Roots. My father’s parents were Jewish immigrants from the Baltic states. My grandfather was born in Vilna, Lithuania. And my grandmother came to the United States from Riga, the capital of Latvia. My grandmother’s native language was German, my father used to proclaim proudly. “She didn’t speak Yiddish like some prost Russian Jew.”
They hadn’t known it, these Northern and Eastern European Jews, but each of them, pondering the momentous decision to leave the native country, was only a tiny drop in what became the Third Wave of Jews to Philadelphia. They were different in physique, culture, and class from the English Jews (the First Wave) and the German Jews (the Second Wave), both of whom, safely established in the City of Brotherly Love, were, in the main, hostile to these Jewish brethren. Not only did the newcomers threaten the status of those who had preceded them, but they were arriving in too great a number. Indeed, the Third Wave of immigrants to the United States made this the greatest mass immigration in all history.
William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania, unlike the others, was designed first as a sanctuary and in this sanctuary these men and women were to come into their full fruitfulness.
But all the same, upon arrival in this country these homeless and frightened Baltic and Eastern European Jews had to manage their fear, the sense of isolation, estrangement, and rejection. Most were in dread of ridicule. Daily crucial decisions had to be made: what to call oneself, whether to speak Yiddish, German, Russian, or English, which neighborhood to live in, what songs to sing in public (even in private), what to read, whom to court, how to dress, how to cut one’s hair, what foods to eat, and which, if any, of the 613 commandments to follow.
Should one imitate the Philadelphia establishment’s Anglican-Church Jews, intermarry, take on the coloration of the new landscape and safely disappear into it, or, winding the ancient leather phylacteries around one’s body in prayer (as my grandfather did his entire life), join battalions of disinherited brethren who were looking forward to “next year in Jerusalem?” If the latter, might this not lead to a new ghetto? But must a choice be made in this free land? Were there not German Jews in Philadelphia, who were 32nd-degree Masons and who nonetheless prayed visibly at the most exclusive synagogue, Kenesseth Israel, and were admitted to the Mercantile Club and to the golf links of the Philmont Country Club near Jenkintown? Perhaps one could remain a Jew, but of a certain kind.
Wholesale name-surgery — the simplest form of self-mutilation in the service of becoming American — was common in this Third Wave: Favoshenko became first Fabush and then Phillips; Rabinowitz, Robbins; Goldstein, Galdston; Horowitz, Harris; Cohen, Conn; Kaplan, Copland; and Russman, Ross.
For my grandparents, Freedman remained Freedman. My grandparents kept their name and their religion. They remained pious, orthodox Jews till the day they died.
Nose-surgery came later, with affluence. Some refused all such transformations as demeaning and hurried to build an extension of the immediate families in the form of landsmanshaft (fellow-countryman’s lodge) with other Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Galician, Austrian, Latvian or Lithuanian Jews, preferably all from the same town. The monthly dues, a considerable sacrifice, insured them against collective identity-dissolution and provided them with the more tangible benefits of legal advice, medical help, and ultimately, burial plots. At the meetings they could talk about their past and of “America, America” or of “Americhka, goniff” (America, thief).