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Luskin: Some Came By Ship

(Host) Novelist, essayist and educator Deborah Lee Luskin is celebrating Passover thisweek. And she says the story of Exodus is one demonstration of how many different peoplehave fled their homelands in search of religious and political freedom and economic opportunity in America.

(Luskin) The story of migration is central to the Jewish celebration of Passover, which commemorates the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt and their 40-year trek through the desert to the Promised Land. The flight from Egypt was perhaps the first time the Jews fled persecution; BUT it certainly wasn't the last. Jews have a long history of fleeing oppression and seeking religious and economic freedom in response to global politics.

In the 17th century, when the Portuguese ousted the Dutch from their colony in Brazil, for instance, the Jews who had flourished there were forced to leave. Most returned to Amsterdam, but four men, six women andthirteen children boarded the St. Catrina and sailed for the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, a primitive outpost in North America. They arrived in the fall of 1654.

New Amsterdam was then owned by theDutch West India Company and governed by Peter Stuyvesant, a strict Calvinist who believed that diversity and toleration undermined social harmony. He wanted the Jews expelled. The Dutch West India Company, however, insisted they stay. Trading had been one of the few occupations Jews were allowed to pursue, and they survived and thrived as merchants. The Company allowed them to stay and help found what would eventually become the thriving port city of New York.

The twenty-three Jews aboard the St. Catrina were not the first immigrants to seek religious freedom in the New World. 102 such immigrants aboard the Mayflower had landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Nor were they the first to arrive here seeking economic opportunity. In 1607, colonists in England had boarded the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery and sailed to Jamestown hoping to strike it rich growing tobacco.

Myown ancestors were part of the huge migration from Europe at the turn of the twentieth-century, arriving in New York harbor aboard ships named the Aquitania, the Czar, and the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria.

Like the Jews, the Pilgrims and the venture capitalists who arrived here during the seventeenth century, my grandparents endured hardship in exchange for opportunity. The promise of starting over, the possibility of economic success and religious freedom, were powerful incentives back then - and they remain so today.

Few immigrants arrive by ship nowadays. Many arrive in unnamed airplanes. They come as political refugees, as mail-order brides, as skilled workers, and as students who never leave. Like the Jews in the Bible, some also walk across the desert to get here, arriving as undocumented workers willing to risk all for a chance they can find nowhere else.

So, as we retell the story of the Jews' arduous escape to freedom at Passover, we would do well to remember that somewhere in our lineage, the majority of Americans have an immigration story to tell.

Retelling these stories is a good way to remember that people the world over still flee from oppression and migrate toward safety. And many come to the US, where we have a long history of immigration success.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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