A modern midrash:
After Sholem Aleichen’s Tevye, the Dairyman, his family, and his townspeople are forced to leave their beloved Anatevka due to the czar’s decree, all of them seek and are granted asylum in the United States. They move to America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin, where they settle and begin their lives anew.
Tevye establishes a dairy in northern Wisconsin which eventually becomes a huge conglomerate. Never forgetting the earlier days, Tevye devotes 20 percent of his yield to supplying milk to the food-deprived throughout the state. He is also a founder of a new synagogue, where he finally has his seat “by the Western Wall.”
Golde, his wife, becomes a lawyer who specializes in women’s rights; part of her practice is devoted to pro bono work.
Motel, the Tailor, establishes a wholesale clothing business whose contacts require that a percentage of customer profits be used to outfit those in need.
Yente, the Matchmaker, discovers the internet and continues her matchmaking at YourYente.com and allows participants to access her website free for the first 30 days.
Everyone is happy. Everyone in the community welcomes strangers. Always. Everyone lives to one hundred and twenty. The czar is no longer in power, so many people vacation freely in Anatevka at least once a year.
The fictional people of Anatevka from this story are granted asylum because of religious persecution in their country. Real people in the United States seek and are granted asylum or protection based on claims of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social groups or political opinions. As of June of this year, the United States now also allows asylum claims to be based on credible fear of domestic abuse or gang violence.
It is not easy for anyone in another country to decide to leave the only home that they have ever known and seek refuge in a country where they may not have any contacts or speak the language. Many of our grandparents accomplished the move, fleeing from pogroms and worse. So did other famous figures we have come to know through textbooks, stories, and media.
• Albert Einstein, the physicist, fled Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazis. In the United States, he said: “I shall live in a land where political freedom, tolerance and equality of all citizens reigns…”
• Madeline Albright and her family left the former Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi persecution during World War II. She became the first United States female Secretary of State during the Clinton administration.
• Marc Chagall, the artist, although Russian-born, lived and painted in France for over 30 years but found himself in 1941 on the Nazis’ “most wanted list” along with approximately 1,500 other refugees. He arrived safely in the United States with the help of an organization that became the International Rescue Committee.
• Gloria Estefan, the singer, was born in Havana, Cuba. In order to escape the Castro Communist regime, the family relocated to Miami, Florida.
• Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dancer, escaped his Russian KGB handlers at a dance performance in Toronto in 1974. He was then granted asylum in Canada and became a U.S. citizen in 1985.
• Earlier this month, after a dispute with her coaches at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Kristina Timanovskaya of Belarus used a translation app at the Tokyo Airport to request asylum. On the advice of her grandmother, she asked to go to Poland after being rejected by other countries. Her request was granted and she reunited there with her husband who was granted a humanitarian visa.
Each of these figures have immeasurably enhanced their new countries through scientific, artistic, or political contributions. They are refugees, but also people, worthy of kindness and an open heart.
There are many ways to do what we have been asked to do throughout the centuries: welcome the stranger. Granting asylum is one method of doing just that. This act of lovingkindness restores justice to people who have otherwise faced unethical or unacceptable circumstances up to that point.
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof l’maan tichyeh” – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…
Audrey Brooks is an Emeritus Judicial Member, State Bar of Wisconsin, lifelong volunteer, and current Tucson Hebrew Academy Board Trustee.