(Host) Novelist, essayist and educator Deborah Lee Luskin is celebrating Passover this
week. And she says the story of Exodus is one demonstration of how many different people
have fled their homelands in search of religious and political freedom
and economic opportunity in America.
(Luskin) The story of
migration is central to the Jewish celebration of Passover, which
commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt and their 40-year
trek through the desert to the Promised Land. The flight from Egypt was
perhaps the first time the Jews fled persecution; BUT it certainly
wasn’t the last. Jews have a long history of fleeing oppression and
seeking religious and economic freedom in response to global politics.
the 17th century, when the Portuguese ousted the Dutch from their
colony in Brazil, for instance, the Jews who had flourished there were
forced to leave. Most returned to Amsterdam, but four men, six women and
thirteen children boarded the St. Catrina and sailed for the Dutch
colony of New Amsterdam, a primitive outpost in North America. They
arrived in the fall of 1654.
New Amsterdam was then owned by the
Dutch West India Company and governed by Peter Stuyvesant, a strict
Calvinist who believed that diversity and toleration undermined social
harmony. He wanted the Jews expelled. The Dutch West India Company,
however, insisted they stay. Trading had been one of the few occupations
Jews were allowed to pursue, and they survived and thrived as
merchants. The Company allowed them to stay and help found what would
eventually become the thriving port city of New York.
twenty-three Jews aboard the St. Catrina were not the first immigrants
to seek religious freedom in the New World. 102 such immigrants aboard
the Mayflower had landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Nor were they the
first to arrive here seeking economic opportunity. In 1607, colonists in
England had boarded the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery
and sailed to Jamestown hoping to strike it rich growing tobacco.
own ancestors were part of the huge migration from Europe at the turn
of the twentieth-century, arriving in New York harbor aboard ships named
the Aquitania, the Czar, and the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria.
the Jews, the Pilgrims and the venture capitalists who arrived here
during the seventeenth century, my grandparents endured hardship in
exchange for opportunity. The promise of starting over, the possibility
of economic success and religious freedom, were powerful incentives back
then – and they remain so today.
Few immigrants arrive by ship
nowadays. Many arrive in unnamed airplanes. They come as political
refugees, as mail-order brides, as skilled workers, and as students who
never leave. Like the Jews in the Bible, some also walk across the
desert to get here, arriving as undocumented workers willing to risk all
for a chance they can find nowhere else.
So, as we retell the
story of the Jews’ arduous escape to freedom at Passover, we would do
well to remember that somewhere in our lineage, the majority of
Americans have an immigration story to tell.
stories is a good way to remember that people the world over still flee
from oppression and migrate toward safety. And many come to the US,
where we have a long history of immigration success.