I’ve always been proud that my parents were born in Europe — my father in Poland, my mother in Russia. When I was a child, I thought it exotic. As I got older, I liked that it gave me a closer connection to my European roots, compared to most American Jews of my generation whose parents were born here; it was their grandparents who came from Europe. But it wasn’t until I began writing a book about my father’s life that I understood the reason for the difference — and its significance.
My parents came to the United States at the tail end of the massive influx that brought more than 2 million East European Jews to this country between 1880 and 1924. The year my father came, 1920, was the last year there were no limits on immigration from Europe. The very next year the Statue of Liberty lowered her torch: in 1921, Congress imposed quotas. And that explains something about my mother’s immigration: 1921 was the year she left Minsk with her mother and three older siblings to join their father and two more siblings who had gone to America the year before. Because of that one-year delay, when they made it over the border to Poland, they had to wait two years before they were allowed to enter the US in 1923 — in under the wire. With the draconian immigration act of 1924, the door to America slammed shut to East European Jews.
“Daddy,” I asked my father when he was 97, “do you feel more American or more Polish?”
He said, “I feel like a Jew.”
I feel like a Jew too. I feel Jewish in the same way that I feel I’m American and a woman. They’re all part of what I guess would be called my identity: immutable, fundamental, defining. For my father, being Jewish was immutable, fundamental, and defining in a way that nationality couldn’t. Though his fealty to the U.S. was deep and unwavering — he said often that this is the best country in the world — he never felt American because he lived the first dozen years of his life in Warsaw. Yet when he talked about Poland, he used “Pole” to refer to Christian citizens of Poland. Jews were not regarded as, or treated as, full citizens. They were seen, first and foremost, as Jews. They didn’t have the rights or opportunities that Christians had. Their participation in government and civil service, in business and civil society, was restricted or forbidden.
My father, Eli Tannen, was raised in a Hasidic household in Warsaw and came to the United States with his mother and sister just before he turned 12. In 1934, when he was 25 and married, he wrote to an aunt still living in Poland, “My memories of Warsaw and the large part of my life which I spent there are very sharp and sentimental. I have always felt myself part of that life and not of the life which I have led since I am in this country.” I think he never stopped feeling that way, though he lived in the U.S. for 72 more years. Finding that letter among my father’s papers — he saved not only letters he received but copies of many he wrote — I began to understand why he’d held on to such astonishingly detailed memories of the Warsaw of his childhood, why he never tired of talking about them, and why I never tired of listening.
The Warsaw my father recalled and described was centered in the family he lived with until he was seven: he and his sister shared a room with their mother in her parents’ large apartment on Twarda Ulica, one of the main streets in the Hasidic community of Warsaw. (His father lived there until he came down with tuberculosis and moved out, so as not to infect the children, when my father was two; he died when my father was six.) My father was the youngest member of his mother’s large extended family — and it was very large: nine of her younger siblings lived there when my father was small. “That was what I loved most,” he told me, “the liveliness, the warmth, of so many aunts and uncles.”.
My father’s earliest memories are of life in that household: “During the day, especially in preparation for the Sabbath, there was fearful activity in the kitchen. Tremendous challahs had to be baked at home: long, braided, shiny white loaves of bread. I’ve never seen anything like them in this country. Live chickens, sometimes a duck or two, were running around the kitchen. They were kept at home until they were taken for kosher slaughtering and brought back home to be plucked and prepared, cooked in tremendous pots on a very large stove. Goose too. For Jewish holidays, the activity was even more elaborate, everything done according to strict rituals.”
What my father described as “fearful activity” went on in the neighborhood, too: “When I was growing up there was so much life, so much commotion, on the street. Friday was an especially busy, festive day. People were rushing about to get home in time to prepare for the Sabbath. They took baths in the public bathhouses and put on their holiday clothes. At dusk you saw men dressed in their finest: silk caftans, newer-looking black hats and shiny black boots. They carried their prayer books and folded prayer shawls. But it wasn’t only Friday. Both sides of the street were lined with stores, and the sidewalks were always teeming with people — working men, women shopping, men going to and from the synagogue. People loudly haggled about prices. There were tragers — carriers — men hired by people too poor to hire a wagon. They walked about with ropes around their waist, which they used to tie amazing loads on their backs — a desk, a bed. Rarely did an automobile come through, but there were quite a few droshkis, horse-drawn carriages that took passengers, and open wagons for trade. The drivers were beating and yelling at their horses, and yelling at pedestrians to get out of the way. Occasionally a kareta drove by — a fancy carriage that rich people rode in. That caused a stir, as people wondered whether a rich person might get out, and what he might be after.”
When I first conceived the idea of writing about my father’s life, I assumed it would focus on these memories, and help to preserve the Jewish community of Warsaw that was wiped out by the Nazis in WWII. I was still thinking of it that way when I began writing. Then I read, in an essay by the Polish historian Piotr Wróbel, that the First World War, not the second, brought “the twilight of Jewish Warsaw,” because it was followed by a rise in Polish anti-Semitism and a decline in political and economic opportunity for Jews. I can see this decline in my father’s account of his family’s experiences during and after WWI, including many stories he told about his grandfather, whom he revered: “At one time, my grandfather had a furniture store. He sold his share to his partner so he would have more time to study Talmud, and made his living lending money. All payments were suspended during the war. When it ended in 1918, he made efforts to collect debts owed him. Of the few people he located, none agreed to pay. All his investments were a total loss. He took me with him on one of his attempts, to the home of an ex-Polish general. What remains in my memory is that he removed his hat in the man’s home, leaving on his head only the yarmulke resting beneath it. What shocked me is that my grandfather would doff his hat to a mere mortal.”
I suspect the grandfather brought along his grandson — a blue-eyed, tow-headed little boy — hoping that might soften the general’s heart and encourage him to repay even a fraction of the money he’d borrowed. Though my father remembers the encounter because of his grandfather’s deference, I see a man who no longer has a way to earn a living and support his family. The grandfather, who had supported his large family before the war, came to depend on what his oldest son could send from America.
There is another way that I see the lights going out on Hasidic Warsaw in my father’s recollections: nearly all his mother’s siblings — his aunts and uncles — were abandoning Hasidism. All but one of the brothers gave up religious study and traditional Hasidic garb when they reached their teens; they left for America one after the other. Most of the sisters received secular higher education — women weren’t required to study Talmud — and also emigrated. Two were swept up in the idealism of the Bolshevik revolution. One went to Russia to help build the just society communism promised, and died there. The youngest, Magda, who was only six years older than my father and more like an older sister to him than an aunt, became a devoted communist as a teenager, spent eight years in prison for her activism, survived the war in Russia, and after the war became a high-ranking official in the Polish communist government.
I knew Magda. She reconnected with her siblings in the U.S. after the war, and, in 1959 when the cold war began to thaw, visited us in the U.S. several times, and we visited her in Poland. I should have connected her devotion to communism with my father’s, and to the crumbling of Hasidism, but I didn’t — until I began interviewing my father.
It’s 1999. I turn on my tape recorder and begin, “Today you’re going to tell me about your political life.”
“At the risk of arrest and deportation,” my father quips.
I laugh. “By the time I write my book, no one’s going to care.”.
How naïve and thoughtless I was to laugh. During the McCarthy era, arrest wasn’t as common as blacklisting and firing, but it wasn’t uncommon either. Nor was deportation of suspected “subversives” born abroad. At 91, having been in this country nearly 80 years, my father still thought of himself as an immigrant, aware that he could, in theory at least, be sent back where he came from.
“When did you become a Communist?” I ask.
He answers the same way he answered my question about when he became an atheist: “When I was six, listening to my aunt Magda talking with her friends.” The confluence isn’t coincidental. Atheism is fundamental to communist ideology, which sees religion as keeping the oppressed from rising up against their oppressors, and separates people who should join together for the good of all. In the ideal communist world, all workers will unite: there will be no racism and no anti-Semitism. So the idealistic fervor that swept up Magda and her friends, as it did many young Warsaw Jews at the time, lured them not only toward communism but also away from their parents’ religion.
I once heard a rabbi say that atheism is the fourth denomination of modern Judaism. My father’s life shows a way this is true. Though he turned against religion, he never turned against Judaism; in Warsaw he became both communist and Zionist. He felt proud of being Jewish, and taught us to be proud of it, too. His atheism, like his communism, was rooted in a wish to make the world, and the lives of the people in it, better — and that, too, is deeply Jewish: tikkun olam, the classic rabbinic injunction to repair the world. From this perspective, my father hewed to the Jewish religion even as he rejected his grandfather’s Hasidism. In a way, he hewed to that, too. The word hasid derives from the Hebrew word for “kindness,” reflecting the focus on actions that help others, which is fundamental to Judaism. When I asked relatives and friends about their impressions of my father, almost every one of them, in describing him, used the word “kind.”
When my father was 11, and about to leave for America, his grandfather took him on his lap. “Tears streamed from beneath his gold-rimmed glasses, down his cheeks, and into his long white beard,” my father recalled. “He knew he would never see me again. With his arm around my shoulders, he said, ‘Never forget that you are a Jew.’ He believed that when Jews went to America, they ceased to be Jews, because they stopped being Hasidic. Those were my grandfather’s last words to me: ‘Never forget that you are a Jew.’ Sometimes I wonder, Did I betray him?”
“You didn’t,” I think. “You remember you’re a Jew by remembering him. I remember I’m a Jew by remembering you.”
Deborah Tannen is the author of “You Just Don’t Understand,” “You’re Wearing THAT?” and, most recently, the memoir “Finding My Father,” from which this essay has been adapted.