Island of Hope, Island of Tears

This last week of my time in New York has been largely focused on the history of this place. As you might imagine, that is a rich topic. However, the story I focused on was of the immigrant experience. As I already noted in a couple of places, I love the cultural landscape of this place. I love walking through neighborhoods hearing dozens of languages spoken. I love seeing signs in Hebrew next to signs in Chinese or Italian. I love the kind of cultural fusions that are the result (apparently Cuban Chinese food is a thing). I would imagine there are few places on this planet with this kind of richness.

The story that led to this reality is a complex, miraculous, violent, and beautiful one. I spent several days going deeper into this. Of course, a trip to Ellis Island was in order. Though I haven’t traced any of my family through this place (most of my ancestors came over about 100 years before Ellis Island was used for immigration), I was immediately struck by how this place felt like a part of who I am as an American. This is our story–all of our story. At our best moments, you can feel how the diversity of peoples that came through this place led to a new and beautiful synthesis of cultures. At our worst, you can almost hear the angry shouts of those fearful of a new wave.

It was powerful to see the history of how we have responded to this reality over the centuries. Political cartoons from the last 200 years documented how we have responded to wave after wave, and it is easy to see how the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiments is in keeping with a long tradition in this country. Many of those 100 year old cartoons could simply be reused by inserting Mexican or Syrian in place of Irish or Chinese. That hall is a sad commentary on our past and our very short memory and lack of understanding of history.

Ellis Island certainly had a weight to it all its own, but the far more powerful experience was the Tenement Museum. If you ever find yourself in New York, take the time to experience the Tenement Museum. What makes this place so very powerful is the storytelling. The museum is a restoration of a tenement that was built in 1863 and saw about 7000 families live beneath its roof until it was condemned in 1934. It sat empty for 50 some odd years until the founders of the museum got it in their mind to turn the place into a history of the immigrants of New York and the experience of living in these neighborhoods as they became the place of highest population density in the world with new immigrants pouring in. It would be a German Neighborhood, Irish would live there, Eastern European Jews escaping the Pogroms. The surrounding neighborhoods would at times be Italian, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and all stripes and shades of Europe. Within the museum, they have recreated different periods and their tour guides are trained storytellers adept at giving you a glimpse into the lives of the families that lived under those roofs. You would walk into an apartment that transported you back to 1905 or a storefront from a German Beer Saloon of the 1860’s. You would see Irish, Jewish, and German immigrant homes from their periods and would here the saga of their struggles to forge a life in this new place. Some of the building hadn’t been restored and as the paint chipped away, you could see the more than 40 layers of paint and 22 layers of wall paper. As remarkable as the facility was, the real crowning jewel was the storytelling. The guides were brilliant. You walked at knowing how a family lived and died in those rooms. You could feel what it must have been to be an immigrant to the shores of New York 100 years ago. It was incredible. The stories echoed the emotion of scripture as the prophets speak of being strangers in a strange land, displaced from their homes. It gave so much new meaning to what exile must have been for the people of Israel.

The experience of those days was a stunning reminder of what it really means to live in this place. Very few people living in this land can truly claim the title “Native,” and for the rest of us, that ought to figure strongly in all the discussions we have about immigration. Not only that, but to see the remarkable culture that has been forged out of this beautiful mix of peoples, languages, foods, religions, traditions, etc. that is New York is truly special. It is a reminder that we truly are better together and the stories that we are living are far richer when we live them together.


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