Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States
White Like Me
Mark Asch on Hester Street
[One] source of Trump’s appeal is his willingness—eagerness—gleefulness!—to mock the ridiculous lies we’ve been incessantly force-fed for the past 15 years (at least) and tell the truth. “Diversity” is not “our strength”; it’s a source of weakness, tension, and disunion. America is not a “nation of immigrants”; we are originally a nation of settlers, who later chose to admit immigrants, and later still not to, and who may justly open or close our doors solely at our own discretion, without deference to forced pieties. —Michael Anton, National Security Council
The logic behind Trump’s attempted “Muslim ban” (his words) is at once nakedly obvious and incredibly obtuse. “Settlers and immigrants” is a racist dog whistle barely disguised as a historical meta-narrative; this is clear from the rhetoric of the white nationalists who have willingly—eagerly—gleefully!—attached themselves, leechlike, to a stupid old man with no convictions beyond a reflexive masturbatory thirst for approbation and Coca-Cola. Men like Michael Anton, who views ethnic diversity as “a source of weakness, tension, and disunion,” and Steve Bannon evidently and simply believe that “we” Americans are a nation of white people. I’m just trying to figure out who the white people are now.
Who are the settlers, and who are the immigrants, in this formulation? (Ignoring that the only ethnic group with any primary claim to North America must be Native Americans… And were the slaves “immigrants”?) Where is the cut-off? After the settlers let the immigrants in, what happened then? If America is “not a ‘nation of immigrants,’” are we to assume that the immigrants assimilated—became as “American” as the settlers? In that case, why would one assume that today’s immigrants would not? On the other hand, if the “immigrants” don’t justify the trust placed in them by the “settlers,” how does the “weakness, tension, and disunion” then slip into the culture? No one any longer contests the whiteness of Catholics, as the mid-19th-century No-Nothings and early 20th-century eugenicists did, but how assimilated was John Ford, whose Westerns made space for a sometimes proudly stereotypical, bawdy Irish humor and clannishness that had recently been the target of notorious employment discrimination? How assimilated is Martin Scorsese, whose films are unthinkable without “the strange and pagan rites, [the] babble of tongues” of the Italian-American religion and culture in which he was raised? Presumably Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is an American film, even though it’s about the descendants of slaves who speak a Creole dialect. But in that case, who “chose to admit it” into the national canon?
If all this seems pedantic, please remember that men like Anton and Bannon, heirs to the eugenicists, jerry-rigging a cultural-anthropological instead of a biological framework to justify the same visceral lizard-brain dislike for contemporary out-groups, are currently trying to tell you and me what it even means to identify as an American.
Executive Order 13769, spearheaded largely by Steve Bannon and signed late in the afternoon on Friday, January 27, blocked all processing of refugees for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely, and put a 90-day hold on U.S. entry for citizens of Syria as well as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen; additionally, green card holders were refused entry, or not, according to competing directives issued by different stems of the executive branch. Passengers in transit were detained without recourse to contact lawyers or family members.
That this order, and its sequel, EO 13780,especially target for exclusion refugees fleeing unthinkable violence in Syria and elsewhere has been a source of considerable hand-wringing in the Jewish community—with particular tsuris over Jared Kushner’s invocation of his grandmother’s status as a Holocaust survivor to defend the indefensible. In December, the Atlantic ran an article entitled “Are Jews White?” “There’s no doubt that the vast majority of American Jews live with what we would call white privilege,” the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt was quoted as saying, while also acknowledging that American Jews can recall a time, within living memory, when this was not true. “The doors of the world were closed to us,” Jared’s grandmother Rae Kushner would recall of her years as a refugee fleeing the aftermath of a genocide.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that “Are Jews White?” is a question very much on the mind of American Jews who, like me and Jared Kushner, have by now shed any trace of the greenhorn, fresh from the shtetl, who appears in an early scene of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street. It’s a wonderful scene: “Meet Shloime Navasky, just come over this very day,” the proprietor of a café announces to a small gathering of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, talking rapid-fire, in English, about their lives in the tenements of the Lower East Side in the final decade of the 19th century. Poor Shloime, in his fur hat and payot, is indeed “scared to death,” as one of the women observes, with the plastered-on grin and nervous ultra-receptivity to body language and tone of voice of an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language: Does he know that the joke cracking up everyone else at the table is that he smells like a barnyard animal? He must at least suspect, but smiles through it.
Silver’s first film, from 1975, shows Jewish immigrants in the process of becoming full-fledged Americans whose descendants will be in the position in which we now find ourselves, empowered to “open or close our doors” to today’s outsiders. “What was you in the old country, huh?” the sweatshop owner demands of a former yeshiva student now hunched over a sewing machine, eager to tell him, again, that he was once merely a peddler. “Some country, America!” Capitalism is re-sorting the winners and losers, first wiping the slate clean of all the personal memories and social priorities that used to make you the person you were.
Embracing the possibility of reinvention is Jake (Steven Keats), the sole protagonist of the film’s first reel and a consummate assimilationist. With his mustache aspiring to a waxy John L. Sullivan curl, and his slicked-down hair and sharpish suits, Jake hurls himself into the new world, boasting and bluffing and bellowing in English despite his distinct accent—in the Shloime Navasky scene, Keats shows Jake making himself a big target, throwing his arms wide and throwing his voice up and down in pitch, a man who wants everyone to know he’s not afraid to take up space here. “He’ll soon learn in America there ain’t no such thing as relatives,” he says of Shloime, conspiratorially but loudly, to Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), a fellow émigré with a feather hat and bankroll, whom he’ll soon sweet-talk into a night on his crowded rooftop. But once Jake receives word of his father’s death—he tries to chant kaddish in a tallis and new bowler hat—he sends for his wife and son.
When Jake sees his family for the first time in years, they’re on opposite sides of a chain link fence; the scene is as claustrophobic as Silver can make it on her limited budget, with extras packing the background of tightly framed telephoto shots, and the wails of infants and horns of tugboats turned way up in the sound mix alongside a cacophony of languages echoing in the high-ceilinged holding pens. Jake is shifty, subdued in the presence of a woman who remembers him when he had a beard, and cowed by authority. When Jake stands before an immigration official’s desk—really more of a judge’s dais—Silver holds her camera slightly above him, making him look like a supplicant; slightly out of focus and fearful in the background is his wife Gitl (played by national treasure Carol Kane, who was 23 years old when the film was released, and earned a deserved Oscar nomination for a role performed partly in Yiddish and partly with her huge, yearning eyes). “For what purpose are you bringing this woman in?” the immigration official asks, twice, his voice slipping easily into a tone of impersonal and unconscious contempt. He waits an agonizingly long time to ask for the marriage certificate, a superior smirk on his face as the immigrant family stews in its own anxiety.
After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, my paternal grandmother lived for at least a short time behind a wall. The Pole whose wall it was—she told my siblings and I this, once, when one of us interviewed her for a school project—had a functioning sink on the other side. Whenever the police or army came by, he would make a point of showing them that his hands were dirty, and wash them in that sink, so that they’d know there were pipes behind that wall, and not look back there to find my grandmother.
An obvious lesson that many before me have drawn from the Holocaust: everyone always has a choice. During the chaos of the first travel ban, Customs and Border Protection officials defied court orders blocking the ban, unlawfully detaining travelers; now, they’re hassling American citizens, certain citizens in particular, for their passwords. Make no mistake: these people are not just “following orders,” they are making the choice, with their whole selves, to demean and terrorize the people the President refers to as snakes. Jake, Gitl and their son Yossele are lucky that the man deciding their own fate is merely smug and indifferent. After an uncomprehending look at a scroll of beautiful Hebrew calligraphy, he doesn’t question its veracity, he just waves them through without a word.
The Jews of Hester Street are unmistakably an underclass, not new Americans but contingent ones. In particularly there’s tension between the all-American Jake and the timid, apartment-bound Gitl over her discomfort in this strange new world and his embarrassment at her adherence to their traditions. In a striking parallel to a contemporary group who, we’re told, must shed their religious fundamentalism to earn their place in the secular progressive West, Jake and Gitl fight over her preference for wearing a wig, or at least a head scarf: “I can’t go around in my own hair! I’m a married woman.” She calls Jake “Yankel,” and he calls Yossele “Joey.”
The film’s black-and-white cinematography, Joan Micklin Silver said in a recent interview, is meant to recall the work of photographers such as Jacob Riis; the film immerses itself in how the other half lived. When Jake, Gitl, Joey, and their boarder Bernstein, the former scholar who now works under the former peddler, go to the park, Jake and Joey play baseball in the sun while Gitl and Bernstein sit under a tree—she draped in black shawls and he in a stifling suit. They seem transposed from another time, like the film’s music, a bit of jaunty piano evoking the age of storefront nickelodeons amid a teeming streetscape. Such an urban scene, and the national film culture that emerged alongside it, would be the basis of a coherent multi-ethnic urban identity, as film historians like Tom Gunning and Robert Sklar have argued. It’s this transitional, transactional urban world to which Jake has committed, though the film is wonderfully ambivalent about how long his absorption will take, or how complete it will ever be. At the park, in his vest and wide tie, he strides across the grass: “Look what a place is America, nu, Bernstein? […] In Russia we was afraid of walking within ten feet of a gentile.” Gitl replies: “Yankel, where in America is the gentiles, huh? I go with Mrs. Kavarsky, Rivington Street, Delancey Street, everywhere Jews. The gentiles keep in another place, huh?”
Hester Street is based on Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, a novel by Abraham Cahan, who published Sholem Asch, my paternal grandfather’s uncle, in the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. The “New York Ghetto” of the Lower East Side around the turn of the century is the subject of Asch’s novella America. It was “a tumult of shrieking elevated trains, dark tenements, and grimy sweatshop walls and windows,” Ben Siegel writes in his 1976 study of the author, where “school, street, and even home are strange, hard, frightening,” and the immigrant experience is characterized by “the painful departures from the old country and fears of the new; the male sense of degradation and loss at being reduced to factory labor, especially needle work; the wrenching displacement of old pieties by new heresies.” In a world of what Asch calls “dying Jewishness,” characters either succumb to pathetic nostalgia or betray their roots.
“The ‘jargon of servant maids’ becomes music in his hands,” Cahan once wrote of Sholem Asch’s Yiddish play God of Vengeance: the vernacular speech of peasants elevated to literature, the art of the immigrants admitted to the canon of the settlers—as Joan Micklin Silver turned the experiences of her immigrant father into an Oscar-nominated film. One of Sholem Asch’s sons, future Folkways Records honcho Moses Asch, would later recall of his upbringing in New York City that “the cops used to chase us from street corners by shooting live bullets over our heads.” It was these sorts of experiences that inspired his lifelong affinity with the folksingers whose recordings he would later own. “He would never pay you ten cents if he could get away with five,” Dave Van Ronk (the real-life Llewyn Davis) said of the man fictionalized by the Coen Brothers as the penny-pinching Mel Novikoff.
When I was in college, I wrote a piece for The L Magazine, where I was then an intern, about the movie reviews at white supremacist websites. This was more than a decade ago now, when Nazis had biker beards and Angelfire pages instead of undercuts, Twitter accounts, and nearly sympathetic Times profiles. It was possible, if hardly advisable, for a smug undergraduate in New York to look with bemusement at culturally disempowered old dudes in Middle America clinging to the hatreds of retro movie villains while also telling their readers that they cried at The Notebook. (“So in love… So pure… So white,” ran the caption my editors ran under the still that accompanied my essay.) Sometime later, I received an email from a man who sometimes reviewed movies for the Vanguard News Network and his personal site White Alert. He had written a White Alert in which he referred to me as “Jewboy,” but in the email he offered to delete the slur in the event that I wasn’t Jewish. I politely demurred, and we engaged in a teeth-grittingly civil back-and-forth about my essay, his views on cinema and world history, and the inherent subjectivity of film criticism. The VNN—“No Jews, Just Right”—is not affiliated with the so-called alt-right; it was, however, one of the favorite bookmarks of multiple men who have committed hate crimes in the past decade, some fatal. And yet, more recently, when I was talking about this all with my dad, I was adamant that I hadn’t felt angry or endangered.
I alluded earlier to the fact that my paternal grandmother, like Jared Kushner’s, was a Holocaust survivor. But the word “survivor” seems inadequate to me, for two very opposite reasons. When my grandmother’s older brothers, whom she worshipped, died in the Warsaw uprising and at Poniatowa, and when her parents died at Trawniki, a part of my grandmother died alongside them—her children know this, and so do I, in my way. “Settlers” or “immigrants,” we Americans all have our scars.
But on the other hand, my grandmother did not merely “survive” the Holocaust. She thrived. After her divorce, my grandmother, a brave and complicated woman, lived the last three decades of her life in a condo overlooking the Charles River, with a glass coffee table we weren’t supposed to touch with our grubby fingers underneath a suite of tossed-off works in pencil and watercolor by Salvador Dalí, who gave them to her at a hotel in Paris where they both used to stay. My grandmother was a snob who took me and my siblings to matinees at the American Repertory Theater and the Harvard Film Archive because she worried that we weren’t getting enough culture where we were growing up in Maine, and she was an indifferent cook, though a fashionable hostess with her silk blouses and short hair, dyed jet-black. Thanks to her, I have an undergraduate humanities degree from New York University, and no student loan debt.
So when my father asked me how I could be so detached from the hatred of the man from the Vanguard News Network, I said: “Because I’m whiter than he is.”
Hester Street is at once vividly a film about the immigrant experience and vividly about New York Jews, that quintessentially American tribe. When a couple walks to City Hall to get married, rather than take the El, because “two nickels is two nickels,” the film may remind you of the anti-Semitic stereotypes that Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance was criticized for feeding, and still clung to by the America First revivalists in the West Wing—a retrograde hatred that Jared Kushner knows will never really touch him.
What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg’s novel about a Jewish go-getter’s rise from three blocks south of Hester Street to the pinnacle of the American entertainment industry, was likewise accused of being Bad for the Jews, though of the savant-like arch-capitalist Sammy Glick and his upbringing, Schulberg has his narrator say, “I thought of Sammy Glick rocking in his cradle of hate, malnutrition, prejudice, suspicions, amorality, the anarchy of the poor; I thought of him as a mangy little puppy in a dog-eat-dog world. […] Rivington Streets of all nationalities allowed to pile up in cities like gigantic dung heaps smelling up the world, ambitions growing out of filth and crawling away like worms.”
Sammy Glick’s childhood home, where he grew up the assimilated son of a pushcart peddler who wasn’t cutthroat enough to provide for his family, is described by Schulberg as “a tenement laced with corroded fire escapes and sagging washlines. It looked as if one healthy gust of wind would send its tired bricks rumbling down into the narrow street. The hallway gave off a warm, sweet, and infinitely unpleasant odor of age, of decay, of too many uncleaned kitchens too close together.” The address, 136 Rivington Street, is actually a schoolyard; today it’s across the street from the Keith McNally restaurant Schiller’s Liquor Bar. The modern Lower East Side is no more recognizable as a slum than the real-estate titans the Kushners are as immigrants. Funny Girl (1968), which traces Fanny Brice’s arc from outer-borough ethnic striver to American entertainment icon—and ensured Barbra Streisand’s parallel trajectory, too—tells a similar story. It’s a common story—an American story.
By the end of Hester Street, Gitl, now separated from Jake and engaged to Bernstein, has begun to sharpen up a little. Like my grandmother, she has found herself unmarried and financially independent: Kane is unforgettably dignified and devastated in the scene when Jake’s lawyer offers to buy her off with the money Mamie has saved up, like a good Jewish wife, but Gitl’s melancholy turns out to be a good negotiating ploy. She “skinned us alive,” Mamie tells Jake afterward.
No longer a survivor, Gitl has begun to thrive. Bernstein, her fiancé, will return to his religious studies, maintain his connection to the culture they left behind, but she’ll use her newly discovered capitalist savvy to start a grocery store. Minutes after Gitl and Jake’s divorce, she corrects a neighbor who says her son’s name is Yossele: “No. His name is Joey.” She’s become American, and she’s learning to forget.
For my grandmother Eugenia Shrut, born Gina Tabaczynska in Kłodawa, Poland; and my grandfather Mark Asch, born Marek Asz in Warsaw.