Activity: Confronting the Past with the Present
The aim of this activity is to deepen the students’ awareness about the meaning of their lives in their community today.
- Begin by presenting to the group the following parts of a poem written by the American Jewish poet Michael Castro. Castro was born in New York to a family that arrived in the last one or two generations (depending on which side) from Salonica or Jannina in present-day Greece. The poem is called Grandfathers.
One chain-smoked cigarettes
rolled his own
with slow deliberate movements…
He was a disgrace
to the family
for he worked on the Sabbath.
had been head Rabbi
and his brother
was a Rabbi in Salonika,
who changed money on the side.
He had a little booth
on a busy corner.
who is now a grandfather,
remembers it well.
This brother was thought highly of
by the family.
But my grandfather, the black sheep,
saved his money.
He left for America by steamship
with his oldest son Alberto,
to keep the boy from being drafted…
My mother’s father
was from Jannina
from an ancient line of Greek Jews.
In America, this grandfather
worked in a cigarette factory
and lived in Harlem.
He is best remembered for
his big beautiful brown eyes
and for the love he showered on his wife,
and on distant relatives,
arriving by boat at Ellis Island.
in the influenza epidemic of 1919…
My grandmother followed him,
Dying in Harlem six months later
Of a broken heart…
We offer the poem as representative of the thoughts and ideas that we might all have if we had enough information about our immigrant ancestors.
- Ask the students to write a letter to some representative of the past generations of their family who lived in one of the towns from which their family came, but who did not immigrate to the New World. The students should describe their life as Jews growing up in the modern New World, and express their feelings about the fact that they are living a very different way of life in a very different country to that of the ancestor to whom they are writing. How do they think that their ancestor felt about the world in which he/she lived? How do they think they saw themselves as Jews? How has that changed? How would they like still to be growing up in the same town as their ancestor? Would that be possible today?
- You should give them sufficient time to write something serious. Then bring them back together and ask them to read their letters aloud. What are the general themes and responses that come out of the letters?
- Complete the activity by discussing how they feel about growing up in their community today. Would they want their children and grandchildren to grow up in the same community? Is their community a good place in which to grow up as a Jew today, or is it the sort of place from which it would be better to emigrate? If there is a better place for them or their children to grow up as Jews, where would that be? Why?