Walking Through Generations


         

Walking Through Generations

 
 
 
 

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Continuing The Walk

By Richard Steinberg

Here I am in my literary overcoat whispering: "Look at me! I'm taking a walk . . . one that began over a century ago."

109 years back, two brothers - both recently married - were thinking about their future. In a nameless shtetl in Central Russia, the oppressiveness of their lives - never before considered - began to bear in on them. With a child on the way for one, hopes for a child in the other's heart, they decided that they owed it to their future children to give them the chances that their fathers had never been allowed.

Jews in Tsarist Russia were non-citizens - taxed, but not represented; attacked with no reason and no possible redress; free to be arrested without warrant, jailed without trial, executed without charges - and with no hint of change in the wind, their collective lot could on

ly worsen. But there was something else in the wind in that Spring of 1898:

America

America was a dream with a core of reality. A place where you could go as far as hard honest work and good spirit could bring you. A place where you were judged by your actions not your religion. A place that didn't promise success, but promised the unfettered opportunity to pursue success.

So they packed up their families, their few belongings, and began to walk.

Through Latvia and Lithuania they all walked. Six months on found them in Poland . . . where the quota for emigration to America had been closed. So they continued forward; always forward.

Czechoslovakia . . . Austria . . . Germany . . . Belgium

And each time they either arrived too late to make that year's quota, or couldn't afford passage, or illness prevented their moving on just then. But the dream of America, the possibilities of America energized their spirits, and propelled them forward.

In Valognes, France - two years after they'd started, they paused for six months. One child had been born and another (my grandfather) was on the way. The brothers worked every job they could find; their wives did laundry and sewing, and finally in the Fall of 1901 enough money was raised to take the next step:

Passage to England

In England, there was an open emigration quota and transient jobs were plentiful; so it was from there they hoped to take their final steps into the dream of America.

And the walk continued . . . this time from their port of debarkation (Plymouth) to the small but vital Jewish community in Leeds, some 250 miles away. There, they paused again; until enough money was raised to send the older brother on to America. Everyone in the family worked hard at as many jobs as they could get (on both sides of the Atlantic) to earn the money to bring the rest of the family across the ocean.

And some two years later, both families (alive, well, intact, and grown to include three children) that had left a land where they were despised or invisible, stood looking at the Statue of Liberty; prepared to begin their lives with the finest, most precious gift possible - one they had earned in their seemingly endless walk across a continent and an ocean - the gift of freedom and possibilities.

The scope of that walk, the bravery of that walk astounds me. Today, we complain about having to walk to the corner to get a paper. We get in our cars or hail a cab to go to the theater five blocks away. These two men, their wives, and eventually their three babies walked some two thousand plus miles with no money, no guarantees, and no assurance that it would ever lead them to what they wanted. Through storms and heat, facing innumerable dangers and despairs, they continued on for just a mere whisper in the wind: that in America, there would be possibilities.

Not streets paved with gold, not gifts and entitlements, not anything beyond one magical incantation:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Now, here I stand - five blocks off of the Las Vegas Strip - without fear of censorship or being killed simply because I'm a Jew; with constitutional rights guaranteed, with a voice that will be listened to or shouted down, but heard nonetheless. Here I stand, in the footsteps of David and Philip Meister (become Steinberg, when the Immigration Officer at Ellis Island couldn't pronounce their last name, and so gave them a new one off of an approved list) offering my opinion on everything from sports to politics to fashion to culture to international security.

Here I stand, continuing the walk they began 109 years ago.

Where will it take me, this walk that I have inherited? What will I encounter in the years and miles to come that David and Philip could not have possibly foreseen?

The brothers lived in a fairly small world of their own village where the greatest danger came on horseback and announced itself with bugles and drums. I live in a global society capable of destroying itself in twenty-four minutes with a nuclear shroud. The brothers showed a kind of courage and faith in their commitment to their journey that I often despair of ever having. The brothers lived in a world without technological demons, with little government, and tomorrow not a limitation but a promise.

I live in a world of forms and computers, with tomorrow a looming threat.

But there is at least one thing I do share with David and Philip; perhaps a result of genetic memory or shared cellular heritage.

I continue to walk toward the future.

I may do it on one foot - having stupidly lost my right one last year - and I may do it with more overt doubts than they had, but I still put one foot in front of my prosthesis and continue on.

So I ask you all to pause on your own journeys for a time each month and walk beside me. I can't promise you'll always agree with me, or even like what it is I have to say. But I can promise you that the things we'll see together, the things we'll do together, the things we'll be together, will open your eyes, stress your doubts and relax your sureties. Maybe show you a new color in an old black & white picture, or give sudden clarity to a kaleidoscopic puzzle in the world.

And the walk continues . . .


About the Author: Richard Steinberg is the New York Times & international best-selling author of The Four Phase Man (soon to be a Warner Bros. miniseries), Nobody's Safe, and The Gemini Man (winner of 21 literary awards around the world). He has appeared on over 1,600 radio and television stations in the past six years.

~~~~~~~

from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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