Inspired by Melania to Express My Debt to America

My story begins with my immigrant Jewish grandfather.

Melania Trump has dignity and charm. Every immigrant has a story, though most don’t get to marry the president of the United States.

Sometimes, these stories are handed down from generation to generation, so they end up being told by children or grandchildren. Mine involves my maternal grandfather, Israel Whitman.

He became an American citizen on August 2, 1901, in the first year of what came to be called the American century. Most of his life was spent in Troy, N.Y, which – coincidentally – was also the home of Samuel Wilson, the man who became the basis for the legend of Uncle Sam.

When America entered World War I, Grandpa tried to enlist in the U.S. Army. Such was his love for his adopted country that he lied about his age (he told them he was younger than he actually was) to get in. Ironically, he’d left Czarist Russia to escape conscription.

He was born in the Pale of Settlement, where Jewish subjects of the Russian Empire were forced to live. For the Romanovs, Jewish Lives Didn’t Matter, other than to serve as cannon fodder for the army. Instead of lynchings, there were pogroms.

My great-grandfather was a Cantonist who died of tuberculosis in the army. Cantonists were Jewish boys, some as young as 12, who were conscripted for a period of 25 years. Their lives were hell. They were beaten and starved to get them to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church.

When he came of age, my grandfather left, seeking a land where people could breathe. A tailor, he showed up at the border one day with a pair of trousers slung over his arm. When the Russian border guard asked him where he was going, my grandfather said he’d altered them for a German officer on the other side and was going to deliver them. The guard waved him through, and he kept walking until he reached a port of embarkation.

Eventually, he ended up in Troy, where he peddled needles and thread door-to-door to earn passage for his wife and oldest son.

Later, he opened a little shop. It wasn’t easy. Men would come in, go behind a curtain and take off their pants. Grandpa would press them for five cents. His family, eventually including six children, lived in an apartment above the shop.

He was typical of the immigrants of his generation: Irish, Italian, Polish, Asian, Latino – the real huddled masses. In spite of a hard life, they were grateful to be here and proud of their adopted land. They found the streets paved with freedom and opportunity for themselves and their families.

Israel spoke English fairly well, a necessity for being in business. But, other than signing his name, he didn’t learn to read or write English. Still, the family never spoke Yiddish at home. They wanted better for their children. The third generation includes a doctor, a lawyer, a judge and a college professor.

Grandpa worked six days a week, 12-hour days, and went to shul on Shabbos. The family’s synagogue (it was called the River Street Shul) is still standing; it was built around 1911.

I don’t have memories of him – only family stories and faded photographs. He died when I was less than two years old.  I’m told he was gentle, kind and generous and loved me fiercely.

He’d come to the apartment building where my parents lived on the second floor. When I saw him, I’d run to the top of the stairs and yell, “Pa,” and the poor old man would rush up and gather me up in his arms.

And man, how he loved his adopted country. The idea of natural-born Americans hating America would have left him speechless.

He never learned much history. Where was the time? He probably didn’t know about George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., written when our republic was but a few years old, pledging tolerance to all faiths.

“Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

“For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean (comport) themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their support.”

He may not have known much about government, but I think my grandfather understood that democracy, respect for human rights and economic freedom didn’t just happen. They were bought with struggle and sacrifice, toil and blood.

Now some of the great men who inspired and led us are being attacked by savages who hate the idea of America, almost as much as my grandfather loved it.

Israel Whitman died on August 11, 1948. He lived long enough to see three of his sons in uniform in two World Wars, and the State of Israel proclaimed after nearly 2,000 years of exile.

My debt to America begins, but doesn’t end, with that old man. His memory should be a blessing.

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Photo credit: Marc Nozell

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