Our Exotic Grandparents

By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, September 4, 2008

Some of us belong to a secret society in North America . Although we look like everybody else and pass for normal, we share an unspoken bond, a hidden birthmark, which imparts an enduring sense of otherness. In the Jewish community, our numbers are dwindling, although they are replenished regularly. We are the League of People with Exotic Grandparents.

Not so long ago, almost every North American Jew had one — an immigrant parent or grandparent with a thick accent and foreign manners, comically clueless about the American way of life. Today, as the heroic generation of Eastern European immigrants that built the American Jewish community dies out, our third and fourth generation Americanized children lack this living link to the past. Moreover, many with exotic parents or grandparents are embarrassed by them.

To be fair, being ashamed of “greenhorn” elders is a longstanding North American – and Jewish – tradition. It is a staple of the American dream literature of yesteryear wherein the plucky hero rises up from impoverished surroundings and displaced, overworked and impotent parents. But, today, watching a thoroughly assimilated, frequently privileged “Millennial” squirm at the foreignness of his or her forbears, it is the youngster who appears impoverished.

I feel blessed by my intimate association with my late Polish-born maternal grandfather who lived to be 100 years old, and by my Romanian-born in-laws. My wife and I, and, now, our children, are lucky to have that visceral connection with European Jewry’s lost world. In fact, this connection only makes us more American, more Canadian, for what could be more all-American than the immigrant experience of building a life in the New World ?

Living in Montreal has connected me far more intensely – and intimately – to this immigrant generation. Growing up in New York , most of my friends’ parents were American-born, products of the Eastern European migration that began in the 1880s and ended with the immigration restrictions of the 1920s. Most of my Jewish peers had parents who spoke a flawless – if New-York-inflected — English. In Montreal – where the Jewish community grew substantially after the Holocaust, I met more peers with immigrant parents, meaning our children can join the League of People with Exotic Grandparents. Of course, many of the immigrants are Sephardic and, yes, grandparents like my parents – and parents like my wife and me – can pass on Jewish identity just fine, thank you very much. Still, those heavily-accented European refugees add a delicious spice, a deeper sense of ethnic connection, and often a more tragic but dramatic and inspiring history.

I recently addressed a leadership conference for Jewish leaders 45 and younger. Some participants bemoaned what they called the today’s “non-Jewish Jews.” I usually avoid this phrase, as being too judgmental, too final, too heavy-handed. But I knew exactly what these young leaders meant.

The lures of America and Canada are so great, it is easy to “pass” as “normal,” to become North American pagans. Whereas previous generations of Jews struggle to join the social mainstream, our peers – and certainly our juniors – join effortlessly. In fact, it often takes a lot more work, a lot more gumption, to “do Jewish.” It is hard to follow tradition in a world of the here and now. It is hard to believe in God in a society that mocks believers. It is hard to embrace abstractions in a culture of consumerism and materialism.

Yet, who are if we have no memory, no links to the past, no guidance from our heritage? What kind of people are we if we abandon core beliefs because they are not fashionable? And what will become of us if we lack deeper values, transcendent visions, soaring ideals?

Our exotic grandparents help remind us of another world, of a rich past, of our tribal connection. They happily left that world because of its rampant anti-Semitism and epidemic poverty. And even in their hamhanded way, they embraced the American and Canadian way of life. As their heirs – whether or not we ever met that generation – we need to honor their sacrifices, appreciate their achievements, and champion their legacies, even as we delight in the broad acceptance we feel in this most welcoming corner of the world.

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