Before there was multiculturalism, there was assimilation. Before assimilation, there was ethnic pride. Before ethnic pride, there was fear and frustration in the old country, with hope for a better life in America. Such is the immigrant experience. Poverty, prejudice and tyranny, a combination of hardships and fierce ambition, drove men and women to our shores, beginning with the Pilgrims.
The pilgrimage continues today. Everyone has a story tailored from personal experience.
Americans who worry that Sonia Sotomayor will take ethnic activism to a seat on the Supreme Court can nevertheless appreciate her biography, her rise from poverty within a minority Puerto Rican community, to achievement in the best schools and a successful law career that eventually led to her nomination to the Supreme Court. Latinos rejoice. They think it's their turn, that through her they'll get the recognition they deserve. She's their cultural icon, a mark of acceptance, just as Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a symbol of pride for Jewish women and Thurgood Marshall was a marker for blacks.
The immigrant experience is both wonderful and fearful, subject to the standards of different generations and different times. The immigrant reflects both the stereotypes of his or her group as well as the idiosyncratic attributes of the individual. So, we simplify and generalize as we look at biographies of different immigrants and how they impart meaning for future generations.
Such thoughts came to my mind watching a new documentary film, which opened in Washington and New York and may soon come to a theater near you. "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" is about a radio, television and Broadway star of yesteryear who was, as one cultural historian put it, "the Oprah of her day." Gertrude Berg was a Jewish broadcast star of the '30s, '40s and '50s, with a career encompassing the ebb and flow of attitudes toward Jews in a time when how Americans saw themselves was changing, often dramatically.
The documentary is the work of Aviva Kempner, whose work on two previous award-winning documentaries focused on Jews in other circumstances. "The Partisans of Vilna" was about Jewish resistance fighters who joined partisan commandos fighting the Nazis in the forests of Lithuania and Poland during World War II. Her film demonstrated how Jews "fought back" despite having to deal with prejudice among the other partisans, some of whom were as contemptuous of Jews as the Nazis they killed.