I was brought up as a child living in a small suburb of Boston, MA during the early 1940s, where everyone spoke the same language and seemed to live a rather similar lifestyle.
It wasn’t until some years later when I moved to Miami that I realize that not everyone spoke or acted the same and there was some adjusting to be done.
My first encounter with this was while operating my recently acquired retail store, a gentleman came in walked over to me, and said two words “pick up.” I asked him pick up what, to which he replied with a shrug of the shoulders.
At that time I had no Spanish speaking employees so the only answer was to have him call the company that sent him to “pick up” so that I might determine what this was all about.
It turned out that the previous owner of this property had a vending machine delivered which was supposed to be picked up after a period of time. Problem solved! It was a short time later while I was trying to assist a customer in my store but had difficulty explaining things to him because his command of the English language was extremely limited.
I had not yet realized the importance of having Spanish speaking employees and was trying to stumble through on my own. He finally ended up saying to me in a most insulting tone, “How can you work in a business like this and not speak Spanish?”
Of course I was offended, but soon realized that he was quite right. I now lived in an area in which the dominant population spoke Spanish and very little English, unlike the town in which I was raised.
That got me to thinking about how life must have been for my father and his father coming here in 1900, not speaking the language and being totally unfamiliar with all of the customs that we now take for granted.
There was a difference with these particular new refugees in that they felt it important to learn the language of their new country and adjust to all of the strange customs, etc. The result was that only English was spoken in my home with the slight exception of Yiddish, which was used primarily to keep things from my ears that I should not be hearing.
I always knew when one of my sisters had become pregnant because everyone in the family began speaking Yiddish. Of course, I never took the time or effort to learn this strange language which I am told was a bastardized version of German spoken by most Jews of Eastern Europe. My parents of course were able to speak Russian, but never did and as a result I was never given the benefit of having a second or third language in which to communicate. My father told me that the first phrase he learned in English was “sonofabitch.” At least he learned one important word.
My father’s first job on arriving in this country was to go to work for a leather factory that cut cow hides into the small forms used to replace the worn out soles of existing shoes. He began work there at approximately the age of 12 and continued with the same firm, George James leather factory, for the next 60 years. Of course he ended up as part owner of this company which unfortunately was in a business that no longer existed, but worked hard he did,
His father, for whom I am named, drove a horse and buggy through the city streets collecting various recyclable metals which he sold for a profit.
My older brothers have told me of the excitement of going for a ride with grandpa on his horse and buggy — an experience which I never had.
Knowing all this, I can’t help but think back when my father and his family made the decision to leave a country in which they had been born and raised, and move far away to a place where they did not speak the language nor understand the customs. But they were forced to leave because they were simply unwelcome in Russia at that time when it was common for Jews to be beaten in the street and otherwise exiled.
If I were ever in a similar situation, how would I explain to my family that we are now packing up everything we own, and moving to a place that may or may not welcome us, where I may or may not find a new job, and with no place to move into when we arrived.
Frankly I cannot even conceive of it yet every day, perhaps billions of people are doing this exact thing. Miami is a prime example with refugees from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and a host of other Latin American countries that seem to have difficulty surviving.
I guess the purpose of this article is to make sure that none of us living here now take for granted what our ancestors must have gone through just to get here. Those that are successful deserve extra credit and anyone who had to make that decision for their family had to be looked on as a hero. I only wish that my parents were alive so that I could thank them for the sacrifices that they made so that I, my children, and their children, can live the wonderful life that has been handed down to us.