When my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, Davidovich became Davidson on the spot, Chatche became Harry, and Grandpa became an American. Hearing that a city called Detroit needed workers so badly that they were paying $5 per day, he travelled to toil at the Ford’s factory in Highland Park. At night, he apprenticed for his plumber’s license and eventually opened a plumbing supply on Linwood Avenue in Detroit.
That series of entrances finally added up to Grandpa’s Arrival behind the wheel of his first Cadillac, a used 1928 model, marked down to 1930 prices. He’d earned his citizenship long before, but for him the Cadillac declared him as American – proof of having made something of himself. A Chevrolet would have been a more prudent buy during the Depression, but even then, when it came to buying a car, self-indulgence often overcame sensibility.
Throughout Grandpa’s life, it was an easy and smart choice to buy a Cadillac. Today, for me, the decision isn’t so clear, with so many good automobiles on the market. Like him, I like to consider myself sensible when it comes to big purchases; also like him, a car means more to me than just transportation. Perhaps more than any other “thing” in my life, my car reflects who I am, or at least how I want to be perceived.
In Boston, where I live, buying a domestic car earns expressions of mild scorn. Why did you buy that instead of a Toyota? A few years ago, there was really no good answer to that; the quality of domestic cars was so poor, that the only reason was that you couldn’t pass up the incredible deal. But in the last few years, the domestics have pulled virtually even with the imports in terms of quality, performance and economy. And yet, now a majority of car sales go to foreign brands, mainly because they are perceived as “cooler” than the domestics: tougher, sexier, smarter, greener, richer, younger, safer – in some way they make buyers feel acceptable in their peer group.
People have a right to buy a car that makes them feel good about themselves; Grandpa did. Today, we can each find a car to express that we are sexytoughsmartbetter, or some other projection of self. But do these common desires align with the uncommon responsibilities we hold as Jews? – To improve the world, to support Israel, and during Passover, to acknowledge the freedom our ancestors gained for us.
Back when I was in charge of the Four Questions, Grandpa would make an extra show of reclining in his chair. The symbolic gesture of escaping Pharoah’s tyranny was his Haggadah assignment, but it also expressed his own liberty from the eternal anxiety of Jewish life in his Ukrainian homeland – which had, twenty years before I was born, been nearly extinguished.
His leisure and security, and the opportunities we all faced, had been purchased in a society that rewarded hard work and asked little in return: Vote, obey the laws, pay taxes, and above all, prosper and contribute to the common wealth. One way he did the latter was spend his dollars on American products.
Grandpa knew that what he bought at times had ethical consequences beyond the math. Just as our occasional voting responsibility aggregates our political sentiments to confer great power, so do our daily purchases funnel our wealth through the selected enterprise to the national economy in which that company operates. Even through the blurring lens of Globalism, it is clear that while localized manufacturing wages and taxes sustain communities, it profits the manufacturing company, and solidifies the economic power of the home nation. Simply put, the purchase of an American-made Toyota may employ some American workers, but it enriches Toyota shareholders and strengthens Japan’s economy – not America’s.
This ought to be an important distinction to Jews. No matter your political leanings, it’s hard to argue that in all of history, America alone has guaranteed her Jewish citizens the equality, security and sanctity that we have ever seeked since the Egyptian Exodus. In our own time, America has been the single unflinching friend of Israel. With a hollowed-out industrial sector, can the U.S. project real strength in the Persian Gulf? When it comes to the quick, will Asia or Europe stand behind Israel?
Today, with Israel at increasing risk, and with the U.S. weakened, Jews must consider whether there are deeper sentiments than how we want to feel about ourselves, and that we are obliged to be more than just frugal with our dollars.
This year, for the first time, I’ll be the one reclining at the head of the table. I’ve never known real fear, poverty, or hatred – only that those things are flourishing in many countries that Grandpa chose not to go to, and that a strong United States – productive, unified, industrially sound – is the only assurance I can give that my own grandchildren will be reclining in their time.