Letter to Mei Feng Zhang June 18, 2006

Letter to Mei Feng Zhang


Richard J. Garfunkel

June 18, 2006



June 18, 2006


Dear Ms. Zhang,


I hope that this letter finds you and yours quite well. I must say that your wonderful letter was a terrific surprise on this Father’s Day weekend. It is always a pleasure to get mail and your missive was well appreciated. In fact I will make copies of it and send it to some of my AB Davis/ Mount Vernon High friends. I usually send out two Jon Breen Fund letters each spring and summer and you will be certainly mentioned in the second. (I have included last year’s and this year’s along with this letter and some other essays.


Your Jon Breen essay was quite interesting and very personal. It was very difficult to make my choices. I therefore restricted my finalists to the essayists that focused more on the problem of immigration and its direct positive or negative impact. I have a friend from high school whose son goes to Yale and he is working in China this summer. She has a Chinese friend who is going to the Kennedy School at Harvard, where my daughter works. My friend is off to China for a three-week visit and this friend will serve as her guide. Before she left, I sent her a copy of your essay and the one from another Chinese girl. I thought she would enjoy reading the first hand accounts of two Chinese immigrant family’s struggle to become “real” Americans. Of course it has never been really easy for anyone. Yes, for sure, we are a nation of immigrants. But comparing America of today to our colonial America population, which was made up of mostly British subjects, Germans, Hessians from the Revolutionary War, Dutch and some scattering of others would be quite foolish. Irish and Germans dominated the second great immigration period in the 1840’s. The second immigration, which certainly assisted our burgeoning industrial revolution, was aided and abetted by the potato famine in Ireland, and the social upheaval and revolutions in Europe. The Irish were Catholic, but they spoke English and in a sense they were used to the ways of the British laws and customs, which still pre-dominated here. The Germans were industrious northern Europeans and a majority of them were Lutheran Protestants, which enabled them to fit in religiously. Many immigrated to the Midwest where they became “homesteaders” and farmers. The last great legal immigration phase was in the period of 1880 to 1914. With this new and large group, the ethnic composition started to change. Though still white, these immigrants were neither northern European nor Protestant. They were Slavic, Polish Catholics, Russian Eastern Orthodox, Italian Catholics, or Jews from the shtels of Eastern Europe. Other Jews that had immigrated, in smaller numbers, at earlier times were Sephardim or Spanish Jews from Holland, North Africa and the Middle East. This last group so threatened the ruling northern Euro-centric ruling classes that in the 1920’s national origin immigration quotas were enacted. As a result of that climate of fear, the most prestigious American universities, which had gone to a meritocracy guided standard and SAT scores, put in quotas regarding the makeup of their new freshman classes. By 1922 Harvard had become over 20% Jewish and that number seemed to threaten the reputation and social climate of America’s top school. A. Lawrence Lowell, the President of Harvard and Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University along with their peers at other Ivy Colleges started to create quotas. As a result of these restrictions the amount of Jewish students gradually and substantially were reduced. Therefore internal discrimination in higher education started to affect American citizens in a similar but different ways. So, on one hand, Asians were limited by the Chinese and Japanese Exclusion Acts, and new immigration was now legislated to favor the old northern European groups and, on the other hand, internal avenues of advancement were now being limited by prejudice, quotas, red-lining and outright discrimination regarding education, accommodation and where one could live. Hotels, resorts and clubs became restricted. Even the ability to work in a hospital as a Doctor, or in a Fortune 500 company or a bank was restricted by custom. With regard to the “quota” system at the top colleges you should read Stand Columbia, The Chosen and The Making of Princeton University.


Three of my grandparents were born in Europe and one grandmother was born in Troy, NY in 1890. My maternal grand father immigrated from Roumania in 1891 and settled in NYC. I have absolutely no idea where he lived in NYC. He came to America with a number of older siblings. It was said that his oldest brother avoided being drafted into the Russian Army by resisting arrest in 1877. That was a period of time when Russia was at war with Turkey and they commonly impressed or forcefully drafted young men from Roumania into their army. I was told that he had a “price” on his head and that he eventually escaped to American and New York. Later others in his family also immigrated. My mother, who just passed away at age 98, never really told me details of where her paternal grandparents had settled in New York. My father’s parents came here from Vienna Austria in the 1880’s and all of his surviving three brothers and a sister were born here. My father passed away at 101 in May of 2005 and his only sister lived to 102 the year before. But what had happened to other children that were born to his parents, either in Austria, or here I do not know.


So immigration, on one hand, has been the new life-blood constantly injected into the heart of the country, but on the other hand it has had a tendency to alter and change the fabric of life here in America. As each transfusion of new blood comes in with each immigrant group, the culture changes in more ways than one. Whether it is changes in the language, or the cuisine, or the fashions, or the art, or the spirituality, each earlier group is affected a bit differently. All in all, power sharing must eventually occur. But clearly the average American, no matter whom his/her parents or grandparents were, wants all immigrants to assimilate. For most American’s, the sooner, the better. A large amount of Americans see bilingualism as a divisive threat and would like at least the second generation to become fluent in English. Of course there are many more issues that cut across all elements of our social order. But that discussion is for a different time.


I took the liberty of sending you some of my recent writings, which include three long emails to Jonathan Alter of Newsweek Magazine regarding his recent book on FDR and our visit to the Colony Club in NYC. I also included a piece I wrote to Sir Martin Gilbert, one of the leading historians in the world, and Winston Churchill’s official biographer on his seminal book on British appeasement prior to WWII and a long comment I made on his recent book Churchill in America.  Along with those I sent you my piece on my trips to Hyde Park, some more writing on FDR and also some of my personal memories of Mount Vernon where I lived from 1945 to 1966.


With regards to Barnard College, I am sure that my wife Linda, who was, and is President of her Class of 1968, would certainly share with you her thoughts about the school. You should give her a ring one day.


Stay well and keep on corresponding. Maybe will go to lunch one of these days.




Richard J. Garfunkel



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