The courageous immigrants of the elder generations cast the shards of their hopes and dreams across the landscape of this continent as prophecy. They worked hard and long for their visions. These people included my Lebanese maternal grandparents with their first-born children. They arrived in New York in 1897 on a boat from Syria. They petitioned for citizenship in 1925. Included also was my Turkish father who arrived here alone in 1919. He was just seventeen, eager to make good and to earn dowries for his four older sisters. The distaff side eventually settled in Brooklyn. That's where they were when I was born and that's where I was raised.
These were people who came to America in “the days of sail,” as the great New York writer, Irish-American Pete Hamill, would say. Today's immigrants can and often easily do visit their countries of origin. They connect with their families and their linguistic and cultural roots. This was something that was generally not available to the people of my grandparent’s generation and before. Among the many reasons for this was an often crushing poverty. In Ireland “American wakes” were held for the sons and daughters who left for the United States. Heart-shattered parents knew it was unlikely they’d ever see their children again.
The immigrants I knew growing up worked hard. The immigrants that I know today work hard, often holding more than one job. They make real - though generally quiet - contributions to their communities, work places and their new country. They serve in the military. They make sure their children are educated.
Because of parents and grandparents who were resourceful and brave enough to come to this country, we had as children, not just economic opportunity, but a wealth of artistic and educational resources. On occasion we went, for example, to the Leonard Bernstein‘s Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic. I remember Mr. Bernstein with his charming and contagious enthusiasm calling our imaginations to Peter and the Wolf. We didn’t have to travel far to have access to talents like Mr. Bernstein or to visit museums, cathedrals, art galleries, music venues, theater (movies and stage), parks and so much more. It was all right there, ready to be plucked and savored like so many sweet and juicy summer plums.
The schools were good, whether public or private. The libraries were ubiquitous. I will ever and always be in love with the Hudson River and the incredibly beautiful and historic Brooklyn Bridge. To my child-self, everything was magical, mystical, mythological and monolithic. Brooklyn’s proximity to Manhattan added to my enchantment. The Cloisters. Central Park. The magnificent Statue of Liberty, symbol of our highest ideal.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
- Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)
I'm sure that had I been born in the mountains of Lebanon or in rural Turkey, these places would have offered their own joys and charms but I'm grateful for my Brooklyn, New York experience.
I too lived – Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Leaves of Grass
With a nod to Isaac Asimov for the post title.
© 2009, text, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; Originally published in "Brooklyn." Photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum and likely in the public domain.