Wandering Aramean 2.0

December 2015
by Ben Shragge

Every Passover, Jews recite a verse from Deuteronomy: My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.

Like my father the wandering Aramean, I recently sojourned to a new land. Jacob went down to Egypt because famine was severe in the land of Canaan, whereas I went down to Boston for work, but still I feel I’m carrying on a tradition.

As a Canadian of ethnically ambiguous appearance, people sometimes ask me where I’m from. If I follow up with Hamilton, they ask where my parents were from. “Winnipeg” rarely settles the line of questioning.

My interviewers are looking for a country of origin along the lines of my favourite, not totally inaccurate opening guess, “You look like you’re from Eastern Europe, but really far east.” East doesn’t typically include Manitoba.

I could explain that my grandparents lived in what was then Russia and Austria-Hungary but is now Ukraine and was previously Polish-Lithuania, but spoke a Germano-Hebraic language, and that their ancestors in turn came from somewhere else, and so on down the line; but saying I’m a nomad seems much simpler than relating the history of Ashkenazi migration, which is itself only one route of a much longer trek beginning in Canaan, or Ur, or Eden, or Africa, depending on how far back you want to go.

(I once tried answering that my ethnicity is also a religion, prompting my questioner to ask, “Islam?” No shortcuts to understanding there.)

But while difficult to explain to descendants of settled peoples and cause for the occasional identity crisis, a nomadic background is useful in today’s mobile economy where, as the editor of Fast Company magazine summarized in an article on millennials: “Our institutions are out of date; the long career is dead; any quest for solid rules is pointless, since we will be constantly rethinking them; you can’t rely on an established business model or a corporate ladder to point your way; silos between industries are breaking down; anything settled is vulnerable.”

In the world thus described, the willingness, even chutzpah, to leave narrow straits for greener pastures is an evolutionary advantage.

Maybe I’ll settle down eventually, after the job drought passes. But it may take 40 years of wandering, subsisting on unleavened wages, to enter the land of milk and honey (or at least a comfortable upper middle class existence). And who knows where that promised position will be?

So now that I’ve made the trek from Hamilton to Boston, for an indeterminate period, final destination in life unknown, possessions in storage, office in a laptop case, I’ll recite that “My father was a wandering Aramean” bit at Passover once more with feeling.

Next year in... ?


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