Book Chat With Lev Golinkin

By Hannah Lee

As a student in college, Lev Golinkin confided in his professor that he had no future.  No, the professor concurred, it’s worse, because he also had no past.  As a 9-year-old refugee from the Ukraine, Golinkin had suppressed his cultural identity, both in order to assimilate and to erase a painful childhood in a region of the former Soviet Union where anti-Semitism was particularly virulent.  He then realized that he had to reconcile his past with his present in order to determine his future, so he spent several years researching his family’s journey. 

When the Golinkin family fled their home, they knew only to go to a particular train station in Vienna.  They knew no one and they had to rely on the kindness of strangers.  Golinkin tracked down everyone who’d helped his family, including the non-Jewish woman who met them at the train station.  He has high praise for two Jewish organizations—  the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee— both known only by their acronyms in a foreign language. HIAS and JDC.  His research resulted in a memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, and it is the choice for this year’s One Book, One Jewish Community project.  In its ninth year, this is the largest event of this kind in the United States.  He spoke at Gratz College on Sunday to a full auditorium. 

Golinkin still marvels at the expeditiousness of the Soviet Jewry exodus.  In latter months of 1989, compelled by rumors of an impending pogrom, 90,000 Jews fled the former Soviet Union. The next year, 100,000 Jews left their homeland.  The Jewish communities of the United States and Israel mobilized to adopt (with legal obligations) and absorb all these people.   We did it so well that it went under the radar for the general media and it was not a political football.

Asked why did his family not go to Israel, Golinkin said that being estranged from the religious tradition, they had no compulsion to do so.  They merely sought a place where there was a lesser chance of their home being hit by missiles.  In choosing a college, he wanted a good one but without a Judaic Studies program. He chose Boston College, a Catholic Jesuit school, because it was known by its double adjectives, so he thought it was like “extra crispy”–  Catholic, extra special.  Then his conversation with his professor led to his Jewish awakening.

Russian Jews are not known to affiliate with the Jewish establishment, either here or in Israel.  This is in part the result of generations of intense anti-Semitism, such that little Lev thought being a Jew was only a disease, a burden on Russian society.  However, his nephew is growing up a member of the American Jewish community, so he foresees progress for the second generation of immigrants.  This is good news for all the individuals and organizations who’ve invested so much time and resources to rescuing the Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Golinkin now feels most Jewish when he’s doing good with his hands, building houses and other kinds of community service.   He speaks in public about immigration and he writes editorials about the current refugee crises.  He’s most proud when Jews help non-Jews, as HIAS now helps to re-settle Syrian refugees.  Judi Bernstein-Baker, Executive Director of HIAS-PA, was on hand to receive the new backpacks and stuffed animals collected at the event, and she told me that A Backpack, A Bear, and Eigth Crates of Vodka is the first narrative about the Soviet Jewry exodus from the point of view of the Russian émigrés.  Finally, we get their perspective.

The Danger of Isolation

By Hannah Lee

Students of Chinese history know that a cultural giant that dominated Asia and termed itself, the Middle Kingdom, closed up its borders to foreigners during the Ming dynasty.  The Emperor Wu forbade all trade with the “barbarian” world.  The Great Wall was completed to stop invasion from the north; its sheer size makes it the only man-made structure visible from the moon.  After the year 1424, seafaring expeditions were forbidden, so China lost its prowess on the seas while European countries rose uncontested.

Japan endured its own isolationist policy under the Tokugawa shogunate from 1633–39 and remained in effect until 1853.  It attempted to keep abreast of Western technology by studying medical and other texts in the Dutch language on the small artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, built to confine foreign traders.

The United States had its own sad history of isolationist policies during the 1920s and 1930s as well as the tragic and cruel imprisonment of citizens of Japanese, Italian, and German descent during World War II.  [Note: check out The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell.]

What we’re witnessing is a massive global migration of desperate people, fleeing violent conflict and societal upheaval.  Why are Americans talking about building walls across our northern and southern borders?  What a waste of governmental funds!  We’re a nation of immigrants that has benefitted enormously from their contributions in all sectors of society.

Last night, HIAS welcomed its first Syrian refugee family to the Philadelphia area.  This family had been waiting for four years to come to the United States.  The State Department has enacted additional guidelines for the Syrians, refusing entrance to anyone from the refugee camps, citing concern for militarization there, and with extra security precautions.

We are separated from the Middle East by the Atlantic Ocean, so we are not be in the footpaths of the desperate people.  Why not channel our concern about this crisis in helping the refugees and asylum seekers in our midst with: American acculturation, after-school homework help, mentoring the college-bound teens, and/or preparation for naturalization exams.  We are privileged to show the new arrivals the American way, the democratic way to religious freedom.  We owe this to ourselves and our ancestors, the first immigrants to this country.

From Refusniks to Dreamers: Americans and Immigration Policy

By Hannah Lee

Jews have an abiding faith in immigration, going back to our Biblical roots and continuing with our arrival in the United States. This faith also showed last century, with the Soviet Jewry’s struggle for freedom, in which Philadelphian Jews had a prominent role. Finally, the recent discussions on immigration reform resonate for many Jewish people. These were the topics of a forum held on June 20th at the National Museum of American Jewish History, and coordinated by the Russian-Speaking Professionals Network of Greater Philadelphia.

Connie Smukler with Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, and Elinore Holms Norton in Moscow, 1976

Connie Smukler shared stories of her many trips to the Soviet Union, meeting with prominent (and ordinary) “refusniks,” and lobbying for their freedom. Marina Merlin, now with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania, spoke of her family’s struggle to leave their country, which was painstakingly slow, degrading, and financially draining, as her husband had to leave his beloved job as a physicist in order to keep his co-workers from scrutiny by the KGB (the Soviet security agency).

Igor Kotler, executive director of the Museum of Human Rights, Freedom and Tolerance, gave an overview of the Soviet Jewry movement, dating its forming to 1969, when a group of Georgian Jews asked permission to leave for Israel. This was a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, that put Israel in the headlines and gave Russian Jews the impetus to study their Jewish heritage and history.

The honorable Carlos Giralt-Cabrales, consul-general of Mexico in Philadelphia, gave the keynote speech, in which he noted that the Mexican immigration started with an invitation, by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to replenish the agricultural labor force during World War II. Under what was known as the Bracero Program, about 4 1/2 million workers migrated to the United States since August 1942 and until the end of the program in 1964. Another interesting point was that this was a temporary migration, with the workers returning home to Mexico. The border enforcements of recent times broke the pattern of seasonal migration, which led to a permanent and often undocumented settlement in the United States.

Giralt-Cabrales said that there is a social and economic contradiction in the undocumented immigration, as we need the labor, but do not want the workers. “As next-door neighbors, it behooves us to seek a workable solution to our common problem,” he said. The Consul-General deems the Mexican immigration as a strictly economic one, as workers move to where there are plenty of jobs.

Judi Bernstein-Baker, the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, noted the differences and similarities between the movement to free Soviet Jewry and today’s struggle of immigrants to achieve a path to citizenship. The Soviet Jewry movement was a reaction to totalitarianism and a striving for religious freedom. The similarity between the two struggles is that it took protests, rallies, allies and legislation for exchange. Bernstein-Baker explained that many immigrants have lived in the U.S. for 10 or 20 years in the shadows, and supporting their effort to participate in the mainstream by earning a path to citizenship is “a very Jewish thing to do.”

Maria Sotomayer and a young ally at a rally with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition

Maria Sotomayer is one of the young “DREAMers,” who are advocates for potential beneficiaries of the Development, Relief, and Education For Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a conditional path to lawful permanent residence for certain undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. She arrived from Ecuador when she was nine, her parents worked in several jobs, and she earned good grades in school. But her prospects without documentation would be low-skill jobs such as hers at the pizza shop. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, issued by the Department of Homeland Security in June 2012, changed her life. She has since graduated from Neumnann College, obtained a work permit, and now works for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. She hopes to attend graduate school to study psychology.

Bernstein-Baker noted that the publicity of the temporary opportunity for young aliens to apply for legal status with a work permit, a Social Security card, and a driver’s license — all under DACA — has broadened awareness of other avenues for legal status, already in place, such as for young immigrants who had been abused, abandoned, or victims of trafficking.

“The tenor of the public debate on immigration has shifted rapidly in recent years,” says Francois Ihor-Mazur, an immigrant lawyer, who no longer hears the query, “Why don’t you go to the back of the line, because there is no line to go behind.”

A central message of the program was that this is country “was built by immigrants, for immigrants,” said Giralt-Cabrales. It was an absorbing symposium that generated much food for thought, as well as continuing education credits for the lawyers in the audience.

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]