The Hard-Working Immigrant

August 11, 2020

We come for freedom and the chance to live the American dream.

I don’t know about you, but one of the unexpected best things to happen during the COVID-19 pandemic was the early release of the filmed version of Hamilton.

The line that gets the strongest audience reaction is shared between Hamilton and Lafayette—"Immigrants—we get the job done."

The hardest working immigrant in my family was my maternal grandfather Murray, whose family fled the pograms of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century and came to America for freedom and the chance to live the American Dream. And his success fueled dreams of success for me, which were an important part of my own inspiration to become doctor.

Immigrant

-for Maurice O. Emhoff, DDS, 1898-1992

When the Jews were slaves in Egypt,

Pharoah’s molars crumbled from a diet

seasoned with desert sand. Two thousand

years later, the Jews are enslaved again,

this time in Galicia, my grandfather fleeing

to America, his earliest memory being down

on his five-year-old knees to kiss Liberty

Island’s earth and thank God for the USA.

Flash forward and “Doc” Emhoff is the first

Jew to graduate Columbia Dental School.

With a Jersey City office next door to Mayor

Hague’s, he drilled molars for crooked pols

and pulled teeth from tough guys

who fixed my driver’s license road test.

A bear-hugging bulldozer of a man

decked out in pinstriped suits and a star

sapphire pinky ring, he’d peel off dollar bills

from a wad held by a sterling silver clip

and stuff them into my pocket. Master

of the quick extraction, his power-grip

fingers crushed my loosened milk teeth

into gravel when he ripped them, bloody

from my seven-year-old mouth.

Grandpa Murray, rags to riches, American

big shot, the man who dreamt even bigger

for his first grandson when he placed a doctor’s bag

in my crib, gave me stone skulls for bookends,

taught me to polish dentures in his cluttered lab,

and let me examine ten thousand extracted teeth

he kept in a stack of drawers. The proudest man

at my med school graduation, an immigrant

who spent his life staring into America’s mouth,

the stains and decay, bridges and crowns, the jolt

of his booming voice commanding every citizen

to bite down, grind, smile and open wide,

the way America’s jaws had opened for him.