There is nothing more beautiful to me than a dining room table set for the High Holidays. Bright white tablecloths draped elegantly, hiding the folding tables that make room for cousins. Cut flowers adorn the table, crystal glasses are filled with wine. Generations gather for a special meal as comforting smells drift in from the kitchen. My mother and sister ladling matzo ball soup into blue china bowls. Inherited recipes, with handwritten notes, splayed out across the kitchen.
As I watch them, I wonder what families, with their customs and their recipes, will perish this year, will never find refuge in America, because of our president’s cruel, historically low cap on refugee entrance. President Donald Trump has once again halved the number of refugees that America will welcome in 2020, down to just 18,000. The news broke just before Rosh Hashanah.
This year, with rising anti-Semitism and lowered entrance for refugees and others seeking a new life in America, history feels uncomfortably close. My family’s past, and the sacrifices of those who came here for us, feel more present to me than ever before.
I look at my mother, smiling and serving soup in her new High Holiday dress. My mother’s great-grandmother squirreled away money to send her daughter Clara from Ukraine to America. The situation for the family had grown desperate, with regular violence from Cossack villagers. They broke into the house and made the women watch as they beat her father and brother bloody. She was sent here to live with a cousin in Boston, a city where the Jewish community would flourish, building hundreds of synagogues and raising generations of Jewish daughters. They did not know any of this, they simply knew a cousin had a room in her apartment and could get Clara a job at a shirt factory. It was hard work in dangerous conditions. Did she like the job, I asked my mother once. She was grateful for it, she said, she was grateful for hard work and a safe home, where no one broke in and beat you. That’s what immigrants come here for, and we demonize them for it, for doing work our soft, manicured fingers could never do. Clara sewed day and night, bringing as many family members as she could. They couldn’t bring everyone, no matter how hard they tried. When the Holocaust came, the letters stopped.
Clara Kagan came from Ukraine and worked at sewing in the factory. Her granddaughter became a rabbi and named her daughter after her with a modern twist: Carly.
Clara’s granddaughter, my mother, Rabbi Ellen Pildis, is offering her six grandkids more soup, and my daughter Esther-Rose bounces with excitement. I watch her eat her third matzo ball, so proud of her finally eating with a spoon and no high chair. My preschooler who proudly declares she is a baby no more. Could I have sent her away to Boston? Kissed her cheek and pressed my savings in her hand and said goodbye? Esther-Rose eats happily, having never known hunger, violence, or terror.
My brother is clearing the soup dishes. My father pours white wine, regaling me with its origins that I am not quite sophisticated enough to follow. We are together, like any family should be. My sister and my mother are laughing and serving brisket. As I stare at the two women I admire most and drink my father’s wine, I think of Ida and of Yentl, my ancestors, and ask myself if we could do what they had to do.
My father’s family lived in a small village in Lithuania where violence against Jews was commonplace. One particular fear haunted families: conscription to the czar’s army. The return rate was extremely low, it meant certain death. When word came that the soldiers were coming door to door to take men in the village away, my great-grandmother Ida and my great-aunt Yentl hatched a plan to save them. They went up front and began to flirt with the lonely soldiers. They stood there, flirting with the men who had come to take their husbands away, while the men in their family took their fastest horses and rode like hell, away into the night, to a boat that took them to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Could my mother, my sister, and I have done it? Have flirted and complimented them for over an hour, offering them tea and fawning over them, with barely a moment to say goodbye to our husbands, our brothers, our fathers? With their lives depending on our acting ability? Family legend says when the soldiers finally demanded to know when the men were coming home, Ida laughed and said, they left! They’ve gone for good, go chase the horses and put salt in their tails, which meant, in Yiddish, that you would never be able to catch them.
Could I have done it ? Kissed our babies goodbye and sent them across the sea? Flirted with the bringers of death while our family rode away to safety, hoping to one day reunite in America?
I ask myself these questions whenever I read stories of refugees. Could I walk here with my toddler from Honduras? Could I board a plastic boat I knew might sink across a stormy Mediterranean?
Around the table, with my beloved family, we are eating apple cake and watching the kids play piano. My daughter bangs on the keys and sings “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” My nephew attempts to teach her ”Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I sip my tea and laugh. We were refugees once, and now we are generations of Americans.
The sun goes down and the holiday ends. The kids are asleep. I sneak away to do a little work. Last week I led a candidate engagement training for Zioness, teaching our grassroots how to talk about refugee resettlement. I update the numbers for our ask from a historic low of 36,000 to a new historic low of just 18,000 refugees.
Former President Obama had set the number of refugees that could enter America at 110,000. For the upcoming year, only 18,000 will be let in. I could regale you with facts and figures. I could tell you about how refugees are some of the most vetted newcomers, and how Clara Kagan was never subjected to anything so vigorous as a modern refugee or asylum seeker would be. I could tell you how refugee resettlement is good for the economy, good for national security, just plain GOOD for America, but I don’t have the patience. The hour of judgment is growing near. Kol Nidre is coming. Families just like mine are running out of time.
Instead I want to talk to you about tables.
Eighteen thousand refugees means tens of thousands of empty tables. Families that will perish. Holiday meals that will never be cooked. If Clara Kagan never leaves Ukraine, if Ida and Yentl never reunite with their families in New Bedford, then Carly Pildis is never born. The whole holiday table, the whole tradition is gone. When you see your family this season, ask questions about how your family came to America: Odds are they were refugees. When you daven this Yom Kippur, I want you to picture 90,000 families, just like mine, just like yours, gone, 90,000 empty tables that should have been filled here in America.
When the holiday is over, I want you to break your fast and break your silence. We must fight back in 5780. We must fill our collective American table with Rosh Hashanahs, Eids, quinceanaras, birthdays, weddings, babies. There is plenty of room at the table.
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