The woman I was named after saw her family killed when she was twenty-four years old.
I think about her sometimes. She was born almost exactly one hundred years before I was, give or take a week; she was the daughter of a rabbi and a woman who owned a button shop; she lived in a town in what was then Russia and is now Ukraine. Her name was Chana Leah Rabin, and then Chana Greenstein of Proskurov, and then Anna Greenstein of Iowa.
Her name has survived. Proskurov’s hasn’t; it was renamed in 1954 to Khmelnytskyi, or Khmelnitsky, or Chmielnicki, depending on whether you speak Ukranian or Russian or Polish. Later, long after the woman I was named after left, it was invaded by the Germans. 5300 of its Jews were, upon invasion, shot by an Einsatzgruppe. The remainder were forced into a ghetto and subjected to forced labor, before being murdered almost a year later. It is likely that this group of Jews contained whoever was left of her family.
The reason the woman I was named after left Proskurov is because her father, the rabbi, had been shot and killed on Shabbat morning in February 1919. My mother says he was in shul at the time.
The Cossacks who killed him also killed her husband’s sister, and their child. The reason this is important is because her husband’s sister’s husband had been in America for years, saving up for the money to buy tickets for his family to come and join him.
When the Cossacks killed them, Chana inherited their tickets.
I know, logically, that Chana was likely not the one who made the decision to come to America. I know that it was likely more the decision of her husband, my great-grandfather; I know that they likely came because the tickets were already there, more than for any other reason; I know, I know, I know.
But there is still some part of me that is quite sure in my heart that the woman I was named after agonized over where to go, now that Proskurov was not safe and could never be safe again. Her cousin Yitzhak’s family had already gone to Palestine, another settler in the Holy Land; other Jews were flooding to England, to France, to Cuba. God knows there was antisemitism in those places, but God knows there was antisemitism in America too: colleges were attempting to establish quotas for the number of Jews they accepted, in 1913 a Jewish man named Leo Frank had been lynched, the Ku Klux Klan was rising. Jews were called traitorous Bolsheviks and greedy capitalists. Henry Ford, who is even today an American hero, was saying, “I believe that in [Germany, France, and England] the Jewish financier is supreme… here the Jew is a threat.”
And yet we came to America.
And yet we came to America, and yet we settled in America, and yet we made a home in America, as much as anyone can make a home in this stolen and merciless and beautiful country, and as much as we Jews can make a home anywhere. And yet we spread from Iowa to California to Illinois to New York, and built farms, and raised our children, and sent them to American public school and university and beyond.
The woman I was named after chose this country over all others. Over countries with history; over countries with holiness. And perhaps it’s silly to think she and I have anything in common besides a name, a name and birthdays almost exactly a century apart; perhaps it’s silly to imagine that she came to America out of anything other than convenience. Perhaps it’s silly to still, even after ninety-six years in America, think of my family as immigrants.
Sometimes I walk down to the southern tip of Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. There’s a poem, written by a Jewish girl who was born and died on this island; she called the statue you can see from there the New Colossus, but she might have called it the Golem.
I remember, at one of my cousins’ B’nei Mitzvot a few years ago, a younger cousin talking to me about what she’d been learning in Hebrew School. “They’re asking us,” she said to me, “whether we’re Jewish Americans or American Jews.”
I was surprised, for a long moment – I didn’t understand the question. “What’s the difference?” I said.
“Well,” she said, “being a Jewish American means you identify-”
“No,” I said, “not Jewish American and American Jew. Jewish and American. What’s the difference?”