Jewish Journal

In Search of a Better Life

by Lia Mandelbaum

September 20, 2012 | 4:53 pm

Here are my great grandparents. Yechiel had been the one to migrate by foot from Russia to France.

Some of my most cherished moments have been spent with my grandparents listening to stories and getting glimpses into the lives of the different generations of my family members. My paternal grandmother Florence is always proud to share the story about her father, who at the age of fourteen, spent two years migrating by foot from Russia to France, in an attempt to dodge being drafted into the Czar’s army.  From the mid-1800’s to the end of World War II, like many Jews in search of a less oppressive life, my family left Europe and immigrated by boat to America. Although my journey has not required me to trek across the globe, I have made a personal journey, growing and migrating towards a better life.  A powerful driving force for me has been striving to live with intention, always trying to see the humanity in people and find common ground. I find mirrors in unexpected places and through discovering our interconnectedness, I grow in the most poignant of ways.

Earlier this month, I invited my friend Ramiro Gomez to Cal State Los Angeles to come speak to my class about his work as an artist.  Ramiro’s work has been featured in the LA Times, CNN and BBC.  His work is meant to get people to pause and reflect on the humanity of the documented and undocumented Hispanic immigrants in the US, who are often voiceless and invisible to others. I knew that his work would speak deeply to my classmates, many of whom are Hispanic.  I was incredibly moved by the six life size portraits he brought to show my class.  His paintings depicted a family mourning over the skeletal remains of a loved one who had died while trying to cross from Mexico into the Arizona desert.  You could feel the deep sadness of the family in the paintings, almost as if you were there mourning with them.                            

Ramiro speaking to my class.

According to statistics compiled by the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project, over the past decade more than 2,381 bodies have been found. These immigrants were men, women, children, and the elderly who had died in Southern Arizona from New Mexico to the Yuma County line.  There are a significant number of bodies that still have never even been identified.  One of the students in my class shared with me that she had almost cried during Ramiro’s presentation because it reminded her of the horror she experienced when her undocumented father had gotten lost for three days in the desert.  She explained that years ago, when her family decided that it was important for her to have her Quinceanera in Mexico, her father took the risk of leaving the U.S. to join his daughter in Mexico during her rite of passage.  After the celebration, her father tried to make his way back to the U.S.  For three days he wandered in the desert, and as they waited, his family prayed incredibly hard for his safe return.  He was found by the border patrol, given water and was forced to go back to Mexico.  A few months later he made it safely back into the U.S.

Ramiro’s presentation made me think about the bold risks that my own family had to take in order to ensure that their future generations would have a better life.   If my great grandfather hadn’t trekked across Europe by foot, or the U.S. had not allowed my ancestors to immigrate here, would I even be alive?  The stories I heard about these families crossing into the Arizona desert from Mexico made me think about the history of the Jewish people, and our struggles and experience wandering through the desert.  I was reminded of Moses and of the Jewish people’s journey out of Egypt.  We too were not allowed to enter the promised land, and were sent back into the barren desert.  It was not until the next generation was born, a generation that did not know slavery, that we were allowed to enter the promised land.

I was so moved by Ramiro’s presentation and the openness and vulnerability of fellow classmates, that I do not feel right standing idly by witnessing the dehumanization of  “illegal aliens.” The first step for me, which began when I started attending Cal State LA, was to own the fact that I too at times have been guilty of prejudiced thinking.  I used to think of myself as a loving person who was completely free of any prejudice thoughts.  It was enlightening when I came to understand the unconscious ways that racism enters our thoughts and how deeply embedded it is in our society.  Even though I have struggled with other people’s prejudice against me, I find strength in the fact that I am a part of a faith that has survived through years of oppression.  I find it empowering to admit that I too at times have judged others, and I do not believe that makes me a bad person.  It makes me a person with a choice, and the ability to move forward and grow with this awareness.  I have made a conscious choice to deprogram myself and break free from prejudice thoughts. Each day I try to engage people around me by making sure I look them in the eyes. I smile at strangers.  I am pro-active by bringing speakers to my classroom that I know will empower others.  I ask to hear stories about people’s lives, and I get glimpses into their world, which in turn shows me their humanity.  I am proactive by: owning my thoughts, by not being afraid to admit my shortcomings, by diving head first into the solution and by living each day with sacred intentions.

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Lia Mandelbaum is known for her advocacy, passion, creativity, and empathy, and is fiercely driven to make a difference.  She is especially passionate about impacting our...

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