Reflections on Father and the Fourth of July

By Hannah Lee

Today is Dad’s shaloshim–  moon yuet in Cantonese– 30 days since the passing of Peter Yu-Woon Lee from our world.  It is a surreal experience to lose a parent, one who’s known me longer than anyone else on Earth.

My Rabbi asked me for three stories about my father and I interpreted this to mean life lessons and not funny anecdotes.

First, Dad taught me that presentation matters: whether it is the colorful arrangement of food on a plate or the crisp edges on a wrapped gift.

Second, Dad taught me that education matters and it’s what one carries in one’s head (and maybe only that) across international borders.  While looking through boxes of family photographs, I found ones from the trip when he accompanied my brother for his Study Abroad program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  How proud Dad was to be visiting as a parent of an American college student, when he couldn‘t enjoy the life of a scholar himself.  He relished the achievements of his three children, who’ve earned degrees from Brown, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and N.Y.U. And in the next generation, the seven grandchildren are primed to earn degrees from ‘Chicago, Princeton, Haverford, and Columbia…This is the country with compulsory, free education for the children and how special it is.

Third, Dad taught me not to harbor resentment of the past.   He was a man of little words and he did not waste them on the traumas of his childhood and early adulthood or even the travails of making a new life in a foreign land.  I’ve learned to let go of grudges: it’s certainly more liberating to do so.

My elder daughter asked me recently how did I learn to feel the way I do about social welfare?  It’s not so much an explicit lesson, but more Life as Lived.  My father taught me so much in how he conducted himself.  I cannot turn off the voice in my head or stop noticing how people suffer when their human dignity is denied.  Thus, my work on behalf of refugees and the fact that I lend money, interest-free, to our beloved cleaning lady (and give her vacation pay and holiday bonuses).  Dad would be delighted to know that his granddaughter will be working in social justice, the next frontier for activism.

My father was a proud citizen of the United States of America.  He may not have endorsed every policy, but this is a country that enables its people to live life as they envision: free to practice their faith, their livelihood, and their personal ethics.  Happy Fourth of July, Dad!


An Ethiopian Jew’s Journey

By Hannah Lee

I met Barak Avraham, known as Malaku in his native Amharic, during his 2-week tour of the United States on behalf of AMIT, which supports a network of 108 schools and programs in 29 cities in Israel. Avraham’s personal story is a marvelous case study of how AMIT schools turn around individual lives and whole towns. His trek began at age 9 when he walked, with his mother and four siblings, for three weeks from their village of Abu Zava to the city of Gondar in Ethiopia. Sleeping outdoors at night, they were at the peril of anti-Semites, who recognized them as Jews and strangers. (His non-Jewish father, already divorced, stayed at home.)

Back in their village, his maternal family dreamed of going to Jerusalem, a place like Paradise where people wear white garments and they do not have to work. After waiting eight months, they were accepted for flight aboard the covert Operation Solomon, which airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in a 36-hour mission in May, 1991. Before boarding, Avraham’s mother buried their remaining Ethiopian money, birr, because she thought they would not need money in the Promised Land.

Avraham’s memories of his childhood in Ethiopa included Pesach, when they eagerly anticipated the gift of matzot delivered by shluchim (emissaries), homemade soccer balls fashioned from old socks and electrical wire, and a world without television or cars, just as life was lived 200 years before. The transition from a traditional society to a modern one was especially hard for the elders, such as his grandparents who arrived later. His family spent a year in an absorption center, merkaz klita, learning to adjust to Israeli ways, including eating with forks and knives. Ethiopian foods, such as teff and injera, are eaten with the right hand.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood and with a single mother, Avraham lost his way when he was in his “foolish teen years,” tipesh esrei, when he was expelled from one school after another. No one wanted him any longer. This was a painful period for his mother, who cried in shame and sadness. “I decided that I was going to change. That if my mother was going to cry because of me, it would be with pride, not from sorrow.” On the advice of a friend attending school at the AMIT Kfar Blatt Youth Village in Petach Tikva, he wrote a letter of appeal to the director, Amiran Cohen. A visionary educator, Cohen had him sign a pledge of changes he would make in his life.

Cohen, who became a special friend, and the support network of surrogate parents, teachers, and social workers helped Avraham focus his intelligence. He had always been told that he had “much potential.” Upon passing the bagrut, matriculation exams, he was accepted into an elite intelligence unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and served with distinction as an outstanding soldier. His mother cried with pride and joy at this completion ceremony.

The IDF taught him discipline and it broadened Avraham’s horizons. He listened as his army mates of different backgrounds from all over the country shared their dreams for the future. He knew then he had to get an education, which was assisted by an IMPACT scholarship from the Friends of the IDF. He was the valedictorian and the top Ethiopian student graduating with a degree in government diplomacy from The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Later, when he earned a master’s in public service, also from the IDC, he gave a speech before an audience of 4,000 and his mother cried again from joy.

Now 30, Avraham is an entrepreneur and founder of an Internet start-up company and manager of a teen community house in Petach Tikva. He is also coordinator of a new program at the AMIT Rambam Elementary School in Netanya. Rambam was a failing school. The Ministry of Education appealed to AMIT to rescue this school, and AMIT now plans to designate it a magnet school, an innovative model that brings together in one school the top-achieving students with the most needy ones. Avraham’s program includes football (soccer to Americans), mentoring, and parent support. Coming from the same poor neighborhood and background, Avraham gives the children confidence that they, too, can succeed.

Avraham’s newest dream is to join the Knesset in the next election. A Social Democrat, he parts ways with the older Ethiopians who tend to vote Likud, although “it’s capitalist,” and they’re poor but they vote for the country’s security needs. His mother, for one, cannot bear to hear anything bad against Israel. (The Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in January, has two Ethiopians in its cabinet.) Barak Avraham’s future was paved by the caring leaders and staff of the AMIT schools.

Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

By Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.


The Will to Persevere

By Hannah Lee

A recent feature article in The New York Times argued that the poor have a greater barrier to obtaining a college education than ever before.* The profile described three young women who were considered the most likely to succeed and leave their “dead-end lives” in Galveston, TX. The dismal news is that five years after graduation from high school, none of them has a college degree, only one is still studying full-time, and two have burdensome debts.  I felt sad for them and their prospects, which brought me to ponder anew about fate and fortune and perseverance.

Two books that I’ve read recently had similar themes about how individuals coped with adversity.  One was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a memoir of Louis Zamperini, a World War II lieutenant, who endured much brutality and deprivation as a prisoner-of-war under Japanese rule. Upon the conclusion of the war, his former promising career as an Olympic runner was derailed, as his stressed body could no longer handle the rigorous training. However, his story did not end in bitterness and defeat.

The other book was an academic treatise written by Steve Hochstadt titled, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape From the Third Reich. Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai when all other doors had slammed shut. They had to deal with heat, alienation in a foreign culture, and poverty. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from a study base of over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors. They all had to re-invent their lives after the war.

The New York Times profile listed the obstacles to the young women’s success as: poverty, inadequate academic preparation, and family and romantic ties.  (A friend, Marshall, also adds “the diminished economic prospects of working-class males and the rise of assortative mating.”)  One young woman chose the local community college because of her grandfather’s struggle with cancer and she felt it would be “selfish” to go away for schooling. This posed another barrier that was new to me, the peril of “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend. The article quoted a Brookings researcher, who said, “The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate. There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”

We cannot choose our lot in life, but our responses to our situation can either foster or hinder our ability in navigating our life’s path. I could be faulted for using war stories, which are extreme social constructs, as the basis of comparison, so I’ll invoke my own history.

My family arrived in the United States in 1967, after President Lyndon Johnson liberalized the immigration laws to allow for family reunification.  My paternal aunt had sponsored us, after she’d married a Chinese-American war veteran. My parents were poor and poorly educated, but they had a burning desire for their children to succeed in this new country. So, when I was tracked into the slow class because of my limited English fluency, my mother asked for a translator and demanded that I be moved to another class with greater expectations and more homework.  The next year, fourth grade, was hard for me, as I suddenly had to submit reports on current events. My strategy was to ask my father to read from the Chinese newspapers and I translated it into simple English. My efforts were rewarded when I landed in the highest class in sixth grade and earned a place in a selective public high school, Hunter, which in turn prepared me for an elite university, Brown, where I met my husband in neuroscience class. I wasn’t offered tutoring or academic support of any kind. My whole life was changed because of my mother’s high expectations.

The three young women profiled in the NYTimes did not have family support, so they felt pressure to contribute to the family income.  In contrast, my mother insisted that we, my two siblings and I, stay out of the factory, even while she and my father struggled to support us alone. The years my siblings and I attended college in the early 1980s were during a severe recession and the turning point when the garment industry moved overseas. I managed college with a campus job, loans, and scholarships.  I also did not have romantic entanglements that kept me in the ghetto.

The Shanghai refugees spoke of their dislocation as the litmus test that challenged their strength of character, their resilience.  They benefited from the tzedakah, charity, of Jews who’d arrived earlier and established themselves in China. (Being stateless refugees, they were spared when Japan sided with Germany while the established Jews and other Europeans were considered enemy aliens.)

Another fascinating lesson to me from Unbroken was how Louis Zamperini recovered from his setbacks. Zamberini had a wild youth until he discovered a solace in running. He raged against his Japanese captors for ruining his life even after the War, when his traumatized body could no longer support competitive running. Then, in a chance meeting with the evangelist preacher, Billy Graham, he experienced forgiveness and serenity. Through Graham’s teachings, Zamperini was able to let go of resentment, rage, and the need for revenge. Thus unburdened, he was able to forge a new life of hope and love, by establishing the non-profit Victory Boys Camp for wayward youth, where he and his staff teach juvenile delinquents the skills to succeed in life.  He and his wife Cynthia raised two boys of their own.

I’m still trying to learn how and why people overcome their personal challenges.  The history of Jewish and Asian immigrants— my two touchstones–  and our achievements in American society have validated the high value we place on education.  However, I’ve been searching for other bases for resilience.  What are other ways for people to persevere?  My lessons so far have included inner strength, family expectations, God, and the kindness of strangers.

*“Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.” [New York Times, December 23, 2012]