I stumbled upon an amazing self portrait of “Jewish comedy in America and its links with Jewish immigrant culture” on Netflix last night. I was transported back in time to my childhood, and realized how much of this “same time” influenced my upbringing – if not directly, then indirectly. [When Jews Were Funny…]
I’ve written here before about my first generation Polish-American grandmother, and her experiences during the Roosevelt administration as a teacher of American citizenship. At her 90th birthday party and other family gatherings towards the end of her nearly 101 years on earth, we started to record stories from Mee-maw, realizing that with her would pass a wealth of family knowledge, stories and connections. (Though, we soon realized that our Aunt Joanie and others “from her generation” still possessed the memories of hearing these stories growing up – and yet, as Aunt Joanie says, “still young enough to remember them!” so all is not quite lost…yet.)
One of these stories from Mee-maw talks about her teaching experiences…and another, about how she and Pop-pop met and fell in love – a “clash” of religious and ethnic cultures that brought Polish Catholicism and German Lutheranism together at a time when “mixed marriages” of this sort were still dismissed or questioned, at least within the family if not “out in the world.” She also talked (proudly) of “dumb Americans” – and told us how she said her prayers (in English and in Polish…) [Watching the movie “When Jews Were Funny,” I was reminded of this story…but I won’t spoil the surprise…just think of me at the end of the movie, and smile!]
As I think about the “marriage debate” going on in our country today, I realize on one hand how far we’ve come… Even though my grandfather, in his stoic, conservative German-ism, “disowned me” in his final act (his Will), writing me out of it because of my being gay, I realize that he still loved me as his grandson. His strong grip, firmly grasping my kneecap… The many hours spent flying in his single engine plane, exploring America… The large family gatherings with family members of all generations, including many Polish friends and family who “took residence” with my grandparents as they emigrated from Poland… Their home was a place of refuge, where Mee-maw was able to talk with them in Polish, teach them English, and my grandparents could help them with some odd jobs and income, thus “landing on their feet” in this land of opportunity and prosperity. What a unique opportunity…to live in and around this “diversity,” not fully realizing (until even now) how the mix of religion, culture, food and family stories would shape my early memories.
So, even though his final, painful dying act was one of “rejection,” I realize that it came from a dying man, very sick and in more pain than we probably ever realized – dying of prostate cancer at a time when we knew far less about cancer, and could treat it even less. If I compare his one act (even though it has been quite painful at times to accept, being “reminded” of it in 2013 when Mee-maw passed) with the rest of the way he lived his life and expressed his love to me…”firmly loving” – I realize I have a LOT more data to say that he embraced me than not.
What a gift…on this Good Friday, when the cross of Jesus reminds me yet again how common some of our roots are across generations – across religions – across cultures. Going to High School in New Jersey, near grandparents who were post-War parents – I now realize how much Jewish immigrant culture (and Polish…and German…) colored the lens through which I saw the world – in many good, and sometimes awkward ways…but it all shapes who I am today, and for that, I’m grateful and will…”keep telling the story.”
I think I’ll end here…I probably have a warmer, clearer picture in my mind of the wonderful gifts of love and compassion than I’m fully expressing here… Just know that it’s all good, and right, and salutary… 😉