This post is a response to the article I came upon on ironedcurtains.com entitled “To our children, about all the joys of socialism.”
It is written by a Soviet immigrant to the United States of my parents generation. Mila and her family came to the United States around the same time as my family — in 1994. Her story is similar to that of many Soviet Jewish immigrants to the United States that came here around the same time.
Mila’s article resonated with me because the patronizing “dear child, let me tell you about Socialism” spiel is very familiar to me. I’ve heard it many times at many a family gathering. The story never changes. It’s always the same. That is why I am glad she put her story in writing — so I can respond in writing as well.
Perhaps it is time I told my story.
Just like Mila, my family came to the United States in 1994. She arrived in Chicago in January of 1994. We arrived in New York in June of 1994. We too were greeted by relatives who came significantly earlier who helped us get an apartment.
In addition to our relatives, we were helped by various Jewish non-profits that I don’t remember anymore. Most importantly, however, as refugees we were eligible for social assistance and that included Medicaid.
In her article, Mila states:
We went to Temple Menorah (a synagogue) to learn English, everyone except for me and my parents, because literally three days after we immigrated, my father had to go to Mount Sinai hospital and remained there for nearly a month. My mother and I went there every day by bus and stayed there until the last bus left for the day. But thanks to the doctors there, my father returned home. And then, I too, started taking English classes at Temple Menorah.
Mila’s elderly father received a month worth of hospital care. Who paid for it? I was only fifteen when we arrived in the 1990s and even then the fact that most Americans had to work hard to afford the same level of health coverage that Medicaid offered refugees was not lost on me. Mila continues:
My uncle suggested that I should become a nanny, and that my husband should drive a taxi. But we didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to receive food stamps, to go for handouts, to worry about whether we would get taken off public aid or not. I don’t want to go into detail about all the things we had to do — how my husband and I cleaned houses, how I worked as a shampoo girl at a salon and how I traveled the city with a massage table to give massages, how I looked after a wonderful little girl, how my husband worked for three dollars an hour doing house repairs — you are already aware of these stories.
It is easy to forget the humiliation of using food stamps to buy groceries, or waiting in lines at the Social Security Administration offices. My family didn’t want to do that either. Yet, imagine this — none of us were even born in the United States and this country accepted us with open arms and made us eligible for the social safety net. My dad got a job relatively quickly, my mom picked up new skills and got a job in IT, and I went to a public high school in Brooklyn and then off to college.
I was lucky: I finished classes and went to work in the billing department of a medical office. This was already a huge improvement. At the same time, our friend convinced me to take programming courses. In April of 1998, I started my first job in I.T. I was 51. At 66, I retired, having worked in IT for fourteen years.
Right now, my husband and I are retired, receive retirement benefits, and when we can, we try to help our children.
Mila worked in IT for 14 years and retired at 66 and now receives retirement benefits which include Social Security — because all American citizens receive it.
To be eligible for Social Security you only need to work for 10 years. Somebody born in the United States who worked from their early 20s until their mid-sixties for 45 years ends up receiving almost the same Social Security and Medicare benefits. In other words, Mila is a recipient of very generous social benefits.
I know that it’s possible that you, our children, didn’t get as much of our attention as we would have liked. We rarely shared our views and our life experience, we rarely talked about memories that were hard for us to bring up, including anti-Semitism. (I remember when I worked for a newspaper and signed an article with my Jewish last name, in the morning paper, I saw my article with my last name edited to sound more Ukrainian. And my husband was discouraged from applying to a more prestigious college because he was a Jew.)
I am a child of your generation of immigrants, but I remember. I remember the institutional anti-semitism. I remember being bullied in school — and after school. I remember our next door neighbor blaming a late March freeze that killed his cucumbers on Jewish Passover prayers. I remember my parents discouraging me from talking about being a Jew in school.
I want to clarify: A socialist government is any government where the laws state that the state is obligated to take care of people with disabilities and has its own special social infrastructure including free hospitals, schools, universities, and the like. The socialist state is a type of socio-political system that can be characterized by the control of society over production and distribution of income. That is, the owner of property and production can only be a society that delegates its powers to the state according to the theory of the “Public Contract” — hence state property.
This is a rather dubious criticism of socialism coming from someone who benefited from a free hospital for her elderly father, food stamps, and currently receives Social Security and Medicare.
That’s why, when the Democrat Obama, with all his promises, came into power, we felt that socialism had come to this country. And I already understood life under socialism. Obama was in power for eight years. What did he accomplish? Did America become better for us, her citizens? Did America become safer, richer, did her middle class grow? Did the population’s income increase? Did America, Israel’s only ally, become safer? In general, the answers to these questions are clear if you look around.
Obama inherited an economic disaster of historical proportions. What promises did he make? I don’t remember any promises — but then again, the fact that I got educated in the United States and took constitutional law classes in college I know that an American president is not the same as a Soviet Communist Party Secretary General. American presidents are relatively weak and can only accomplish things with the help of the other two branches of the government.
Mila is trying to imply that we lived in Socialism under President Obama. With all due respect, capitalism flourished and prospered under the president Mila calls a “socialist.” Just look at the stock market and job growth under Obama. The economy tends to continue moving in the direction it is going in until nudged — the job growth you see today is all because of Obama’s capitalist policies. I cynically predict that once again, just like they did in 2001–2008, the Republicans will destroy the economy with their misguided ideas.
Did America become safer? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Let me tell you what I think — America was not safe under Obama’s Republican predecessor at all. I saw both World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11/2001 and my mother and I walked through thick smoke to get home. Under George W. Bush America started two wars with questionable results and thousands of Americans dead.
So why did we immigrate to America? We didn’t want our children and grandchildren to go through the same humiliations that we did, and yes, we didn’t want to earn a miserly salary and recycle so that we could receive some vouchers for socks for our son, like many did in Russia. We came to this country for a better life, for ourselves and our children.
This is far from what’s happening in America and far from what happened under Barack Obama, whom Mila calls “socialist.” In her letter Mila mentioned the humiliation of institutional anti-Semitism and seems to conveniently neglect the mild anti-Semitism of the Trump administration. She seems to look over the threats against Jewish community centers and lack of forceful reaction from the White House. The humiliation can take different forms.
Several years ago, we had the chance to visit Israel, even though we were not sure that physically we could handle the trip. But we couldn’t not go to this country. We saw what Israelis accomplished in 70 years, we fell in love with this country, and we think it’s important that our children not only know that they’re Jews, but that they need to always support this country, to remember Yad Vashem, and step out against those who are Holocaust deniers, who are enemies of Israel, and those who shoot young women and men that defend Israel only because they are Jews.
Mila seems to overlook the mild Holocaust denial of the Trump administration. “Other people died in the Holocaust too” to Jews is what “All Lives Matter” is to the African Americans. Yes, many people died in World War 2. Many people died in the concentration camps. Yet, the Nazis had a very specific policy targeting Jews exclusively. “Socialist” Barack Obama knew that. Donald Trump does not.
In general, the speed of sound is an amazing thing: parents say something to children, when they’re 20, and it reaches the children when they’re 40! I really hope that our smart and talented children will show that they have good heads on their shoulders!
According to Mila, to “have a good head on their shoulders” means to have selective memory. Our generation of Soviet immigrants is approaching 40, and we remember.
One thing we remember is that as much as our families suffered under socialism, our grandfathers also fought Fascism. Our grandfathers were soldiers, warriors, fighters, partisans, and underground resistance leaders — not just in the USSR but all over Europe. I am sure that if asked “is it ok to punch a Nazi” my late grandfather would forcefully say “YES!”
We remember the history of Nazi Germany and how Adolf Hitler rose to power by adopting socialist ideals such as jobs, rapid industrialization, infrastructure, and safety net for everyone, and extreme right-wing ideas such as patriotism, xenophobia, and expansion of the military. Hitler confused and befuddled his critics by pandering to both sides of the political spectrum.
We remember and we know full well how America greeted us with open arms and gave us social support. We know that we must be eternally grateful to America while we should be careful what we say about others who want to come.
Nobody invited Soviet Jews here. Our families were quite literally the wretched masses yearning to be free.
We are the smart and talented children of your generation. We finished colleges, we started businesses, we became financiers, actors, attorneys, and software engineers. The “joys of socialism” that we remember are the safety nets we were offered when we came to America. We can also tell the dangers of nationalism and authoritarianism because we witnessed it in the Soviet Union.
That is why we find it morally repugnant when our parents generation talks about denying others the very same safety nets we took advantage of. We can tell lies from facts and we know that Obama is as much a socialist as he is a Muslim. What we see happening in America today is the same jingoistic disease that plagued Russia and Europe for the past two decades.
We know. We remember. And you don’t need to patronize us at family gatherings.