Lost in America
Throughout American history, large numbers of first-generation immigrants have found it extremely difficult to adapt to their new environment. Meyer Nudelman was one such person. Having left the small shtetl of Novoselitz in southern Russia during his late teens, he was never able to master the English language. After failing as a small businessman, he became an operator of sewing machines in sweatshops of the garment industry. In addition to paying low wages, the work was seasonal. Every year, Nudelman was unemployed for weeks at a time, receiving twenty-five dollars a week in unemployment compensation. A proud man, he found it humiliating to have to apply for compensation at the unemployment office, where the lines were long and the bureaucrats were discourteous.
Meyer Nudelman suffered increasingly from a debilitating illness. By the time that his son Sherwin reached adolescence, Nudelman was almost unable to walk alone for more than a few yards. Thus, he held onto his son as a support when he ventured out of their small apartment. Each morning and evening, Nuland would help him make the perilous journeys to and from the subway. Nuland views the trips as a metaphor of their relationship: “He walks with me through every day of my life, in that unsteady, unsteady, faltering gait that so embarrassed me when I was a boy. . . . Now and then, the uncertain grip of his hand slips just a bit and he grabs more deeply for security . . . and I wince with pain.” Nudelman’s illness also progressively affected his bladder control. As his condition deteriorated, he used rags to absorb the liquid, which was full of foul-smelling bacteria. After washing the rags by hand, he would hang them out to dry in the apartment. The resulting odors were almost intolerable for the other members of the family. If anyone commented on the odor, Nudelman would grumble in broken English: “Ahm ah sick men.”
It was only after Nuland was a medical student that he finally discovered the nature of his father’s mysterious illness, which was tertiary-stage syphilis. A cousin who was a physician had already made this diagnosis and provided prescriptions for medication to relieve the symptoms, but no cure was available. Nuland was especially distressed by one reality: “And my mother, my beloved, innocent mother—what an unforgivable crime he had inflicted on her by destroying her life.” Nuland knew that the crime was not intentional, and he never informed his father or the other members of the family about the diagnosis of syphilis. To share such horrible information would have served no useful purpose. While he had no way of knowing how his father’s illness was acquired, he speculated that it probably resulted from a youthful visit to a prostitute.
There was a great deal of conflict and unresolved hostility among the members of the household. Nudelman was usually not on speaking terms with his wife’s mother and sister. Nuland particularly resented his father’s hypersensitivity and volcanic temper, which quickly erupted at any perceived slight. Although never resorting to physical violence, his father would sometimes scream at him for several minutes with uncontrollable rage. Nuland gives the example of a subway incident in which some noisy and immature girls bumped into them. Nudelman became irate and began shouting, “Vod you tink you doink, you rotten goilss, vod you no goot.” The girls laughed and responded, “Who the hell are you, old man? Go straight to hell.” As the senseless altercation escalated, the embarrassed boy muttered, “Please, Please stop it, will you? People are laughing at you.” This further enraged the father, whose outrage then became focused on his son. After they finally exited the subway, Nuland writes that while his father held onto his arm for support, he could feel great anger in the unusually tight grip. “I barely felt it,” writes Nuland, “because all I could think of was his public humiliation—and mine.”
While a boy, Nuland had almost no respect for his father, looking upon him as ill-informed, generally inept, and tyrannical. He was terribly ashamed of his father’s appearance, his source of livelihood, and his idiosyncratic combination of Yiddish and English. Even when he was a medical student, Nuland made great efforts to try to keep his classmates from coming into contact with his father. He tells how horrified he became when his father made an unexpected visit to his apartment. On the day of graduation, however, Nuland discovered that many of the other students had parents with backgrounds similar to his own. Nuland gradually came to appreciate his father’s good qualities. He writes: “It is almost too painful to think about, this self-recrimination I have borne since...
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