Jews in Yiddish-speaking lands didn't cross borders; they stole them. Slipping across a country's boundaries was known as ganvenen dem grenetz/stealing the border. Ganvenen has the same root as ganif, or "thief." It's an interesting linguistic window into how fraught with danger moving from place to place could be.
We Jews have a long history of being treated as second-class citizens when we're tolerated at all — and expelled by our host countries when we're not. And who could predict what our reception would be in a neighboring land?
Navigating a safe crossing was a matter of survival. So was being able to converse with whomever you encountered. Jews in Eastern Europe typically knew three languages off the bat: Hebrew, in which to study and pray; Yiddish, for everyday speech; and Russian/Polish/Rumanian/Hungarian to make one's way in the dominant culture. Our reputation as a wandering, multilingual people was well-founded.
In the case of our parents and grandparents, that wandering took them across a vast ocean until they reached Ellis Island. Life was hard; the streets were certainly not paved with gold, as had been rumored. There was prejudice and discrimination. Yet there were no pogroms, nor severe curtailments on a Jew's possibilities of succeeding in this world. Here was a land of true opportunity.
Furthermore, U.S. passports did not single out Jewish identities. Those who settled here were free to travel in this country and abroad with the same rights and privileges as other Americans.
My grandparents set sail for Europe and Israel in the days when one dressed for travel and took fine, matching luggage. By the time we Mid/Yids came of traveling age, all we needed was a backpack, a Eurail pass and a youth hostel guide. Travel was something we did for adventure.
We didn't need to look for another resting place.
We also weren't fluent in several languages, as previous generations had been. Most of us made our way around with the minimal French or Spanish we learned in high school.
A Distinct Alteration
I look now at my daughters, and the children of the people we know. Something has shifted. Backpacking in London and Paris may be on the wane, but hiking through the rainforests or along the Great Wall of China is on the rise. The European capitals hold less allure for this upcoming generation. Their wanderlust takes them to places rarely dreamed about when we were their age: Johannesburg, Melbourne, Buenos Aires and the beaches of Thailand.
Their travels are also longer than a few weeks in the summer. Due in part to supportive parents, our progeny can linger in remote areas of the world for months at a time. The almost obligatory semester-abroad programs further promote these adventures.
How does this affect ganvenen dem grenetz?
In one or two generations, we have gained the freedom to pass through a majority of countries without need for bribery or secrecy. Our children have the luxury to experience life in Ankara, Algiers or Addis Ababa.
Where has the world's largest seder been held consistently over the last few years? It's in Katmandu, Nepal, run by Chabad. The majority of those attending are young Israeli backpackers who have just finished army duty. They're curious to explore the world, even as they have a Jewish homeland to return to.
Our forebears wandered the world in search of safe places in which to settle and prosper. They ended up on almost every continent. Now we — and especially our descendants — are traversing those continents once again.
Maybe there will come a time when ganvenen is no longer paired with grenetz. It's not too much to ask for the borders of the world to be more permeable, and that Jews be welcomed in to make their particular contributions wherever they go.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her at: [email protected]