SIMON SAYS “IMMIGRATE AND ADOPT”
Before Neil Simon left us for some Broadway in the sky, he taught much about immigration and the American dream.
Brighton Beach Memoirs opens with teenager Eugene Jerome throwing a baseball against the wall of a small Brooklyn house, in a neighborhood of Irish, Germans, and Poles. The most popular pro ballplayer is Joe DiMaggio. Eugene laments his own ethnicity: “How am I ever going to play for the Yankees with a name like Eugene Morris Jerome. You have to be a Joe . . . or a Tony . . . or a Frankie . . . All the best Yankees are Italian . . . My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup, what chance do I have?”
Eugene’s ethnic neighbors faced enormous pressure to learn the “American way.” That pressure was mostly internal. The American-born children of immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century seldom learned the language of their parents. Many were ashamed that their parents spoke accented English. I am not suggesting that they were right to be ashamed. Yet it bespoke an overwhelming desire to embrace their country. Eugene had predecessors, of course.
The son of Irish parents, George M. Cohan claimed that he was born on the Fourth of July and even inserted his claim in “Yankee Doodle Boy.” The grandson of slaves, Louis Armstrong pulled the same patriotic stunt (he was off by a month). Sports stadiums were packed with blue-collar immigrants cheering guys with “all-American” names like Bronco Nagurski, Babe Zaharias, Hank Greenberg, and Phil Rizzuto.
It is easy to be nostalgic about old immigration waves: the Norwegians who settled in Minnesota and brought horrible tasting lutefisk; the Germans who brought knockwurst to Milwaukee and Lou Gehrig to the Yankees; the Chinese who built railroad tracks and concocted a stew to suit American tastes and called it chow mein; and the Dutch, who had names like Roosevelt.
Of course, minorities faced discrimination, from the “no Irish need apply” signs to the racist hotels that invited the highly paid Al Jolson and Bert Williams to entertain on stage, then snuck them out through servants’ entrances.
In the 1840s the Know Nothing movement tried to block Catholics from U.S. shores. Earlier, Ben Franklin showed his bias. Although Franklin formed one of the first abolitionist movements for slaves and donated money to a Philadelphia synagogue, he despised Protestant Germans. He called them “Palatine Boors” and said they would never adopt the English language or “acquire our Complexion.” Franklin had an odd view of complexion, even insisting that Swedes were swarthy. Clearly, he did not foresee a never-ending road tour of screaming blondes in Abba’s Mamma Mia.
Ironically, the hellish trenches and tanks of war brought disparate people closer. Eighteen percent of World War I soldiers were foreign born, compared to about 15 percent of the population. Italian Americans made up 12 percent of the army. (Today, 11 percent are of Hispanic descent.) Dozens of war movies feature a mix of ethnicities forced into the same trench, submarine, or platoon. In one story from 1917 a staff sergeant calls the tongue-twister roll at Maryland’s Camp Meade and not a single man recognizes his own name. Then the sergeant sneezes and ten recruits step forward.
In Biloxi Blues, a sequel to Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, the hero goes off to basic training in Mississippi, where he finally learns the diversity of the country. First, he confronts the southern climate: “Man it’s hot. It’s like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot.” Then he meets his bunkmates: Roy Selridge, a smelly guy from Schenectady who has “cavities in nineteen out of thirty-two teeth;” Joseph Wykowski, who has a “permanent erection”; and Arnold Epstein, an intellectual with intestinal gas. A motley crew, but they could not be more American. And if you can imagine them fighting side by side, you can see the truth behind Herman Melville’s line, “You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world.”
If the U.S. is to hold together for another century, we’ll need a revival in national spirit that encompasses immigrants. A new Cuban immigrant, for example, should feel free to call George Washington his forefather with just as much conviction as the oldest WASP family in Virginia. A Thanksgiving turkey should look just as tasty whether surrounded by kielbasa or black beans and rice. Immigrants who have braved the seas and the bureaucrats carry in their DNA a spark for daring and grit. Native-born Americans should reach out and invite immigrants to join in our national story, as if they had been here for a very long time.
We are all Eugene Jerome, even if some of our mothers douse our noodles with soy and salsa instead of ketchup.