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Over tea, friends and neighbors sigh and shake their heads. “We need a strong leader,” they lament, and then proceed to reminisce about the Reagan America they first arrived in.
Sometimes we nod in response, and often we bite our tongues. My generation of immigrants’ children seeks its own understanding of a political identity — partly because we’re exhausted from the past, but also perhaps because this is how we define becoming American. We attempt to reject their fears and unapologetic temperaments, and we try to move past whatever paranoia they’ve brought here, in order to reinvent ourselves. When discussing policy, we struggle to stay quietly respectful of our elders, yet we’re plagued with whispering doubts: Have we become just as xenophobic and extreme as our oppressors were in the Old Country? Are we now at fault for the very same prejudices that victimized us there — and does that mean we’ve been defeated? And why must everything, for the older generations, be in such drastic extremes? Where is moderation for this Old World intelligentsia?
As students, it seemed to us that the shores of liberalism gleamed with promise: If we’d only subscribe to the political views of liberal American Jews, we’d become fully American, real New Yorkers, eloquent intellectuals. By stripping away our hawkishness, we’d receive all the luxuries of American living. We’d stop constantly looking over our shoulder like Diaspora Jews; we’d gain new and gentle sensitivities; we’d learn to wear the Star of David without anxiety, and our jokes would no longer be laced with morbid irony: “Children, don’t be too loud, the neighbors will hear and they’ll make a pogrom.” And perhaps the most precious of luxuries: Once we became fully American, our hot-bloodedness would cool down.
“You don’t understand,” our elders tell us.
But we are the enlightened ones, we insist proudly. With their engineering institutes and suspicious faces, their rusted photographs of trips to the Caucasus and their Moscow satellite television — what do they really know of politics in this country? So they read Marx in their youth, but surely they have not read Machiavelli, Locke and Kant, too; surely they have not traveled and written as freely as we do today.
“And what do you know about suffering?” they ask, looking at us with weary eyes. “What do you know about poverty, illness, hatred, oppression, ah?” They don’t need to recount to us their experiences. We know each story — every communal flat and every rations line and every bread shortage, each time someone didn’t get into university simply because he had the wrong nationality. We already know each nameless face that disappeared into a Ukrainian ravine or Siberian gulag, each evening fiddling with radio dials to hear the Voice of America, each breathless day waiting for a visa. No matter how irrational their views may seem to us, we still have a hard time denying their validity — in light of every story they have told us, every suitcase full of war medals and photographs, woolen blankets and carefully-wrapped porcelain.
And even when we nod politely and offer percentages, philosophy, rational analysis, they still don’t hear us: Our soft American accents betray us.
Avital Chizhik has written for The New York Times, Tablet and Haaretz.