Once, Immigrant Children. Now, 80 Years Old

by Saul Levine, M.D., Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at UCSD June 26, 2018


Statue of Liberty at Sunset, New York City.

I can’t believe that we are all turning 80 this year!

“We” refers to a class of 50 children who graduated from our Jewish elementary school in 1951 when we were 13 years of age. And recently, 67 years later, we octogenarians held a class reunion!

Many of us were first generation children, offspring of Jewish parents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. There were also second-generation students and a few children who emigrated directly from refugee camps.

All our parents (or theirs) shared a common Jewish heritage, and had escaped the inflictions of European anti-Semitism and Nazi Fascism. Many of them arrived in the New World with no knowledge of English, few material possessions and little money.

They knew that life here would be challenging at first, and these expectations were often realized, as many were exploited, shamed or shunned, or worked at arduous labor for low wages.

Many of our parents (and we) lived in apartments or cold-water flats in a crowded area of town, which had always housed immigrants, not far from our school.

Our Jewish mothers and fathers of course differed in their approaches to many things: Some were religious, others were atheists; some were socialists, others entrepreneurial; some were gregarious, others were loners; some remained in the Jewish community, others wished to assimilate.

But whatever their personalities and predilections, they all shared one overriding objective: A passionate desire to improve their own (and especially their children’s)lives. They wished to inculcate in us a desire to read and study, to learn about our heritage, our new culture, history, art and music, to appreciate families and friends and help the less fortunate.

Many of the immigrant fathers earned their keep at working-class jobs like cabdriver, plumber, carpenter, tailor, electrician, salesman, machinist, furrier, cleaner, painter, clerk, barber, shopkeeper and the like.

My own father arrived as a teenager in steerage on a crowded ship, with neither money nor knowledge of English. He started work as an apprentice bricklayer, became an upholsterer and later opened his own small business. My immigrant dad was a strong yet gentle, sweet man who loved people, became an avid self-taught reader and lover of classical music. In spite of hard knocks, he was always grateful for the opportunities offered to him by the New World.

We elementary school students became closely bonded in our eight years together, but at the age of 13, we dispersed to various high schools, and thereafter on to jobs and colleges.

In the “old days,” our class communicated loosely via word of mouth, phone calls, handwritten letters and visits. The advent of the internet was a boon for communication and rekindling our bonds of friendship.

By then we were living throughout North America and elsewhere, and over time we lost a few classmates due to age-related attrition.

Please bear with me as I fast-forward 67 years until the present, knowing this does a disservice to inevitably complicated, often gratifying, sometimes challenging life stories which demonstrate remarkable fortitude and resilience.

From humble immigrant beginnings, the boys and girls of this class became men and women who led lives of remarkable diversity and fulfillment. In addition to being spouses and parents, they pursued careers as diverse as teachers, business people, nurses, physicians, actors, producers, artists, politicians, scientists, therapists, professors, lawyers and writers.

Our classmates created professional identities, businesses, works of music and art, articles, books and especially ideas and generativity which enhanced their community and world, as did their children and grandchildren.

The reunion of 80-year old graduates recently took place, as we “children” gathered for a weekend together. “Wasn’t That a Time!” captures the deep pleasures we experienced. We remembered funny anecdotes, and even each other’s parents. In our sharing of past and present, there were tales of achievements and losses, successes and regrets. Laughter suffused us, tears were shed, love was expressed.

We all noticed the dramatic physical changes we had undergone in those “brief” 67 years. Even more striking, the personalities we knew so well in our formative years were still vividly apparent.

It was moving to re-meet our fellow classmates, all in their 80th year of life. We immigrant-derived “boys and girls” had become substantive and generative adult men and women.

Each class member is unique, and each individual life story fascinating. They are all informed, respectful citizens, still engaged with their families and community. All exemplify the “Four Bs”: Being (self-esteem), Belonging (community), Believing (ethical values) and Benevolence. Each has contributed a “Positive Emotional Footprint.”

We students were enhanced and enriched by our personal “immigrant experiences,” and we and our families have contributed significantly to our “host country.”

That said, it is hard to believe that, a century after our parents arrived, there are those who again wish to slam the door in the faces of aspiring citizens from other lands.

This country is great in large part because it offered a haven and opportunities to immigrants, and because these newcomers in turn conferred their creativity and benevolence on society.

I fervently hope this important tradition continues…


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