January 2009

“Climb Aboard Little Wog, Sail Away With Me…”*
By H. Scott Prosterman 
Watching Wednesday’s naturalization ceremony for 1,161 new Americans in San
Francisco was inspiring and poignant. It was inspiring to watch people from
96 different countries proudly stand when the name of their former homeland
was called. 246 rose from China; 140 from Mexico and 120 from the
Philippines. Those were the largest contingencies. My friend, Anat, was the
only person to stand when they called Israel, and of course, I was very
proud of her.
In the moments leading up to the ceremony, I thought about my great
grandfather, Herman Simon Adler, who was the first person in our family to
emigrate from Germany in the 1880s. He took his oath at the Port of New
Orleans before moving on to Memphis to start a hotel business. Grandpa Adler
used his newfound wealth to rescue his siblings, cousins and friends from
the Holocaust in Germany and France. I also thought about my grandfather
Lewis Prosterman, who came from Russia and also arrived through New Orleans
in the 1910s. He arrived not knowing a word of English, but managed to
enroll in dental school in Atlanta and practiced until he was 93. (I never
had him work on me at that age, but he was still in practice.)
Both men arrived with little promise or resources, but created large
families and made huge contributions. As I looked on the people waiting for
their ceremony to begin, I wondered and imagined about their struggles and
stories. And I thought of the heartbreak of those who fell short on the
exam, or couldn’t come up with the fees, or had to go back home and start
over because the clock ran out on their Green Cards
When Egypt was announced, I thought about the many men I met in Cairo while
I was in graduate school. Some days, it seemed like every man who spoke
English was anxious, if not desperate, to cultivate a friendship with an
American so he could have a faint hope of emigrating. When Mexico was
announced, I thought of the thousands of people trying to cross the border
every day and the many who have died trying. The Eastern European countries
brought to mind the families whose members tricked in a few at a time. I
remembered hearing stories as a child about how families had to make fast,
tough decisions if one member didn’t pass the TB test. Sometimes one parent
had to accompany a sick child back to the old country and try all over
again. Every immigrant to America has a great story – some are gratifying;
others are heartbreaking.
Part of the ceremony involved two films about the history of American
immigration, with a focus on Ellis Island. Most of my family members from
Germany, France and Russia came through there after Grandpa Adler used his
“connections” to extract people from the Holocaust. Several years ago, I
asked my oldest auntie, “How did Grandpa get the family out of Germany ?
More to the point, how did a Jewish hotel owner in Memphis manage to get
family members out of the most horrific war machine in history?” Auntie
Herte looked at me with great disappointment, as if I had learned nothing in
my entire life, and then said, “WITH HIS UNDERWORLD CONNECTIONS, HOW ELSE?”
(Look for my historical novel on this next year.)
My interest in the process and ceremony went beyond my friendship with one
of the new citizens. I teach an accent reduction class for non-native
English speakers in the Bay Area, and citizenship issues are often part of
the discussions. This was the first naturalization ceremony I had attended,
though I’ve counseled people on the process for years. In the course of
working with many “foreign students”, I’ve become familiar with some of the
visa issues and residency requirements. Sometimes I find myself saying, “I
can help you with a lot of things, but for THIS you need an attorney…”
Looking around the Masonic Hall, I saw a the next generation of Grandpa
Adlers embarking on great lives and accomplishments in America : scholars
and busboys who will someday own a restaurant; teachers and students who
will someday get an advanced degrees; doctors, tech wizards, mothers and
fathers. The emcee reminded people that all the children of newly
naturalized citizens also become citizens with their parents’ oath. Before
the ceremony I was suddenly confronted by a small Asian woman frantically
waving her certificate and Residency Card in front of me. She spoke no
English, but her gestures and expression clearly indicated she didn’t know
where to go for the ceremony. I directed her back downstairs were the
honorees were assembled. Something told me her citizenship was a package
deal that included a bunch of little ones.
Afterward, there were photo-ops aplenty with cut-outs of President Elect
Obama, the ROTC color guard, and the beautiful mural in the entry hall. Anat
had her full entourage in tow with her personal photographer, videographer
and me with her digital camera to make sure nothing was missed. It was
surely the most carefully documented naturalization in American History. One
day last month, we were reviewing her citizenship test. I was reminded that
each of these 1,161 people had to pass an exam that requires them to ace a
high school civics course. How many natural-borns can do that even out of
high school? Knowing the political and legislative process is one of the
requirements for becoming a citizen. In some ways they make better citizens
because they have to work for it and make sacrifices. The day and ceremony
had the feeling of a big birthday party, graduation ceremony, Bar/Bat
Mitzvah or Quinceañera. Everybody there had a reason to be happy and a
reason to celebrate. The sad stories were left behind.
H. Scott Prosterman
H. Scott Prosterman is a writer, humorist and editor living in Berkeley,
California. He was born in the ’50s, came of age in the ’60s, thrived in the
’70’s, barely survived the ’80’s and regrouped in the ’90’s.” He holds a
B.A. w/Honors from Rhodes College; an M.A. from The University of Michigan.
*Lyric from the Randy Newman song, “Sail Away.”