American Exceptionalism & Immigration

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The Immigrant Experience


     One hundred years ago, in 1911, a bearded Jew arrived on a ship in New York. His brother, who had been here for two years, met him at the dock. Both men wore black clothes, earlocks and “tzitses” fringes. Moyshe, the “New Yorker,” greeted “Yankele,” his brother, and reminded him that it was Shabbes, the Sabbath, and that they would have to walk to his apartment on this beautiful day in June. As they walked, they came to a small park where a number of people were sitting on benches, including one bald man without any hat, wearing rust colored slacks and a Hawaiian shirt and smoking a cigar. He was reading a Yiddish newspaper.

      “Look!” shouted Yankele, “The U.S. is so great for us Jews!” “How do you know that when you’ve only been here for ten minutes?” said Moyshe. “I know it,” shouted Yankele, “because here even the goyim read Yiddish!”

      We arrived on the dock in Hoboken, New Jersey, on the Staatendam from Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It was a cold day in November. Having been driven  through a tunnel, we arrived in Manhattan on a street called a Throughway. I noticed that almost all the women walking about were prostitutes and that poison was being sold in nearly every store.

       Well, it turned out that the “throughway” was Audubon Avenue, which I thought was the American word for the German “Autobahn.”  “Gift” is German for poison, and at that time, and perhaps even now, German women did not shave their legs nor wear makeup unless they were prostitutes.

        Knowing no English whatever, I could not ask anyone about this. Six weeks later I arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, on an overnight bus. I knew how to read a few words in English but could not speak it. At the bus terminal I looked through a newspaper to see what I could read. To my horror I noticed the word “Indian.”  I could not read any of it but I “knew” that the Indians were coming to kill the white man and I couldn’t understand why everyone in the bus terminal was walking about unconcerned. I had never heard of baseball, which is not played in Europe, nor could I ask anyone about this danger as I could not speak the language. I did know from reading the stories of Karl May, a German author who wrote stories about “Indianer,” that the “red men” would kill and scalp us all. It turns out that May penned most of his books before ever seeing America and wrote from imagination alone.

         Now it is evident that the most important thing an immigrant must do is to learn the language. Without English one cannot achieve very much in this country. Of course, there are those who never learn English in a lifetime. Others, although born here, are functionally illiterate. I found this out while serving in the U.S. 94th Infantry. We had soldiers who could not understand the manuals concerning cleaning a rifle or patrolling a hilly area, etc.

          Because language is so important, immigrants usually move into enclaves where their native tongue is spoken. This was true of the two million Jews who came here from the Russian Empire between 1891 and 1924 and who spoke Yiddish among each other. Irving Howe, in his magnificent book, World of Our Fathers, describes how it took three generations for the Jews to become assimilated to American life and speak the language fluently. For us, who came from the Nazi horrors, a different problem arose. Unlike our Russian brethren, we seldom had a family either here or in Europe, as most had been murdered. In addition, we could not speak Yiddish. So when we entered a synagogue, we were greeted in Yiddish because we evidently did not know English. We answered in German, which enraged the Yiddish speakers who viewed us as arrogant for using German and “refusing” to speak Yiddish. We were told we were responsible for the demeaning manner in which they or their relatives were treated in Germany by the Jews they accosted on their way from Russia to America. In short, we were rejected by the Jewish community. There were of course Germans here, but for obvious reasons we German Jews did not contact them.

          Therefore, German Jews founded German speaking congregations. In Cleveland it was called “The Gates of Hope.”  That congregation still exists and is now called “Shaarey Tikvah.” It is all English speaking now. Then, a German rabbi, Krohnheim, ran the service in  a loft over a restaurant.

           Even if an immigrant learns the language, more or less, he is still confronted with making a living. Usually this meant doing manual labor at a low wage. That is no cause for complaint, since the alternative would have been to remain in Europe, the locale of our worst nightmares. In fact, the United States was under no obligation to let any of us in but did so because this is an exceptional country.

            We are now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of our 40th president, Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly reminded us of “American exceptionalism.”

            This “exceptionalism” includes allowing a foreigner with a bad accent to enter the armed services (name another country which allows that). Not only that, but those of us who passed basic training were sworn in as citizens after being here only three years despite the usual civilian rule that one must be here five years and pass an English and history examination. Those of us who were not citizens were driven to Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, and became citizens in a short ceremony just because we passed basic training (name another country which permits that). That was not all. Two weeks after I was discharged, I received a letter from the Veterans Administration to the effect that the V.A. would pay for my college education for four years In any university willing to accept the veteran. In addition, the V.A. paid my living expenses during those four years. Well, believe it or not, the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act” paid for my B.A. and M.A. degrees at the expensive private Western Reserve University and gave me $120 a month to live on. That is about the same as $1200 a month today. They even paid for all my books (name another country willing or able to do that).

            Thereafter, the State of New York paid my tuition toward the doctor’s degree, allowing me to become a professor (name another country whose taxpayer would do that).

            Meanwhile I met a gorgeous, brilliant German immigrant girl whom I married when we were a good deal younger than is customary today. In the next generation our three children became professional people and our five grandchildren exceeded us all (name another country where that is possible).

            The truth is that Ronald Reagan was right. We cannot name another country where any of this could have occurred. Multiply my experience by millions of others and you will agree that this is an exceptional country for all who have the good fortune of being here.

             It pains me, therefore, that so many of my native born colleagues “knock” this country in the classroom and tell students that “Nine-eleven” is our fault and the dictators are great men. It pains me to hear President Obama “kiss up” to the Arab terrorists and it pains me even more to hear my fellow Jews vote for those who despise their own country and promote the interests of Israel’s enemies.

            Was it Hegel who famously said, “All we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history?”  

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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