Last Wednesday, July 18th, my grandmother, Anne Berkowitz, turned 90 years old. At her birthday dinner, she agreed to answer any question we asked. This wasn’t the easiest game, due to some hearing and short-term memory problems (including forgetting that she had agreed to do this in the first place). Still, we were able to gather some pearls of wisdom.
My favorite question came from my cousin Rebecca, who asked, “What was the most significant invention in your lifetime?”
My grandmother, who up until this point had shrugged off every question, answered, without hesitation, “Birth control.”
We all laughed, but we had to admit that it was a good answer. It made me think about all of the other inventions and social programs that enabled my grandmother and her family to pull themselves out of poverty and live the American dream.
My grandmother was born to immigrant parents and grew up in Harlem, where her parents worked odd jobs until they could open a grocery store. Her mother had been well-educated and wealthy back in Warsaw; her father was illiterate and only spoke Yiddish. That her mother was able to navigate this new country and all it had to offer spoke to her fortitude, but also to the multitude of programs that were available to families like hers.
My grandmother lived across the street from a branch of the New York Public Library, where she retreated whenever she had the chance (and an adult to walk her across the street). I once asked her what she used to read, and my tough-as-nails grandmother answered, “Mostly fairy tales.”
The reading paid off, and my grandmother thrived at her public school, skipping grades and earning entrance to the prestigious Hunter High School and Hunter College, which, at the time, were free to whoever passed the entrance exams. Work-study helped her make ends meet until she earned a degree in accounting–with a minor in physiology, since she had originally hoped to be a doctor–and got a job working as a bookkeeper in an accounting firm, where she met my grandfather. Together they produced three children and eight grandchildren–all college graduates, many with advanced degrees–and now two great-grandchildren (and counting).
My grandmother also benefited from developments in Jewish education. Her mother insisted that the cheder that educated her two sons also take her daughter, and my grandmother–who claims to be the only child who paid attention–developed a lifelong passion for Jewish learning. Later in her life, she attended the Melton program at HUC-JIR to be certified as a Religious School teacher. She studied Talmud well into her eighties, leaving the class, ultimately, because it “moved too slowly.”
I mention her history, not (only) because of pride, but because of a realization that the programs that made her American dream a reality are still under fire. We are no longer a nation that welcomes immigrants, our communities are constantly trying to cut costs and cut corners when it comes to public education and other essential institutions, many in our government are still threatened by the concept of a woman being able to make choices about her body and her family.
As we prepare for another election season, I have to ask: are we still moving forwards? Could someone born in poverty today, or arriving in this country as an immigrant, achieve the same levels of education, independence, and financial security as my grandmother did? And, ninety years from now, what will our children will say was the greatest innovation of their lifetimes?