Originally published by The NY Times
In “Journeys: An American Story” (RosettaBooks), Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas have compiled 72 essays by immigrants or their descendants, some of whom are famous, like Michael R. Bloomberg, while others are everyday — albeit exceptional — Americans. The diverse tales, presented together, show how immigrants have built and strengthened the culture of New York and the country at-large.
Mr. Tisch, the co-chairman of the board of the Loews Corporation, decided to ask celebrities and acquaintances to recount immigration stories after researching his own family history in preparation for a speech at a swearing-in ceremony of new citizens. (He contributed an essay to the book, as did Ms. Skafidas).
Ms. Skafidas, Loews’ vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, was born in the United States and had Greek immigrant parents but didn’t speak English until she was 6; her aunt was undocumented.
Among the book’s featured raconteurs are Pete Gogolak, the former Giants place kicker who was 14 when he fled Hungary; Linda Hills, a great-granddaughter of Andrew Carnegie; Arlene and Alan Alda; and the executive Morris Sarnoff, who emigrated from Belarus with his brothers David and Lew and their mother after their father had worked for five years as a house painter in New York to earn enough for their passage.
Also, Tony Bennett, who was the first person in his family to be born in a hospital; and Elaine L. Chao, now the Transportation Secretary, who, speaking no English, struggled to understand the concept of Halloween in her third grade class in Queens.
John Zaccaro Jr., whose mother was Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro, the first woman nominated for vice president on a major party ticket, recalls that his grandmother couldn’t write her own name, but understood the value of education, especially for a daughter.
“If you educate a boy, you educate a boy alone,” she would say. “If you educate a girl, you educate a family.”
Among the most poignant essays are those by less recognizable figures, including the first Asian-American to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States; an oncology nurse from Ukraine (she observes that cancer “humbles the most powerful people”); a Harvard Business School graduate from Uganda; a Palestinian who left a home “where the daily struggles of life often bring out the worst human traits;” and an orphan from China who, adopted in the United States, said: “No, I wasn’t born here. No, I can’t become president. But I am nonetheless an American.”
“Journeys” is heavy on the authors’ orbit of friends and acquaintances, a fairly wide one, to be sure. Not surprisingly, the anthology focuses on the success stories, not the fewer failures. (Profits will be donated to the New-York Historical Society and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.)
“We prefer to think of our country as a mosaic, tiles of many different colors and shapes which are indistinguishable from afar but quite distinctive the closer you get,” the authors write. But a mosaic is only as strong as its grout, they warn.
“After all, without the grout — our shared sense of ideology in democracy, opportunity, freedom of expression and equality — the mosaic would only be a pile of stones.”