Friday, September 07, 2007

Saturday School Then and Now

Just like my little brother and I did, my two daughters go to Saturday school. Just as my parents drove us to New Hartford for Hebrew school, the tsuma and I drive onechan and imoto to Buffalo for yochien. I wonder if the resemblances will end there.

My parents both grew up in heavily Jewish communities in post-W.W.-II era Brooklyn and, later, Long Island. My brother and I grew up as two of the four Jewish kids in Clinton, NY. So we went, rather unwillingly, to Hebrew school, until we had our Bar Mitzvahs--and then stopped. We were only taught enough Hebrew to make it through our Torah readings--and that's about as much as we learned. We identified as upstate New Yorkers, not as Jewish Americans.

Onechan and imoto have dual Japanese and U.S. citizenship. The tsuma and I hope their year in Japan came at just the right time, linguistically speaking, and that Saturday yochien in Buffalo can tide them over until we get back for our next extended stay. From what I've seen of the teachers and the set-up, they have decent odds at keeping connected with Japanese language and culture. Onechan is already loving to learn the hiragana and katakana writing systems that I struggled over last fall. She was "drawing words," as she put it to me later, for an hour straight last week. She seems to really like her sensei, too. But as good as they are, what's really going to keep her Japanese developing is her peer group there--and so far, only she and a 6-year-old girl whose Japanese is far behind her are the only ones in the class. We've heard two more kids might join up this week, so we'll see tomorrow. Her Fukuoka yochien friends and her cousins in Okinawa are mostly too young right now to enjoy talking on the phone with her (that is, over Skype), so she's going to have to rely on her Buffalo yochien friends until imoto gets old enough to start having conversations in Japanese with her.

So both girls are light years ahead of where my brother and I were at their ages. Perhaps if my grandparents had tried to pass down Yiddish, we could have become bilingual at a young age, too. But it's clear that they wanted their children to be monolingual in English. When my dad's mom was in late stages of Alzheimer's, a long time ago now, there was a period when she was mostly living in her memories of the Depression era. She would often correct our English when we visited her and our grandfather in Long Island, particularly irritated by my brother's and my upstate accents and bad pronunciation/enunciation according to her standards of correct English (which were quite correct). Although she spoke Yiddish with her sister and her husband her whole life, she didn't try to teach more than a word here or there to her grandchildren.

That's history for you. Our grandparents came to America just before anti-immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment peaked with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act--a time when the KKK was reviving, when nativism and 100%-Americanism set the standards of inclusion and exclusion, when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were of ambiguous and uncertain racial status (not-quite-white, at best). Our parents were born at a time when the U.S. racial order was undergoing a historic shift, one that has proven to be more deeply-rooted and extensive than the unfinished revolution of the later civil rights movement: the opening-up of whiteness to the previously racialized immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, first on a kind of conditional "white ethnic" status and later simply white. Perhaps if we had grown up downstate, my brother and I would have taken part in the "ethnic revivals" of the 1970s, but most likely not. Between our grandfather's Holocaust-induced disbelief and our father's profession of philosophy (not to mention our childhoods in the college towns of Clinton, Chapel Hill, and Palo Alto), it's difficult to imagine us being seriously attracted to Judaism or Jewish culture.

So do our stories fulfill the classic melting pot script? With my brother marrying into a big Polish Catholic family and their four kids growing up in the classic suburban mode, perhaps so. Or maybe the ethnic similarities (we're part Polish and part Hungarian) outweigh the religious differences there, so that onechan's and imoto's cousins' childhoods will echo their grandparents' somewhat. In any case, it's pretty clear that onechan's and imoto's childhoods will be something different. In what ways and with what effects remains to be seen.

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