by Elena Mafter
When you start to write a From the Editors column in November, the first theme that comes to mind is, of course, thanksgiving. I say “of course” because I’m an American now, but a couple of decades ago thanksgiving and gratitude were still fuzzy notions for me any month of the year.
That was the time I joined “the huddled masses” of generations before, when I emigrated from the Soviet Union with my family. Even though at the time of perestroika the country claimed to have an evolved form of socialism, the one with “a human face,” we clearly preferred capitalism with a human face, and, as the saying went, voted for it with our feet. Or rather, we preferred free economy and generally everything with the word free—free enterprise, free speech, the land of the free. . . . We were ready to become Americans!
Our Ellis Island was in Italy. There, waiting for the permission to enter the United States, we went through the usual Ellis–Island routine of a century before: embassy interviews, medical exams, uncertainty, anxiety. Only recently have I heard the saying that America is not so much a place as an idea. But even back in Italy, what attracted us was more than just a geographic location. Before we even set foot on the American soil, we were in love with the idea of America.
Today, as I learn more and more about this idea, I discover more reasons for gratitude. I’m grateful that this country was built as a free nation for free people, based on citizenship and not ethnicity (unlike most of Europe). I’m thankful for the idea of the American Dream (has anybody ever heard of the European dream?). And I find many reasons to be grateful when I look at the life stories of fellow Russian emigrants and the exquisite reversal of fortune that this land has afforded them. Their thankfulness increases mine. One such story goes back more than a hundred years.
In 1893, Moses and Lena Beilin left their home town of Tyumen in Siberia with their 5–year–old son. Victims of a pogrom, an anti–Semitic mob attack that destroyed their property and burned their house, they were homeless. Little did they know at that time that their son Israel would become one of the most famous songwriters in the United States. Under the name of Irving Berlin, he would pen these haunting words: “God bless America, / Land that I love. / Stand beside her, and guide her / Through the night with a light from above.”
Irving Berlin used to say that the only recollection he had of his first five years of life in Russia was the sight of his childhood home going up in flames, as he was hiding by the side of the road. No wonder “God Bless America,” a hymn and a prayer for his “home sweet home,” is so powerful that it became the unofficial national anthem for numerous solemn occasions, the aftermath of 9/11 among them.
Another Russian Jewish couple emigrated from Moscow in 1979. Michael and Eugenia Brin, both mathematicians, experienced fully all the injustices of the oppressive regime. Many roads and opportunities were closed behind the Iron Curtain, especially for Jews. The Brins applied for exit visas seeking a better, freer life for themselves and their 6–year–old son Sergey. Perhaps at the time they worried how their son would adjust to the new country. Would he forget Russian? Would he learn English quickly? Little did they know that their son would contribute one of the most important words to the English language: Google. (And no, he didn’t forget his Russian.)
His parents left the country that censored access to information for its people. Sergey Brin, as a cofounder of Google, perfected the search of all available information and brought it to our fingertips. He was born in the country with no reliable maps, as they were considered a state secret. With Google Maps, we can see any area of earth to the smallest detail. And maybe Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” is so striking because it provides a counterpoint to the name “evil empire,” applied to the Soviet Union by President Ronald Reagan.
In 1990, 16–year–old Sergey went on a 2–week visit to the Soviet Union for the first time with a group of high school students. After coming back home, he took his father aside, looked him in the eyes, and thanked him for taking the family to the United States.
The story of these two families—as well as the countless not–so–famous emigrants and children of emigrants I see in the streets of Chicago—all of them create the idea of America, and all of them teach me gratitude.
Most renditions of Irving Berlin’s famous song begin with “God Bless America” omitting the first stanza, which says: “Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” As we thank God for so many things this month, let us remember to pray and be grateful for this country we call home. From all of us at Today in the Word, happy Thanksgiving, dear readers—this November, and every month of the year!