The greatest immigrant generation

Steve Kelman honors his grandparents' generation while memorializing his mother.

My mom, Sylvia Kelman, died on Sept. 1, just a few weeks before her 92nd birthday. The last few years have been sad in many ways, with her health and cognition deteriorating badly. It is painful to have those last memories of her. But our whole family will cherish the memories of a very strong and devoted woman, very smart, very loving, and very caring both for family and for others in the world.

 I bring up my mom not just to remember her for herself, but because she beautifully represented one of the most amazing groups of immigrants ever to grace our country’s shores – the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to the US from around 1890 through 1910, fleeing poverty and anti-Semitism in their home countries. 

My mom, born in 1920, was a child of two such immigrants. Her parents had hardly any formal schooling – her dad was a garment worker, her mom ran a tiny bakery. She was able to attend university thanks to the free public New York city college system (she attended Hunter College, at that time all-women), a system that produced a generation of Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned academics.  After graduating, she went to work in the War Department during World War II, as a GS-3 (I believe) classification specialist. She raised three baby-boom children (born between 1948 and 1954), volunteered in local politics and the Parent-Teacher Association, and then returned to school to get a law degree after her children became teenagers. One of her kids is a Harvard professor, a second a Stanford professor, a third a union-side labor lawyer.

What is amazing about this immigrant saga is not so much the story of upward mobility, which has characterized many immigrant groups. What is very special about these turn-of-the-previous century Jewish immigrants and their children is the sense of commitment to causes larger than themselves personally or even their own ethnic group. Like many of these children of immigrants, my mom was very conscious of her Jewish identity, but she was also very conscious of not being limited to it.

She was concerned with victims of oppression from any country, race, or nationality. She cared about what she would have called – to use an expression that has largely disappeared from our contemporary vocabulary – the “underdogs” of our society, and by no means just the Jewish ones. And in these concerns, she was not alone. These values were very much the values of a significant part of this greatest generation of immigrants. These values surely grew out of a history of discrimination and ill-treatment, but, mixed with a tradition of learning and questioning, and an idealistic faith in the values of their new country, they went beyond that personal history to embody something larger.

In remembering my mom, I also want to remember those values, and hope that they do not disappear as subsequent generations become more and more distant from these immigrant roots.

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