When my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, Davidovich became Davidson on the spot, Chatche became Harry, and Grandpa became an American. Hearing that a city called Detroit needed workers so badly that they were paying $5 per day, he traveled to toil at the Ford factory. At night, he apprenticed for his plumber's license.
That series of entrances added up to Grandpa's arrival behind the wheel of his first Cadillac, a used 1928 model, marked down to 1930 prices. He had earned his citizenship long before, but for him, the Cadillac declared him an American, proof of having made something of himself. A Chevrolet would have been a more prudent buy during the Depression, but even then, self-indulgence often overcame sensibility.
Throughout Grandpa's life, it was an easy and smart choice to buy a Cadillac. Today, for me, the decision isn't so clear, with so many good automobiles on the market. Like him, I like to consider myself sensible when it comes to big purchases; also like him, a car means more to me than just transportation. My car reflects who I am — or at least how I want to be perceived.
Today, buying a domestic car earns expressions of mild scorn. Why did you buy that instead of a Toyota?
A few years ago, there was no good answer to that; the quality of domestic cars was so poor that the only reason was that you couldn't pass up a deal. But in the last few years, the domestics have pulled virtually even with the imports in terms of performance and economy.
But still, a majority of car sales go to foreign brands, mainly because they are perceived as "cooler" than the domestics: tougher, sexier, smarter, greener, richer, younger, safer — in some way, they make buyers feel acceptable in their peer group.
People have a right to buy a car that makes them feel good about themselves; Grandpa did. Today, we can each find a car to express that we are "sexytoughsmartbetter" — or some other projection of self. But do these common desires align with the uncommon responsibilities we hold as Jews, epecially at Passover time?
Back when I was in charge of the Four Questions, Grandpa would make an extra show of reclining in his chair. The symbolic gesture of escaping Pharoah's tyranny was his Haggadah assignment, but it also expressed his own liberty from the eternal anxiety of Jewish life in his Ukrainian homeland — which had, 20 years before I was born, been nearly extinguished.
His leisure and security — and the opportunities we all faced — had been purchased in a society that rewarded hard work and asked little in return: Vote, obey the laws, pay taxes, and above all, prosper and contribute to the common wealth. One way he did the latter was spend his dollars on U.S. products. Grandpa knew that what he bought had ethical consequences beyond the math.
Even through the blurring lens of globalism, it's clear that while localized manufacturing wages and taxes sustain communities, it profits the manufacturing company and solidifies the economic power of the home nation. The purchase of an American-made Toyota may employ some U.S. workers, but it enriches Toyota shareholders and strengthens Japan's economy — not America's.
This ought to be an important distinction to Jews. No matter your political leanings, it's hard to argue that America alone has guaranteed her Jewish citizens the equality, security and sanctity that we have sought ever since the Egyptian Exodus. In our own time, America has been the single unflinching friend of Israel. With a hollowed-out industrial sector, can the United States project real strength in the Persian Gulf? When it comes to the quick, will Asia or Europe stand behind Israel?
With Israel at risk and the United States weakened, Jews must consider whether there are deeper sentiments than how we want to feel about ourselves, and that we are obliged to be more than just frugal with our dollars.
This year, for the first time, I'll be the one reclining at the head of the table. I've never known real fear, poverty or hatred. But I do know those things are flourishing in many countries that Grandpa chose not to go to. A strong America — productive, unified, industrially sound — is the only assurance I can give that my own children's children will be reclining in their time.
Joshua Davidson is a freelance writer, and a former speechwriter at General Motors and Chrysler.