My real name is Braun. It’s the German word for Brown. When my people came through Ellis Island, it was changed from Braun to Brown, even though the two words mean the same thing.
In 1990, I was Bar Mitvzah’d by Rabbi Brown. We’re not related. But he explained the story of why so many Jews in America have colors in their surnames.
Here’s a list of colors in German.
- schwarz – black.
- weiss – white.
- rot – red.
- gelb – yellow.
- blau – blue.
- grün – green.
- braun – brown.
Now think about the names: Goldberg and Greenstein and Silverman and Schwartzman and Weiss and Gelbaum and Grunwald and Rothman, etc.
In Hungary during the 19th century, as in many other Eastern European countries at that time, Jews were confined into specific areas of the cities. The Italians called them ghettos. In these ghettos, the area was divided up into quadrants, so that the residents could be tracked and monitored. You lived in the white quadrant or the brown quadrant or the green or the gold. Then, when an authority asked you where you belonged, you would tell them the color. This is where the last names came from.
When they came over, the Weisses and Schwartzes kept their names while the Rots and the Brauns had theirs anglicized.
My ancestors came here from Hungary, but also from Ireland and from Germany – that I am aware of. And probably lots of other places too. If you’re reading this and you’re an American in 2017, it’s most likely that your ancestors didn’t arrive on the Mayflower either.
The fact that people from all over the world have been able to come here, cooperate and create things is what made America great, going back to the very beginning. America didn’t start out great and then just take in all kinds of people. It’s the people who were taken in that made it this way.
Bret Stephens reminds us of this in a new column at the New York Times this weekend…
As for Nobelists, a report by George Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research found that Americans have won 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded — and immigrants accounted for 35 percent of those winners. Last year, the only native-born American to win the prize was Bob Dylan, for literature. The rest of the American winners — economist Oliver Hart, physicist J. Michael Kosterlitz, chemist Fraser Stoddart — are immigrants.
A common American conceit is that we attract brilliant foreigners because we have brilliant things: great universities, vast financial resources, a dynamic economy, high-tech. That gets things mostly backward. It’s because we have brilliant foreigners that we have those things in the first place. Google. Comcast. eBay. Kraft. Pfizer. AT&T. They all had immigrants as founders.
Overall, a 2016 study by the Partnership for the New American Economy found that 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Taken together they employed 19 million people and had revenues of $4.8 trillion.
I understand that many Americans feel that we should only be celebrating the triumph of those immigrant stories that began with legal immigration. Unfortunately, life is messy and not everyone living here has a pristine origin story.
The “Dreamers” issue is going to come to the fore on Tuesday after this holiday weekend. President Trump’s team says he will have made his decision by then about what to do with the 800,000 law abiding Americans who were brought here illegally during their childhood but who managed to build a legalized life for themselves as they grew up. They are registered and part of the tax base and cannot have had anything criminal on their records in order to be part of the program. They are our co-workers and our neighbors and our friends.
More importantly, they are Americans. They didn’t ask to be brought here under illegal circumstances, but this is the only country they have ever known.
You can take issue with the fact that President Obama circumvented Congress for the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). But the better solution would be to have legislators take the issue up rather than just scrap the program and set these people up for deportation out of spite.
Trump has a chance to do something good this week. To demonstrate an awareness of what America is really about. To show that he actually understands why America is great to begin with. I hope he goes beyond just delivering the ignorant cruelty the base seems to always demand, usually out of some misplaced belief that hurting others is somehow helping them.
I hope he does the moral thing and gives this program a chance to become constitutional, to the satisfaction of both sides.