Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902
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I stared into my paella. I felt myself swirling around, just one more piece of sausage in a chaotic stew. My friend Abby was jabbering about how, at the ripe old age of 23, she had just published a novel. She’d blown into New York less than a year before and was already one fourth of the town’s most notorious performance quartet. She tossed back her beet red hair and laughed, but I didn’t think much of anything was funny. Laurie, on the other hand, looked worse than I felt. She lay unconscious, her head sprawled on the white tablecloth, deep in a migraine.

This is some way to celebrate my 37th birthday, I thought. Clearly, my best days were behind me. My drawer was filled with rejection letters from every record label in America for the singing group I was producing. I had just failed in resurrecting my fourteen-year marriage, which I had screwed up over the previous few years with a string of infidelities.

I was relegated to composing jingles for toy commercials. Now that was something to have engraved on my tombstone: brainwashed small children into buying plastic for a living.

My hair was just about done with the tortuously painful process of falling out. I had been the “wunderkind,” the “child prodigy” once, but now I was just Uncle Glenn, smiling at my young friends’ successes, but grimacing underneath. I felt like J. Alfred Prufrock from the poem by T. S. Eliot:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)

I looked up from my paella. I looked at Laurie: her mouth was open and she looked rather green. In her normal, lucid moments, Laurie bore an uncanny resemblance to my mother when she had been in her twenties. I was sure she was a reincarnation. Looking at her reminded me that I was an orphan, without connection to a single family member, as both of my parents had died and I had lost contact with the few other family members I had. I recalled a song lyric I had written:

All the love that’s gone forever
I don’t understand
how it slipped through my hands

“I’m lost,” I mumbled to my friends. “What should I do?”

Laurie opened her eyes, raised her head and said, “Go to Ellis Island.”

The next day, on a crisp October New York morning, under a cloudless sky the color of sapphires against gold and ruby leaves, I went down to the seaport, bought a ticket, and walked on the boat that swung past the Statue of Liberty on its way to Ellis Island.

At sixteen, without a dime in his pocket, my grandfather, a Russian Jew, had come to America through Ellis Island, the port of embarkation for many immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s. Nearly a century later, as the ferry sailed through New York Harbor, I imagined I saw Manhattan as my grandfather had seen it the day he arrived in America.

I leaned against the ship. Children, with the sun gleaming on their faces, played and screamed noisily around me but they seemed as remote from me as my own innocent past. Something gave way deep inside. I could no longer defend against my feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and grief for all the love I had lost and destroyed. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The front that I was strong, in control, powerful and all put together came crashing down. I plummeted into emptiness, suddenly facing a void.

Landing on Ellis Island, I walked through the halls where countless immigrants had made their way into this country. As I heard old folk songs my mother had sung to me as a child, old feelings half-buried in the rubble of my life began to stir.

Reaching the sea wall, I read the names inscribed there, of all the travelers who had passed through this door into freedom. I found my grandfather’s name: Chaim Pollack. Wiping back tears, I looked up into the heavens and asked, “Grandfather, what should I do?”

As though the voice spoke from the center of my being, the answer came — one that Jewish elders have been giving since the beginning of time:

“Devote your life to study, and tikkun, fixing the broken world.”

How could I, a flawed man who had hurt so many, help to heal the world? How could I devote my life to study? I had bills to pay, clothes to buy, places to go, people to meet.

Again I heard my grandfather’s voice: “I traveled across the sea knowing full well that I would never reap the rewards of my journey. I knew that I would not enter the Promised Land. But I came for you, for the promise of my grandchildren. My hope lay in you. If I gave up my home, and made my way around the world to start a new life, I am certain you can find the time, the money, and the way to do what I have commanded you to do.”

I knew that I wanted to change. Was I finally ready? As the Talmud said,
If not now, when?

Humbled, I left the island.

When I returned to New York, everything was transformed. The city of dreams glowed with the primal vibration of life. Everywhere I looked, I saw meaning and beauty. My senses were all amplified and enriched. I felt love for all that I saw. I felt my grandfather’s inspiring hand gently on my back, whispering in my ear that it was time to fulfill my destiny — I could do it.

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