and prayers of a mysterious, ragged, elderly stranger who had been passing through the village. Till the end of her life, my grandmother identified the visitor as Elijah the Prophet, eternal protector of his suffering people, come to earth in a wretched Ukrainian shtetl to spare her the final, crushing stroke of pain.
More than nine years passed from the time of her first attempt to leave Russia, fourteen years since she had last set eyes on her husband. For months, even years at a time, he lost contact with his grieving wife and only surviving child but when he could reach them reliably he continued to send them money from America, their only hope of survival. Finally, late in 1923, with Lenin consolidating the grip of his Communist dictatorship on a broken and bleeding Russia, her eighteen-year-old son led my terrified grandmother out of the only world she had ever known and they successfully boarded a ship to America.
Once again, their timing proved almost inconceivably poor: by the time their squalid ship made its way to New York Harbor, the year was 1924 and the United States had adopted a strict new immigration law, abruptly and harshly enforcing an act of Congress designed to stop the "invading" hordes, particularly from eastern and southern Europe. After forty years of mass immigration, native-born Americans worried that any sense of national identity and cohesion might be lost; after all, the percentage of U.S. residents born in another nation was even higher then (14 percent) than it is today (11 percent).
In any event, the new legislation took effect during the time my grandmother and her son had been at sea, so the American officials informed them that they had arrived just a few days too late: no immigrant ships could disgorge their human cargo in the United States. This declaration caused hysteria and near riot from the passengers, some of whom threatened to jump overboard and risk drowning rather than give up their goal so close to the promised land. My grandmother could see my grandfather on the deck, dressed in the only suit he owned, waving at her with both arms, but remaining painfully, perhaps permanently, out of reach. For two days, the matter remained unresolved, especially regarding the newcomers who had left Europe before immigration restrictions had taken force and who traveled to America for the purpose of family reunion (theoretically permitted, even under the new law).
Given the circumstances of her arrival, I cannot imagine my grandmother's emotions when she finally descended the gangplank, searching for her husband among the waiting crowds. My grandfather had said goodbye to a vital and reportedly beautiful bride of twenty-nine, with six tiny children. He now welcomed a forty-three-year-old survivor of uncounted horrors, accompanied by one wary, adult son. They would have been virtual strangers to him and to the life he'd built over all those years of toil in the crowded city of Philadelphia. The fact that they managed to renew their marriage, to sustain their love, without hesitation or complaint must in itself count as a miracle.
But the miraculous aspects of the family history don't end there. In 1925, my grandmother fell ill, gaining weight at the same time she lost appetite. The neighbor ladies who she had befriended in their Yiddish-speaking enclave of South Philadelphia made an instant diagnosis: she undoubtedly suffered with a tumor and must immediately visit the doctor. She hesitated, keeping the problem from her hardworking husband, unwilling to allow more bad news to enter a life that had already accumulated its full share. When she could delay the examination no longer she dragged herself to the neighborhood physician, who determined that against all logic, against any expectation, she was pregnant. My father, David Bernard Medved, arrived in February 1926. Because of the widespread local assumption that it had been a tumor, not a baby, growing in my grandmother's body, my father drew the ironic nickname Tumerel--or "Little Tumor"--during his childhood. In an era when most people--especially poor people--aged far more rapidly than today's time-defying Boomers, his mother was forty-five and his father was fifty in the year of his startling birth.
No wonder that my own earliest memories feature a sense of wonder, of gratitude, or providential intervention, of anything-possible optimism regarding our family's place in America, this Land of New Life. Leaving behind the years of mourning and loss in the Continent of Death, my grandparents could come together and in every way begin again.
They read an obvious significance in my grandmother's name--she was Sarah, following the example of her ancestor, the matriarch of Israel. The Bible reports that Abraham's wife conceived at age ninety, after "the manner of women had ceased to be with Sarah" (Genesis 18:11). Her husband had reached the ripe age of one hundred, making them each exactly twice the age of my grandparents at the time or the arrival of their own wondrous, American-born child.
Rabbinic scholars through the ages have pondered the purpose of the Torah text in going out of its way to emphasize the child-bearing difficulties in each generation among the mothers of Israel. Following Sarah, her daughter-in-law Rebecca is described as "barren" before God intervenes to mandate conception of twin sons (Genesis 25:21). The beloved wife of one of those twins, Rachel, also "remained barren" until God "opened her womb" (Genesis 29:31 and 30:22) and facilitated the birth of Joseph. What was it with these early Jews and their inheritance of fertility problems?
The sages suggest that the Torah hopes to make a crucial point about the unnatural--indeed supernatural--existence and persistence of the Jewish people. From its very inception, this nation struggled for existence, requiring divine assistance even in the earliest generations. Nothing can be taken for granted, or viewed as automatic or inevitable, in our unlikely and illogical history.
In the same sense, America arose from abnormal origins. The nation didn't grow organically or gradually from indigenous tribes--like, say, the French or the Poles--but emerged out of courageous, conscious acts of will by Pilgrims and Patriots. Many peoples boast national holidays (Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day, St. Patrick's Day, and so forth), but the United States alone celebrates a clear-cut birthday (July 4, of course) marking the incontestable, openly declared commencement of our historical enterprise.
As a boy, I knew far more about the distinctive and fateful aspects of America's origins than I did about Biblical references to the forefathers and foremothers of Israel. We weren't notably religious in those days, but my dad, as the utterly unexpected American-born gift that blessed his immigrant parents' old age, passed on to me a sense of the freakish fortune and favor associated with this new nation. Even before I reached my twenties and consciously embraced belief in God, I felt an instinctive, irresistible sense of some higher power potently, undeniably entangled with the strange course of the American adventure.
Consider, for example, the outrageously improbable coincidence that bound together the two individuals most responsible for the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Though they later became political rivals, opposing each other for the presidency in both 1796 and 1800, they eventually reestablished their friendship. The two men each lived into unusually old age for their era (Adams to nearly ninety-one and Jefferson, eighty-three) before they died--on precisely the same day. And that day was none other than the Fourth of July--in fact, the fiftieth anniversary of the great Declaration that Adams and Jefferson had made possible. The citizens of the young Republic--including President John Quincy Adams--marveled at the timing and universally saw the hand of Providence at work.
This historical fluke fascinated me from the age of ten, when I first discovered it in a children's biography of Thomas Jefferson. How would you compute the odds that the two great men would die on the same day? And how much more unlikely would it be for that day to fall on the Fourth of July? And how could you rationally expect that the dramatic Independence Day on which they both expired would occur on no ordinary anniversary, but in the festive fiftieth year of an experiment in self-government that practical people might reasonably expect to have failed?
The more you dig into this stuff about the origins of the Republic, the more peculiar and far-fetched some of it becomes, with some of the same compelling but creepy elements often imputed to contemporary paranormal phenomena, but vastly better documented than UFOs or crop circles.
There is, for instance, the bizarre matter of George Washington's battlefield invulnerability, more appropriate to a comic book superhero than to a historical figure. As a commander, he may have failed frequently, but he enjoyed ludicrous and illogical good fortune when it came to his personal safety. On innumerable occasions in two major wars he exposed his huge form (at 6'3" he easily towered over his contemporaries) to enemy fire but to the amazement of his colleagues no bullet ever touched his body. At the Battle of Monongahela in the French and Indian War, for example, the twenty-three-year-old colonel played a conspicuously gallant role in a military disaster in which more than two-thirds of his fellow officers and 60 percent of all enlisted men were killed or wounded. The next day the young soldier wrote to his brother, "By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me. "As commander in chief during the Revolution, he often rode to the front of battle as shots whizzed harmlessly past his head.
It might seem illogical, even outrageous, to juxtapose stirring stories about George Washington with my grandparents' adventures in making their way to a new continent and welcoming their amazing, unexpected, American-born boy. How can I connive to construct a kinship between powdered, periwigged Colonial aristocrats and my own Yiddish-speaking, inelegant, impoverished ancestors? Actually, one more aspect of Washington's biography permits and even encourages such affiliation.