Monday, April 29, 2013


Let's admit that you and I still know precious little about the brothers Tsarnaev.  Yes, the press is trying to patch together bits of information in constructing some semblance of a narrative.  Yes, we're told that Tamerlan was the classical big brother, Dzhokhar the loyal younger sibling.  The older seems to have achieved most (but not enough) in the boxing ring, the younger was apparently the better student with a seemingly active social media life.  But this "information" is largely second hand and thus as biography it remains largely conjecture.  There are also supposed reports of what Dzhokhar told his interrogators, but no journalists much less any of us were in his hospital room.  It is going to take some time, if ever, for us to know the whole story or the real motives of these two allegedly murderous young men.  Tamerlan is dead.  Perhaps Dzhokhar's trial (if there is one) will provide such insights, but even then perhaps only at the periphery.

Incorporated in the still emerging narrative is a tale of immigrants, especially Tamerlan, who were having significant problems adjusting to their home in America.  He is said to have been disconnected and alienated — friendless.  Attachment to the "old country" remained strong, perhaps loyalties at best divided.  How much of that played into their alleged criminal act remains to be seen.  Whether Tamerlane’s trip back to Chechnya and Dagestan somehow fueled anti-American feelings or actually provided guidance on how and where to act is unknown.  But the immigrant aspect of the saga should interest us all.  In fact, many of us can easily relate to it.

Coincident with the Boston tragedy, a Senate committee was beginning its consideration of long overdue immigration reform.  In an almost reflexive and predictable reaction to the tragedy that great sage Senator Charles Grassley suggested that the bombing should give us pause as we consider the bill.  He has since been walked back from that idea.  But the confluence of Boston and the immigration reform does present an opportunity to consider the state of immigrants and most especially the difficult task of balancing their past, present and future.  The brothers Tsarnaev may have taken their adjustment or lack of it to a very bad place, but the balancing problem, including a degree of disconnection, is hardly unique.  In fact, it always comes into play.

It may sound tired and trite, but we are truly a nation of immigrants.  Take Boston as a case in point.  The city lies at the geographic and in many ways ideological epicenter of our incipient national story.  Bostonians were there well before and at the moment of creation.  They were forefront independence fighters.  John and then John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts were our first father and son presidents — both were personally and directly informed by the revolution.  But when we think of Boston today, we think Irish as much as sons and daughters of the Revolution.  The not so distant ancestors of key Boston families came here, often penniless, to seek refuge from bad times in their native land.  Today, even those in the third and fourth generation still maintain strong identification with and ties to Ireland.  Not long before his death, President John F. Kennedy made an emotional journey to his family's ancestral home.  In the same vein, Barack Obama spent years searching out his African roots.  Immigrant adjustment is integral to our American story.

I was born one month after my immigrant parents arrived on these shores from Nazi Germany.  In 1776 my ancestors weren't any where near the place Boston celebrates on Patriot's Day but in various parts of Germany — we can trace them back to the 1600s.   So despite being a native born American, I grew up in an immigrant family adjusting to a new land.  My adult relatives all spoke with some degree of a foreign accent.  Since my mother still spoke no English at my birth German was my first language.  She quickly learned but my parents and their close circle of extended family and friends spoke a lot of German among themselves.  How much, I can't tell you because both languages were so natural to me and spoken interchangeably in our home that it's impossible to remember which one was used when and to what degree.

Our story is likely not that different from any other immigrant family, especially for those coming from non-English speaking countries.  For sure Mexican, Italian, French, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Turkish families among others all know it well.  But it isn't only language, it's also cultural orientation, customs and, of course, food.  I still cook some dishes that come directly out of my family tradition, things my mother and grandmother would serve at their tables.  And how happy are we when our town has a food store that carries ingredients or a restaurant that serves food from our heritage world.  The aisle at Whole Foods with Asian products, the meat case with Italian sausage or a variety of tortillas in the cooler make us feel "at home".

I always marvel at how my extended family, many of whom arrived as adults, totally rebuilt their lives in America.  They experienced a personal "refresh" long before that word became part of the digital age's language.  My mother's English was accented but fluent.  From the first days, my father who made his reputation as a gifted orator in Berlin now made his living making equally compelling speeches in what he had learned as a second language.  He was fortunate both in knowing English and in having academic credentials (including a rabbinical ordination) that were transferrable.  But many of his friends had to struggle.  There were doctors and lawyers who, in order to continue their chosen careers, had to literally go back to school.   Many others had to find new lines of work or had to adjust to a vastly different economic circumstance.  It was extremely hard and for sure they often felt disconnected, some undoubtedly alienated.

Not everyone could make the adjustment cut, or make it without extraordinary pain.  Some older people never could learn the language, or really didn't want to.  Call it a fear of losing identity or just a kind of obstinacy every one of us who comes from an immigrant family can remember or knows the relative who still speaks the old tongue and, to the degree possible, lives the old way.  There was the grandmother who only spoke Yiddish or Italian, the dad who found a way to keep working while holding fast to his Chinese.  Ethnic neighborhoods, especially in larger cities like New York or Chicago, facilitated this kind of cocoon existence.   Little Italy and Chinatown are in New York, but in a way not so much.  For a long time and even today they are a protected slice of somewhere else.  And that doesn't only happen in America.  My paternal grandparents, for example, landed up in Palestine and lived to see the creation of the State of Israel.  But they lived in a tight German-Jewish conclave and never learned or spoke Hebrew.  The world is small and repetitive when it comes to the immigrant experience.

In working through the immigration bill, members of Congress should not be thinking of the brothers Tsarnaev in the sense of what harm people from other places ("people who don't belong") can do, but rather should understand that all immigrants face huge challenges.  The terms of adjustment including learning and using a new language, adopting new customs, working in a different environment and often with heretofore alien mores doesn't come with a snap of the fingers.  Good, peaceful and highly productive people will at times yearn for the old place and will have some degree of mixed if not dual loyalty.  That's true for our immigrant population today, but no more or less than was the case when my family and others settled in this new place.  That it was a wonderful place in reality as well as in the abstract took some time to discover and a considerable amount of adjustment.  But we would all be less — yes, less American — without them.

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