American dreams and the state of statelessness

Jasper Johns flag at MOMAReview of Stateless in Tablet

When I was at Limmud last month, I had a chance to see a new documentary on the Soviet-Jewish immigration of the late ’80s, called Stateless. I also got to review it for Tablet Magazine and naturally, I think you should go read it.

The movie looks at why the US stopped granting refugee status to Soviet-Jews in 1988, leaving hundreds of people temporarily stranded in Italy. Partway through, I realized that I was having trouble understanding the drama behind this particular angle. Not because of anything the director did or didn’t do, but because, well, I’m Canadian. The ‘must get out of the USSR’ – I get that. But I can’t quite wrap my head around the ‘America and nothing else will do’ part. (To my American readers, I send you a very Canadian sorry for that.)

It’s rare that I’m reminded that some immigrants went here and some went there. I’m in touch with lots of Russian-Jews in the US, and I keep up with the Soviet/Russian-Jewish stuff that comes out of the US. Mostly, we have the same issues and of course, we all come from the same places. The border mostly seems invisible. So it was strange to be reminded that most of the Soviet-Jews that went to the US were carrying an extra American Dream with them that those of us who came to Canada didn’t think about. I understand dreaming of freedom, but I’m not sure I understand what it’s like to dream of going to America, specifically.

And the Jasper Johns flag at MOMA?

The first time I went to the US, I was completely taken aback by all the flags. They’re kind of everywhere – houses, schools, random stores. I was in Salem, looking at 300-year-old wooden houses, and there it would be, the flag. In New York, I even saw the flag at construction sites. It. Is. Everywhere.

The American flag becomes a fraught ambiguous thing, at once object and history, public icon and secret diary, in Jasper Johns’ revelatory masterpiece painted – or is the right word “made”? – in 1954 or 1955.
– Guardian

A couple days after I saw the movie, I was at the MOMA. Jasper Johns’ Flag hangs on the fourth floor. In the 10 minutes that I was in the room, I saw a parade of people posing in front of the painting. They didn’t pose in front of any other painting in that room. Maybe it’s a thing, and I just didn’t know about it, or maybe it was those people on that day. Either way, it made for an odd footnote to the story of a group of Soviet Jews desperately trying to get into the US, wondering why they’d been denied entry.

People posing with Jasper Johns flag painting at MOMAI wish I could have asked all these people why this was the painting they wanted to be photographed with. Was it the flag itself? Or did they know something about Jasper Johns and his flag series? Did they pose with other paintings at the MOMA? Are they tourists – perhaps this is their ‘coming to America’ moment?

I didn’t want to be the stalker girl with her blurry iPhone pics, so I hung around for a short time and then wandered off. I kind of like not knowing – it gave me a chance to think about something that happened 26 years ago in Italy, and a group of people waiting for their own little slice of an American dream.

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