Tag Archives: American immigration

Memories of My Grandmother Adele

by Christopher Bailey (Geneva, Switzerland)

For two summers I lived in San Francisco with my Grandmother Adele while I was with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  

Over the meals the two of us shared together, my grandmother often talked about what lore she could remember about the Jewish village in Romania where she was born, or at least the stories told to her, (she couldn’t remember the name of the village), her passage as a little girl in steerage with her sister and their mother to the United States, and their hard life living in tenement housing on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment and one bathroom with three other families.  

Her last name was Itzkowitz, not her given name, but the name the clerk at Ellis Island gave the entire boatload of Jews as he could not understand Yiddish.  But even seventy years later, my grandmother would tell me how her mother would take her and her sister Tillie up on deck twice a day from the hold for air—women and children were allowed this luxury—and how above them the ‘white people’ (she described their 1908 clothing as white dresses and jackets, like angels…)  would stand on the balcony looking down at them in pity, and toss leftover items from their breakfast to the hungry steerage passengers below.  Her mother would try and catch what she could to give to her young daughters. 

Once she caught an orange for my grandmother.  As she described the sensation a lifetime later, my grandmother told me she had never even seen an orange before and did not know how to eat it.  But it looked like sunshine.  When her mother helped her peel it, she could smell the anticipated taste from the spray of citrus oil released from the torn peel, and her ancient face lit up with the retelling.  

As she described taking her first bite, and feeling the sweet summery juice explode in her mouth and comfort her insides, she exclaimed as if again experiencing it for the very first time, “It was like tasting sunshine…”

Life was not easy on Essex Street.  The women from the earliest ages worked in the garment industry. Her father, who eventually joined them, could not find a job.  She remembers him sitting in a corner, holding up his Yiddish newspaper, looking for news of home, and trying to block out the chaos of the families beyond the wall of his newsprint paper, all the while holding in his regret and anger and sorrow for leaving Romania, anger which planted the seed of the colon cancer which soon would take his life, the same cancer that very nearly took mine a century later.  

My grandmother also described her ‘pet,’ a mouse in the tenement, which she slowly taught to trust her by saving scraps of food furtively stolen from the dinner table and laying them out for the mouse, a little nearer her little hand every day, until the mouse learned to eat right out of her hand, its tiny lungs and heart beating in double time in her tiny palm.  

Eventually, after growing up in the sweatshops, and as a young woman joining the labor movement, she eventually left New York with my drunken hard scrabbling grandfather for California, because in her words, “It’s where oranges come from.” 

Gabriel, my son, last year did a little ancestry research and actually found the village where my grandmother was born, a place called Lasi.  As he read up on it, he discovered that it was the site of the most systematic slaughter of Jews in Romania during the Holocaust.  As far as we know today, only those members of my family that took the boat survived.  

When my grandmother died some years ago, my father and his brother went to clean out the house.  I asked him months later where he kept the boxes of letters and journals she had shown me in her basement.  I mentioned it too late.  He had thrown everything out.  

That Thanksgiving, when he told me that he had emptied the house and kept nothing, I told him some of the stories that his mother had told me.  He knew nothing of them.  As I told them, I felt a chill coming over me as the realization began to sink in. My memories of those conversations were all that was left of that world. 

Christopher Bailey was educated at Columbia and Oxford Universities, as well as at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a career as a professional actor and playwright, he is now the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, where he co-founded the Healing Arts Initiative, which looks at the evidence for the health benefits of the arts. As an ambassador for the field, he has performed original pieces such as Stage 4: Global Stories on Empathy and Health, and The Vanishing Point: A journey into Blindness and Perception, in venues around the world, hoping to spread the WHO’s definition of health as not merely the absence of disease and infirmity, but rather the attainment of the highest level of physical, mental and social wellbeing. To view some of his work, visit: The Vanishing Point and Chris Bailey at The Met in NYC

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My Father’s Hands

By Elaine Freilich Culbertson (Philadelphia, PA)

My father’s hands were what saved him. He became a shoemaker because his father was one, because his desire to be an engineer would not have helped him stay alive in the concentration camps. Nobody saved theorists, it was manual labor that was valued. It was only that he could watch and quickly imitate what others were doing, his quick mind absorbing and his talented hands obeying. He learned to value the leather and to shape it with reverence. He put aside the pencil and the slide rule for the sake of his life and became expert with a knife and an awl and a needle and thread. Later, after the war, these tools and materials would feed his family in the new land of America. The engineer in his head had to become the shoeman.

For many years his hands were stained with the dye that he used to color the shoes ladies bought to match their fancy dresses. His eye for color was amazing, and the potions that he mixed made his store a mecca during those years that everyone had to have shoes dyed to match. He taught himself to embellish the shoes with designs of rhinestones, pearls and lace. Everyone in the city knew where to find the closest match to their outfits. He customized the shoes, cutting the heels, modifying the fit so that even the woman with the biggest bunions and the most foot trouble could feel glamorous when she wore the shoes bought in his store. His hands were steady as he picked up the tiny gems one by one and placed them on the heel or toe of the shoe, not only devising the design but executing it perfectly.

He could tie your shoes so tight that your feet would throb for hours until the laces loosened a bit. He could bend an iron rod with his bare hands, as he did the time some mischievous boys ran away with the wand that raised and lowered the awning in front of the store window and he had to improvise a new one so that customers could see the shoes for sale. He could sketch, he could devise, and he could create almost anything. His grandson still talks about the pair of dice he carved out of blocks of wood, when the original dice were lost that day he was babysitting and the boy was heartbroken that his game was ruined without them. What he couldn’t do with finesse he did with sheer force, willing whatever tools and material he held to do his bidding; to disobey was useless. I remember the time he made wallpaper stick to the wall even after he had run out of glue! Sheer force!

When he shook your hand, he squeezed with intensity. Hugs were bearlike and delicious. Even in his later years, even in his dementia, he retained the strength in his hands. Those fat fingers that we used to laugh at, those huge paws so different from my own elongated fingers (my piano hands, he called them) are so vivid in my mind that I can still see them. He had a strangely misshapen index finger that I wondered about even as a child. The nail did not grow properly on that finger and I was never sure whether it was something he was born with or from an injury he sustained in the camps. If we meet again someday, I will know him not only by his blue eyes, his hair which did not turn gray even into his 80’s, his big nose that I used to tease him about, but by his hands as he grabs mine and pulls me toward him for that hug that I miss so much.

Elaine Culbertson is the chair of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, a statewide organization of teachers, survivors, and liberators who volunteer to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive in the schools of the state. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Act 70 Committee and a convener of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators in the Philadelphia region. Elaine represented the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Museum Fellow and a Regional Educational Consultant in the Mid-Atlantic. She presently provides professional development for teachers using Echoes and Reflections, a curriculum resource developed by the Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League.

Elaine retired as the director of Curriculum and Instruction in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, ending a 36-year career in public education. She is the executive director of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. For the past 18 years she has served as program director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, a seminar based in Poland and Germany, that has provided professional development to more than 1100 teachers in its 36-year existence. She works with teachers and students to connect the events of the past with the genocides of the present day. Elaine has written chapters in five different books on Holocaust teaching methods and lectured across the United States, using the story of her own parents’ survival as the basis for her presentations on developmentally appropriate and morally responsible pedagogy. She is working on a memoir that incorporates her mother’s writing with her own reflections on being the daughter of survivors.

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What My American Grandmother Said

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

That she had come to this country from the Austro-Hungarian empire at age two,

that her mother ‘s Viennese relatives were cousins of Theodor Herzl,

that her step-mother felt jealous of her good looks,

that she had become a Suffragette at age sixteen and raised money for the cause selling flowers on the Boston Common,

that the grandson of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been smitten with her appearance as Isaiah’s wife at a play at the West End YMHA,

that he had asked her to marry him on the spot, saying “my grandfather the poet loved your people,”

that she had replied, “Well my father doesn’t love yours,” 

that she married an American-born man twelve years her senior,

that she and her husband embraced whenever they met one another in whatever room of the house it was,

that it took her seven years after she married at nineteen to realize that she could get on top,

that she had gone every Sunday night to the Ford Hall Forum to hear visiting intellectuals who lectured on every topic under the sun,

that she had practiced saying, “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” as one of them had advised,

that her sister who lived upstairs once said, “Rosie, what are you constipating to do?”

that there was nothing more beautiful than the sunset seen through her kitchen window,

that she lived as a widow forty-two years after Hyman‘s death, half of those working for the Federal government,

that the buses she took to work were designed for making friends with her neighbors,

that if you don’t own a car, it’s very important to befriend people who do,

that rush tickets at Symphony Hall were half-price for Friday afternoon rehearsals,

that there was nothing better for the spirit when visiting historic sites than saying “I love America!”

that it was important for young people to cultivate a sense of intimacy – she had been reading Erik Erikson at the time –

that she would never live long enough to use that bottle of one thousand buffered aspirin that I bought her,

that she left to her children and grandchildren her love of the sun and the moon and the stars and the sky

that she would spend her money before she died, which she did not, 

that I should say at her funeral that every morning she recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, but not until after she had eaten her bagel.

Herbert Levine is the author of two books of bi-lingual poetry, Words for Blessing the World (2017) and An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion (2020). He is currently working on a humanist and earth-based prayer book: Blessed Are You, World: A Siddur for our Time. This is the fifth of his family portraits shared on the Jewish Writing Project. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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From Russia with Love

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL)

“Take these candlesticks my child,

And when you light the Sabbath candles

In your own home with your own family,

Remember me and the family you came from.”

My grandmother, a girl of fifteen, heeded her mother

And carried these silver twins, wrapped in a pillowcase, 

Across the ocean from old world to new.

As her mother hoped, she faithfully

recited the Sabbath blessing over them

Each Friday evening, her family gathered at the table. 

Now two generations later, these candlesticks 

Still stand tall upon their three-pronged legs

In my home, handed down from my mother.

Grape vines etched upon their stems

Show off hanging clusters of ripened fruit

Amid the dings and dents of age and

Dark spots where tarnish resists polish.

Though weighty to the eye,

Hollow bodies give them little heft,

Light enough to be carried

Across the ocean years ago

By a girl of fifteen,

So that on this Friday evening,

I may light and pray over the candles they cradle,

As did my mother and grandmother before me,

To welcome the Sabbath and remember this story.

Judith Rosner, Ph.D., is a retired college professor, leadership trainer, and executive coach. She has published in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions. Currently she writes poetry and personal essays. Two of her poems are published in the literary magazine Her Words  (The Black Mountain Press), her poem, “Forest Sanctuary,” appears in the Living Peace 2019 Art of Poetry Anthology and two of her essays appear on The Jewish Writing Project.  Judy and her husband split their time between Sarasota, Florida and New York City.

To read her stories on The Jewish Writing Project, visit:

Y’all Are Different: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/yall-are-different/

My First Aliyah: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/my-first-aliyah/

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Lisa and Stanley

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Shortly after the end of World War Two, I received an excited call from my husband’s Aunt Frima. Her voice was shaking with urgency as she told me, “I have a niece in Russia who wants to contact me. I never even knew her.”

The contact was an example of serendipity.  A young Jewish soldier from Brooklyn was determined to reunite as many Jewish families as he could, as passionate to do this as was his mother in Brooklyn. Lisa told him she had an aunt in Philadelphia. She knew her last name but that was all. He sent his mother Lisa’s scant contact information, and his mother placed a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper that served the Jewish community. One of Aunt Frima’s daughters saw the notice and asked her mother, “Do you have a niece in Russia named Lisa? She’s looking for you.” That started the ball rolling

My husband’s Aunt Frima and his Uncle Ben had been in America as immigrants for many years. They had five American born daughters and lived  a normal middle class life. When I was married to their nephew, we became part of each others families. She was particularly fond of me because I could speak Yiddish with her. She and Uncle Ben came often to our home for holiday meals. Aunt Frima was kosher so she brought her own food.  Uncle Ben ate what she brought and also what I made.

Lisa, 32, was widowed and the mother of two small children. She was evacuated from Moscow when the German army invaded Russia. A day after the invasion in 1941, the Soviets established a makeshift evacuation program to move Soviet citizens from major cities and the probabilities of German bombings. Tashkent in Uzbekistan, 1734 miles from Moscow, was targeted as the site. Lisa and her two small children were among the evacuees. Tashkent had become a makeshift refugee center, and Lisa and her family settled in with primitive housekeeping facilities, hoping the city would escape German occupation, and she prayed for peace.

Stanley, a single, unattached male, was also evacuated from Moscow to Tashkent. Stanley was a loner, a quiet intellectual with an absorbing profession. He restrung fine violins with horse tail hair for violinists all over the world. The war halted his business and he, too, wondered what his life would be like after Tashkent. Lisa and Stanley met and a romance developed in the detritus of the camp. They both wanted to emigrate to the States.

As was necessary, Lisa needed a sponsor in America to facilitate immigration. Aunt Frima and Uncle Ben accepted that role, and, with the help of their daughters, the flurry of paper work and bureaucracy began. After about a year, Lisa, Stanley and her children  arrived in West Philadelphia on Aunt Frima’s doorstep. She called me to say, “They’re very tired now but come here tomorrow to meet them.” I did and found Lisa and Stanley sitting stiffly and stone faced on a blue velvet sofa. I could understand their apprehension of this new life. How long could they stay in this house? How would they support themselves? Had they left familiarity for the unknown? Lisa had assured her aunt that she and Stanley had been legitimately married in Tashkent, but Aunt Frima was skeptical. She insisted on taking them to a rabbi to witness an official Jewish wedding.

They were quickly integrated into the entire family and turned out to be warm, intelligent and helpful. Although extremely grateful for Aunt Frima’s willingness to sponsor and facilitate their repaired lives, Stanley and Lisa knew they must find ways to take charge of themselves. Stanley got a job selling hot dogs at the Philadelphia baseball park and Lisa worked in a hat factory.  Eventually, Stanley was able to return to his unique profession, and Lisa became a designer in the hat factory.  They prospered and eventually retired to Florida.

I was very fond of them, and we became friends as well as family.  They were so grateful to be given a new chance in America. And I was grateful to have them part of my life.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

 

 

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“Immigration – A Modest Proposal”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Let’s start off with the Muslims, shall we?
They’re all terrorists, you know,
everyone carrying high-powered rifles.
Then we go after the Jews.
They’re not to be trusted, you know;
besides they’re used to being persecuted.
Next come the Catholics.
They’re all puppets of the Pope, you know,
and their priests molest small children.
The Statue of Liberty now hangs her head,
awash in a sea of red vitriol.
Emma Lazarus rewrites the words of her poem,
and Neil Diamond chokes on the lyrics of his song,
as the man in the silk tie calls the political shots.
Make sure we all gather on the shore line
with barbed wire and protest signs,
declaring that nobody else shall enter
because we were here first,
and after all, this is our America, nobody else’s.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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