Saturday, February 17, 2007

And the Dispersal Continues

The term diaspora is one of those Greek based (as in Athens, not as in “fraternity row”) words which has over time been used to describe the dispersal of Jews around the world. The departure of a great number of Spanish Jews in the late 15th century (1492 wasn’t ONLY about Isabella and Columbus) led to colonies all over the middle east, Turkey, and later throughout the “new world” as well. Yet to me disapora has always carried a broader meaning. Having lived in Europe and Asia, it is impossible, save perhaps for a small town in Japan, to find anywhere that there aren’t all kinds of mixed background people. Even the Japanese who settled by the millions in Brazil had their own disapora. In every town or village in most of Africa there were Indian, Pakistani or Lebanese shop keepers. In Saigon, the most prolific, if not the finest tailors were Indian. Chinese shop keepers are legendary in so many parts of the world, that you might think they’d always been there. For all these folks, somewhere in their familial history someone decided to leave home, and I don’t mean just taking a cross-town bus. To pick up your life, your goods, your family and move to a different place takes a certain amount of self confidence, a desire for something better in life, or maybe just the hope of a quick payoff.

In my own family the original ‘big moves’ came in the 1880s and 1890s when grandparents on both sides of my family made their way from Poland (Bialystok – yes, that IS where the legendary roll came from) Russia (Minsk, and a village somewhere called Kenyshyin) to the western US: Seattle, Tacoma, and Salt Lake City, Utah. One might wonder (as Iris always asks…) what could have possessed a Jewish pioneer to leave not only the comforts of the shtetl, but to keep going past New York and end up in the West where the obvious sources of pastrami and corned beef were few and far between. Of course most of the time, the immigrants went to a place where they knew someone. The theory was you could find work, be settled, and do it quicker and easier in a place where you already had a friend from your village who’d gone before, and who knew the ropes, than to leave yourself to be preyed upon in the mean streets of Gotham City. In the case of my mom’s family, Nathan (my great grandfather) and his wife got as far as Denver, only to find that no work seemed to be at hand. In search of a job, he ended up in Salt Lake City, where the family grew and prospered. (When I was once described as having had a “typical middle class upbringing” in Salt Lake, my “League Of Women Voters” President mom reacted, surprisingly to me, with “I didn’t think we were just Middle Class…”) Whatever class we were, it was in Utah, the one place perhaps where Jews are still considered Gentiles, that we lived. I believe it is a rare find to meet someone who thinks they grew up in a totally weird place. Sure, we all have our quirks, but I contend that what you grow up with is pretty much what you think is normal. Happily, “Travel” is one of those great mind and eye openers, and in broadening those horizons we all grow. Yet, “home” is always going to be “home.”

As funny as it might seem to be Jewish in Utah, I felt that there were many cases which were far more obtuse than my own. When I met Bob Friedman, the Dallas Cowboys photographer in the late 70s, his story of growing up Jewish in a small Mississippi town seemed to be far more exotic. What am I getting at? Well, it’s just that in this day of people moving more often, travel opportunities being relatively cheap and abundant we can’t really expect the children, and grandchildren of the modern diaspora to stay at home. The growth of TV and the internet has done enormous damage to the singular nature of many places. No longer does isolation, the kind a Russian Jew might have felt in very Mormon Salt Lake City, have the imprint it once did. I was never a huge basketball fan, but I first heard about NBA superstar Magic Johnson in Sarajevo from a bunch of kids who were far more interested in basketball, and far taller, than myself. The stories of Flat Head Lake T Shirts ending up on the backs of children in African villages are legendary. We move. Our stuff moves. The world moves.

Traces of the Diaspora: My High School Student Body
Officers (Class of '64) picture (me, upper left) forty years later.
Do you think the owner of locker 210 ever thinks of us?

And so when I visited my mom earlier this week in Palo Alto, I was trying NOT to feel weird about the fact that she was no longer, after 88 years, living in Utah. Some 18 months ago she moved to a wonderful Hyatt Senior facility next door to Stanford (where she was a member of the Class of ’38) to be near my sister (Class of ’74). In our own little mini diaspora, the Burnett children left Salt Lake with the same gusto that we arrived there: with a sense of adventure for something new, a job, and maybe even corned beef. Tom essentially moved out as soon as he was accepted at Williams in ’61. Since then, aside from school, he has lived in New York. I bounce between DC, New York and the rest of the world, and this year celebrate (or freak out at) my 40th anniversary of working for TIME Magazine. Lis' went to Stanford in 1970 (I might add, with all our family ties, I was NOT admitted to Stanford, though I am almost over being P.O.'ed about it) and never left. She is the anchor on the left coast.

Mom and Elephantine pal at Ikea

I guess there are always going to be traces in the Holladay, Utah civic archives that the Burnetts once lived on 23rd East, out in the country. But the house we lived in was plowed down to make a McMansion, so you’d need to have a pretty good memory to actually place us there. When mom, a notorious [searching for the right word here: 'Cheapskate' is way too much, perhaps.. “value shopper” better describes it..] 'value shopper', moved to California, she had to downsize quite a bit. In fact she was better at downsizing than anyone else I know. Each time she moved over the last 60 years, it was always with an eye to the future, and scarcely a nod backwards. She was the "Queen" of downsize. Instead of taking her 1954 King (two twins) bed, she took the 'Full' which had been in Tom’s room since 1958. That mattress is, perhaps not unlike the Sam Brownback for President campaign, lacking in support. Mom complains about waking up aching some mornings, and Lis’ and I have tried to convince her that no, it isn’t JUST her age. That it could be possible to be 89 and get out of bed without pain. Yet her defense … "I have been sleeping on that mattress for years..” seems to carry with it, its own indictment. Yes, mom. Years. Time for a new one. So we made it as far as Ikea this week, to try out new mattresses.
Does that not look comfy, I ask you!

Mom wasn’t all that pleased about making the trip, and I think might have been overwhelmed, as is easy to be, in a giant cavernous place like Ikea. She abhors spending anything with double digits. But she actually tried out a few mattresses, though of course (Ikea rule #4) the one we wanted was out of stock (“we should have some in next Tuesday…”) But of all the items which have withstood the Burnett diaspora, Tom’s mattress is one that perhaps we can consign to the dustbin of genealogical history. A new mattress, a new way of sleeping. A new way to start the day when you are living in a brand new place. In the end, when you think of all the mattresses that were left behind by immigrants, emigrants, and people with back pain over the last 500 years, I suppose one more Full being dumped into a mattress shredder at the Peninsula land fill won’t add up to much. And the diaspora continues, the world shrinks, and soft pillows are still tough to find in cheap hotels. We’re just sayin…David


Anonymous said...

Hello David, not sure if previuos post went

Just wondering when the Burnett name became the Burnett name during the "dispersal"? Hope thats not a rude question. Just interested in the story...

Dont know if you've ever read any Mordecai Richler, his take on the diaspora are very amusing, especially in "Solomon Gursky Was Here." And in his essays and articles "Belling The Cat".

Congrats on 40 years...

Iris&David said...

Thanks for the note: I neglected to mention that in fact (my dad's side of the family) we were Halpern or Halperins in Russia. The story as it 's transmitted to me was : a truck with a Burnett Brand Vanilla Extract went by, and they liked the name: who knows if its true, as no one is left who was even a glint in a Halpern eye when that happened. Solomon Gursky, ill put it on my reading list.. many thanks