There are two things that you should know about Grandma and Grandpa.
One: Grandma and Grandpa are notorious pack rats. I think they have kept every program and every thank-you letter. I am enormously grateful for that. Two: Grandma and Grandpa are often right on time. I am also enormously grateful for that.
Before and during the pandemic, we have visited them every single week; we bring lunch from a place that we all love and social distance. My family and I sit in the rickety backyard and Grandma and Grandpa sit at the kitchen table. We talk through a screened window.
This particular Sunday, we were discussing how I am taking a family history course this upcoming term. (I’m a History major, so I had already been crowned the family historian.) l talked about how I was excited because I was quite certain that I was the only Jewish person in the course. I asked them if there was anything in particular that they wanted me to look for in terms of their family histories. Grandma and I agreed to see if we can find any sort of documentation on the family that we are almost certain were lost somewhere in Russia after escaping certain death in Poland.
Grandma realized she had something to show me and went off for five minutes. She returned with an envelope with a synagogue letterhead filled with items. It had Polish passports, applications and naturalization documents all from her father, a man who was quite literally on the last boat out from Poland on the eve of 1939.
I looked at my sister in shock, sobered, “These are the documents that saved him.”
I didn’t stop looking at the documents all weekend. I tried to piece together a story. How did he know it was the right time? That he had to leave? His family? How heartbreaking, how terrifying.
On the Wednesday after, I went on a walk. It’s a habit I’ve developed during the pandemic. If I don’t walk, I go crazy. Of course, at some point, I checked Twitter. I knew the electoral process was going through the motions and I knew there was some sort of protest going on. After all, I had watched the news that morning. (I gave myself a pat on the back. I felt like a real adult.)
I saw that protesters had stormed the Capitol. Then I saw that there were shots fired. Then I saw that a woman had been pulled out on a stretcher. Then I saw the sorts of shirts and hats that the mob was wearing. Shirts that I knew were the norm in certain dark circles, but I never thought I would see in the governmental building of the country that had saved my family over and over again.
I was fuming on the walk. My hands were balled up in my sweatshirt. I was hurt. I was angry. I thought of the box in my room with the special documents. The passport. The naturalization documents.
I knew that there were people in America who hated Jews. How could I not? I roam my city as a proud Jewish woman who has a Shema necklace around my neck. I’ve had insults hurled at me simply because of a faith that I love. This is the country that we pray for in synagogue, begging Hashem to protect the leaders and make them just.
America has not always loved us. We have been expelled — for a short time — from the South. Jewish refugees were blocked and turned around to a country where they would die. My Jewish family has been shot in synagogue. I will never say that America is the worst place for us, and I will never say that it is the best place for us because hate follows us like a tail wherever we go.
I just know that my Grandma gave me a box of documents that saved her father. I know that I looked at a document where my family was saved and a television where my family was destroyed.
But it is the same country where a Jewish man was elected in Georgia 100 years after a Jewish man was lynched in Georgia. It is also the same one in which an Orthodox woman is slated to be the head of the NSA’s Cybersecurity Directorate. Hope and horror can live side by side in the United States.