‘Nisht Anderish’: An American Immigrant Story

From the Nshei Chabad archives: A tale of assimilation, its consequences, and how one woman’s awakening rewrote the next chapter of her family history.

From a talk given by Mrs. Ida Dick at the 2002 Kinus Hashluchos, reprinted from the N’shei Chabad Newsletter of Nissan 5762

My story could have been a typical Jewish American immigrant story, if there is such a thing. Arrive, struggle, assimilate, achieve, assimilate some more and then live with the inevitable consequences. But the story has a different ending… 

Still under the dark pall of war torn Europe, we (a family of seven) left Russia and came to America in 1951 , led by my father a”h. Many of my family’s friends were already here. My father, Pinchos Yair, was a little older, a little more oldfashioned, and a little more religious than these Europeans. To my father, coming to the States meant that we could now, finally, live as Jews, the way he did in Poland before the war. However, I distinctly remember our friends coming into our house and saying to my father: “Pinchos Yair, America is andersh!”

My father, in fact, was a deeply religious man despite all the hardships that he endured. In the war, he lost brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, even a child. His strong faith pulled him through. It was his refusal to renounce Judaism that caused us to be sent to Siberia, where I was born. It was this need to be a Jew, an observant Jew, and to keep his family Jewish, that caused him to arrange our escape from behind the Iron Curtain. In Siberia, with death hanging over his head, he arranged for my brothers to have melamdim (teachers of Torah). But as soon as he came to free America he was urged by friends to stop pushing us towards Yiddishkeit, since “America is andersh …. ” Isn’t this ironic?

It was different for me than for my brothers. As a girl, it didn’t seem so urgent that I have a formal Jewish education. In those days yeshivas were springing up for boys, but not for girls. However, my mother passed away and, of necessity, I took over our household. So it was that at the age of twelve, I learned from my father how to keep a Jewish home. 

I lived in several worlds. During the day it was public school, where I was so different. When I came home it was to our very European, Jewish home with all the memories. At night, I escaped into the world of books. I opened a book and walked through the door, out of my life and into a world I wanted to experience. I was charmed by this world: its elegance, its civility, and its simplicity. 

I could kasher meat but was enthralled by Little Women. I could make kreplach but wanted to be Scarlet O’Hara. The movies, Hollywood and television all presented a clean, sunny, secular America, which called to me. I was like a kid in a candy store. Tuna salad, hot dogs, steaks and pancakes were easier than gefilte fish, chicken soup, kreplach and latkes. I found going to the store to buy new was easier than making do with the old. Everything in America was simpler, easier, shinier, newer, better, more appealing.

I knew that I was Jewish, but I equated being Jewish with traditional, irrational, complicated and antiquated rituals. Jewishness merged with the darkness and confusion of the war we had left behind. Surely, being a Jew in America would be better, would be brighter, and would be easier. I did feel something whispering to me within my bones, something reaching for me from my depth, but I ignored that.

My husband, Rob, is the first American that I ever dated. I remember going to his house for my first Thanksgiving Dinner. Thanksgiving was a holiday that was easy to explain and keep. Just put a turkey on the table, some cranberry sauce, a few sweet potatoes and …. Voila! A holiday. No boiling silverware, no building succos, no fish heads. I was amazed. This was easy and simple.

I was ready to start on my American road. There were a few things that I did not leave behind. We did have a kosher home. We did put mezuzos up on all the doors (or at least we thought we accomplished this). We did join an Orthodox shul. But with the rest, we compromised. This was the sixties and breaking old molds was acceptable. In fact, it was preferable!

My husband and I, however, were not flower children. We were establishment. Rob was and continues to be a computer wizard in financial services and international stock exchanges. I ultimately became an executive recruiter in finance. Cogs in Corporate America, we moved through a succession of suburbs …. New York, Chicago, Long Island, New Jersey.

These moves forced us to make choices. Where should we buy a home? Where was the shul? The school? The butcher? The baker? Through each of these questions, my Yiddishkeit asserted itself. In our moves, I made sure that each new house was walking distance to the shu!. I found and frequented the kosher butchers. I checked labels on food. We sent our children to a Conservative Day School to make sure that they had a Jewish education. We were confident in what we were giving our children.

We and our friends were the beautiful people. We read the Sunday Times, went to Broadway shows, had Saturday night dinners at the new popular restaurants. Everyone, of course, made sure they served fish for me, our form of kosher out of the house. We vacationed as a family, Orlando, the Long Island beaches, skiing in Vermont… When we rented our vacation homes, I made sure that I brought up all the food so that it was kosher. We had Shabbos dinner every Friday night and went to shul almost every week. Now we looked at our life and said: “We are fulfilling all we have to. We are Jewish and we can still reap the best of America.”

In our circle of friends, we were Mr. & Mrs. Judaism and Family.

The surprises began when our children grew up and left home. They went off to college and became part of the college social scene. When they came home, their Jewish practices fell right back into place, but away was something else.

Stephanie went to a college where Judaism consisted of going bowling or ice-skating with the Jewish Student Union. She realized that she missed Yiddishkeit and started to examine Judaism from an intellectual perspective. Being well read and even well traveled did not help her to understand or express her Jewishness. Eventually, the road led her to getting a Masters from Columbia in Jewish History while still trying to determine what it is to be a Jew. The Masters enabled her to teach Jewish History, but didn’t give her the answers she needed, so she kept searching.

Carolyn left home to get an education, travel, and find herself. She did all of those and found that she was an exceptionally capable person for whom being Jewish was only one aspect of her life. Living in New York as a successful investment banker at Chlse’s prestigious mergers and acquisition group, Carolyn pursued and enjoyed Yuppiedom. She joined the unique world of Jewish singles in New York, where being faintly observant was sufficient.

David spent his third year of college abroad in Germany and Japan. During this time, he developed his inclination to work in international business and politics. This led to his moving to Tokyo after college and subsequently to London, where he enjoyed a successful career in international banking. His interest definitely did not lie in Judaism.

When our three children graduated, they were Americans dedicated to their careers. Like the original immigrants, they were prepared to give up the details of their Judaism to get ahead. Whatever Judaism they learned, whatever Judaism we lived, was easily pushed aside.

Dismayed, I wondered how this had happened. Weren’t we Mr. and Mrs. Judaism? So why were we now being forced to justify our practices and, as a result, Judaism? The questions were endless. What is Shabbos? Why Shabbos dinner? What do I have to do to live as a Jew? What makes Jews different from other people? Don’t all religions teach the same thing?

Hearing these questions, I became determined to find the answers. As a member of a family who survived the Holocaust, I was distraught. My children had less Yiddishkeit than I. We had expected more, not less, because of everything that we had given them. To me, this was wrong, very wrong. Now, it wasn’t enough to serve them latkes, kreplach, chicken soup and gefilte fish. It wasn’t enough to feel it in my bones; I needed to be able to put it into words. And even action.

I started to think about my parents and what had sustained them. I was raised by my father. I saw him putting on tefillin, wearing tzitzis, not eating in restaurants, not working on Shabbos. He was, as is said in Yiddish, “stam a Yid” (Just a Jew). It was a given. He didn’t talk about it, he just did it. This was what had been handed down from generation to generation. In Russia, my father had found ways to hold on to and even transmit Yiddishkeit. Surely, here in America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I too could find a way and have the courage to follow through.

Rob and I had bought into the American way. We had pointed our children toward financial and social success. At the time we had thought we were pointing them to religious success as well. After all, hadn’t we provided them with a solid Conservative Jewish education, including a term in Israel?! Weren ‘t we members of an Orthodox shul?! Didn’t our home look Jewish?! Hadn’t we kept Judaism in our hearts?! We thought that our edited Jewish practices were a good example. Now, we were seeing the unhappy results of our ignorance.

I turned to my old friends, books. I raided Barnes & Noble, the local libraries and, finally, Westside Judaica. I needed to find out about being Jewish. So I read Being Jewish by Shimon Hurwitz. I needed to be inspired so I read Living Inspired by Dr. Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I needed to find out about G-d so I read This Is My G-d by Herman Wouk. This was all good for me, but how could I pass it along …. I needed someone who could help me achieve my goals (goals that I had actually thought we were accomplishing all along).

A friend of ours introduced us to Rabbi Herson. As dean of a young men’s yeshiva, I felt that he would be the right one to help me answer my son. David was in London by that time. Rabbi Herson called on Rabbi Lew to try to influence David. After several months of learning in London and seeing a Judaism he had never experienced, he decided to put his banking career on hold and travel to Kfar Chabad to learn in the Yeshiva. A summer course stretched into six months that stretched into several years. At each of the Yomim Tovim, he came home and shared with all of us the deeper perspectives he had learned.

 When Rob and I visited Kfar Chabad, we saw that it was certainly not the luxuries of Israeli life that were keeping him there. Intrigued, we too began to tap into the worldwide Lubavitch network. Rabbi Lew had his children in New York, Shimon and Chaya Posner and Pinny and Chani Lew, contact us. In fact, Pinny and Chani became among our closest friends and had a profound influence on us, and even more so on Stephanie. They influenced her to go to Bais Chana, where the young women don’ t just learn but also live Judaism. (In fact, I think she became the official challah maker during her weeks there.) This was her initial step on the Lubavitch road to authentic Judaism.

Boruch Hashem for the shluchim of the Rebbe. Boruch Hashem for the institutions of the Rebbe. The net stretches around the world. Jerusalem! London! New York! Morristown! Kfar Chabad, Bais Chana, Machon Alta, Machon Chana! And always, always Crown Heights!

I heard from the lips of the Frierdiker Rebbe, “America is nit andersh!” America is not different. I remember I was riveted when I heard the expression. Now I understood that without real Judaism, even in America, nothing is simple or easy or shiny or better or appealing. In fact, without keeping the mjtzvos life is bitter and empty, disappointing and painful.

Everyone who knows our family assumes that Rob and I became Torah observant because of our children. The truth is that I opened a hole the size of a pinhead and Hashem made it big enough for our whole family to go through. 

We were blessed. Within a twelve-month period our whole family decided to keep Torah and mitzvos. Now we needed role models. The shluchim of the Rebbe made it easy. I always displayed Judaica in my house. Now I learned that I needed to display Judaica on me … My friends and neighbors have watched me go from hair to hat to tichel to shaitel.

In Crown Heights I learned Ahavas Yisroel. Everyone was concerned about us. Everyone was ready to teach, to help, to welcome and most of all to show us what it means to be a Jew and even more, a chosid of the Rebbe. When we traveled, when we had simchos, homes were opened up to us … everyone was Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu.

I feel an enormous gratitude. I am grateful to the shluchim of the Rebbe because, with the help of the Rebbe through the shluchim, not only are we making sure that my father’s grandchildren are Torah Jews, but with Hashem’s help, there is now a realistic expectation that even my children’s grandchildren will be.

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