Monday, January 27, 2020

Essay #4: Grandparents, part 3

Grandpa Sam Leibowitz came to the United States at 16, in 1907, the year of the greatest immigration to the U.S. in the 20th century. His older sister, Rose, had come a year earlier, and his next younger sister, Lena, came the following year. And in 1910, his widowed mother, with three of her four youngest children arrived, just in time to be counted in the 1910 census. (I questioned a genealogy librarian about what might have been the reason Max, then 14, might
Sam's mother and one of his sisters
not have come with his mother and siblings, she thought it was just a mistake. Since the mother, my great-grandmother, most likely didn’t know English, a neighbor must have answered the census taker’s questions, and since the family were new arrivals, the neighbor might not have known how many children were actually in the family. But in the 1920 census, it’s confirmed; Max came to the States two years later, in 1912. So what was that about? Was there some apprentice-type program he was in until the age of 16? Was he going to a yeshiva? All the relatives who might have known are long dead.)
           Sam’s mother was illiterate and very superstitious, according to my mother. When she clipped her fingernails, she burned the clippings, to prevent their being used against her. And she never learned English. Her youngest daughter died at 13, according to one story one board the ship bringing the family to the U.S., but her death date doesn’t accord with census records.
            Sam was from the same town as my grandmother, Liz, but they met in New York. My impression is that they met at the landsman restaurant her parents ran, but Jack remembers hearing some story that they met at a union rally outside the Winter Garden Theater. However, they met, they married in 1917, and my mother was born a year later.
Sam's draft card during WWI
            I don’t know how Sam came to work in the fur industry, but in his work he also became a union organizer. He remembered students coming to the estate, where his father had been an overseer, from the big cities after the 1905 revolution in Russia to talk about the revolution. He had a draft card that noted he was working for the Fur and Leather Workers Union in 1917 and 1918. I don’t know how soon after the Bolshevik Revolution he joined the American Communist Party, but he was definitely in the Party because after the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, there were many conversations at the dining table about what he was going to do about its anti-Communist affidavit. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
           Through much of the 1920s, Sam worked and organized, and his family moved, sometimes every year. There was an oversupply of apartments, so landlords offered a month’s free rent, which was an incentive for working people to change apartments. Sometime in the late 1920s, however, he was blacklisted and couldn’t get work at all. So he moved the family, first to Washington, D.C., where he or Liz, my grandmother, must have known people, then to Richmond, Virginia. At first he tried to do fur repair work, but Richmond was not a place where furs were much worn—it just didn’t get that cold. So he and Liz ran a grocery store in a poor neighborhood, near the street-car depot. But he kept in touch with his comrades back in New York, and when WWII started and now Soviet Russia was an ally, he was called back to New York to work at the union office. Where he worked until that question of the anti-Communist daffidavit came up. (I wrote about this in my red-diaper baby memoir.) His friend,
My grandpa, in the index
Ben Gold, was president of the union and wanted to fight the affidavit, but Sam said he’d had enough fighting, he was ready to retire. Which he did, spending the rest of his life reading and painting, and when they moved to Florida in their 70s, he worked at the University of Miami bookstore. Meanwhile, Granny Liz went to work at Macy’s, in the lingerie department, until they moved to Florida. She once gave me a leopard-skin-patterned bra. But, she said, I should wear something with a little padding—not what I wanted to do in 1962.
            They took me to see my first movie, “Little Women,” at Radio City Music Hall, at Christmas. Granny was my little sister’s protector in any dispute among us children. Grandpa talked to us like we were grownups; when he asked what we were doing, it sounded like he really wanted to know. He was very mild-mannered, not dogmatic in his ideas.
            Granny was a classic worrywart. After a visit with them in Brooklyn, we had to call her collect once we got home so she would know we were home safe. She worked at Macy’s in the lingerie department. When they visited us when we were still children, she gave us backrubs before we went to sleep, and each of us wanted her to stay with us the longest. And she cooked. She made knishes unlike any knish I’ve seen since, with a pastry she stretched so thin it hung over the edge of the table and was translucent. It was more like a potato and onion strudel.
Sam & Liz, maybe 1950
They were not at all religious. In retrospect, I think our spring visits to them in Brooklyn must have been around Passover, and the dinner she served was a seder. But it was never called that. There was a little booklet on the coffee-table, from Manischevitz, in English and Hebrew, about Passover, but we never did the ceremony, never asked the questions, never talked about bitter herbs. Now, in my 70s, when I hear my friends talk about the seders they've been to or hosted through their lives, I’m sorry I missed all that. But it just didn't exist in my family as a tradition.
            I never really talked to Grandpa Sam about politics. But I remember late in his life, he went back to the Soviet Union with his second wife (Liz had died of an abdominal cancer in her early 70s), Gussie, even more political than he was. He told us about flying to Riga from Moscow, where Gussie had relatives, and mentioned that they didn’t get any meal on a three-hour flight. Gussie got very defensive at what she took to be a slam against the Communist Motherland, and Sam said, mildly, “Gussie, I’m not criticizing the Soviet Union. I just think it would have been nice to have a bite to eat.”
            My mother had lots of cousins from Sam’s family, but while my mother may have kept in touch with some of them, they were never part of the family I grew up in. I’ve met a few since, but it’s hard to maintain contact with family who are otherwise strangers. 
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Monday, January 20, 2020

Essay #3: Grandparents, part 2

I know much more about my mother’s family, and her mother’s family. Here is a formal photo, from about 1928. My mother, Leah, sitting demurely in front, looks to be about 10, and her sister, Anita, standing next to her, would have been about four. Their parents stand behind them on the right, their mother, Elizabeth,  gazing appraisingly toward the camera, their father, Sam, looking anywhere but at the camera. Had he lost his job by this point? He was a fur worker, a union organizer, and a member of the Communist Party, and the “reds” were being hounded out of fur shops in the 1920s by company goons, according to Philip Foner’s history of the Fur and Leather Workers Union, published in the late 1940s—which includes Grandpa Sam in the index and in the photo insert. He and his union colleagues sometimes sat in front of fur and leather shops, where many Jews worked, and ostentatiously ate ham sandwiches; they were trying to break the religious hold on workers by showing they wouldn’t be struck down for eating traife.
           I don’t know what occasioned this photo. Everyone is very dressed up, especially my great-grandmother, sitting on the left. My grandmother, the oldest of three children, is the plainest dressed in this photo. Did this bother her? My mother told me her mother was a good wife: her husband was a leftist, so she was, but if she had married a rabbi, she would have been a good rebbetzin.
            My mother’s Aunt Esther is on the left, with her husband, Morris Rappaport. Morris was a CPA, and prosperous. When I was young and visiting the relatives in Brooklyn, Esther showed off her mink coat. Her sister didn’t have a mink coat or a fur of any kind. My mother tells me that when she was young and her father was still working in the fur shops, he would bring home scraps of fur and put them together into little fur coats for her and her sister. Morris remained lean throughout his life, while Esther became more corpulent, like her mother. In 1930, they had one daughter, Honey Lee, who had rheumatic fever as a child. That damaged her heart, and she died in her thirties. Honey was born 12 years after my mother, I was born 12 years after Honey, and Honey’s first daughter, Randy, was born 12 years after me. I broke the pattern when Christie wasn’t born until Randy was 18—and I was out of touch with the part of the family
            Honey’s husband worked at NBC as some sort of technician, and when I was six or seven, he got me onto The Howdy Doody Show as one of the Peanut Gallery. I really didn’t want to be part of the show, I just wanted to watch it, so being in it felt excruciatingly awkward. I sat in the back, so as to be as invisible as possible.
            My mother’s Uncle Louie, in the center, is not married yet in this photo. He and his wife, Millie, had no children, so my mother had only one cousin on her mother’s side. Louie was a liquor salesman, and he also was on the corpulent side. My grandmother was the only one who remained slim. My mother told me that there was constant feuding in the family, Liz and Esther against Louie, Louie and Liz against Esther, Esther and Louie against Liz. My mother found this very upsetting, but I was totally unaware of this emotional upheaval. Was it just my self-absorption?
            My grandmother was the only one born back in Russia, in the town of Khotin (or Hotin, or Chotin, depending on whether you were writing it in Russian, Ukrainian, or Yiddish), near the border with the Ottoman Empire. The region was called Bessarabia, and when I asked my grandparents where they were from, they would say Bessarabia, not Russia. Nathan Mucinic, my great-grandfather, sitting on the right, was the only son in a family of seven children. His family owned a cigarette factory, and when Nathan’s father died, his mother ran the factory herself for a while, but her son took over.
            When Nathan stopped paying the czar’s cigarette tax, he feared retaliation. He had traveled to New York with his oldest daughter, then only five, around 1900, then returned home. A few years later, he went back to New York with his wife and daughter and settled in what was called the East Side, now known as the Lower East Side or the East Village. By this time he had changed his name from Mucinic to Ohrenstein, presumably to hide his identity from any czarist police who might be after him.
            The family lived on the second floor of an apartment on East 9th Street facing Tompkins Square Park. For a time, they ran a restaurant in their apartment for “landsman,” people from their region of the Old World; presumably, they would know how to make food in this New World taste familiar. This is where my mother’s parents met.
            Nathan continued his taste for flouting the law. He owned a car that he claimed was bullet-proof, bought from a gangster. In the Prohibition era, he also had a license to make sacramental wine, and presumably sold it to speakeasies. Leah also remembers sitting in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother, and aunt, signing different names in different handwriting to long sheets of paper; she thinks these were political petitions to get favored candidates onto the ballot. Another job for which Nathan was paid by Tammany Hall, the local Democratic machine?
            Here’s a photo of his gravestone. One of these days I will go to the Center for Jewish History and see if I can find out where in Brooklyn it is.
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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Essay #2: Grandparents, part 1

My mother’s parents were much more in our life than my father’s. When I was a child, my father was out of work after being blacklisted following WWII for several years, and we lived with my paternal grandparents in Washington, D.C., for some months after my sister was born, and then with my maternal grandparents, in Brooklyn, for three years.
            I did not like my father’s parents. They both liked teasing. Grandma Rose teased me about eating lettuce, which I apparently liked a lot as a four-year-old. “Are you a little rabbit?” she said. This upset me so much that I got down from my chair and crawled under the dinner table so she couldn’t see me. I wasn’t a rabbit, I was a girl. Why would she say such a thing. Grandpa James pulled my braids and called them “pigtails.” I didn’t like that either. Was he saying I was a pig? They teased, but from an emotional distance.
            Soon after we moved away, Grandma Rose died (she smoked and, my mother commented, she was overweight) and Grandpa James, who remarried a rather nice woman named Jenny, visited infrequently. You know how some people don’t know how to talk to children? He was one of those people, and when we were all teens and were told he was coming to visit, we all groaned and complained. My father got uncharacteristically angry; he was our grandfather, so we should be glad to see him and not criticize him.
            They were both immigrants, Grandma Rose from Lodz, Poland, still part of Russia when she and her mother came to the U.S. in 1906. James came from Vitebsk, Russia (what’s now Belarus), in 1907, and always told us that he was the only one from his family to emigrate. But I did an oral history with his daughter, my aunt Helen, in the 1990s, and she mentioned visiting cousins in Paterson, New Jersey, so who were these relatives? I have no idea. I know nothing of who they were, names, nothing. But by the 1910 census, Rose and James were married and living on East 103rd Street in Manhattan with Rose’s mother, Sarah Schwartz. James was naturalized in the early 1920s, but Rose didn’t get her papers until 1943. Why so late? I’ll never know.
            James was a very small-scale storekeeper. According to the 1910 census, he was working in New York City as a painter, but a year after my father was born in 1917, James moved his family to Hopewell, Virginia, to run a clothing store with a friend, possibly someone he knew from Russia. That didn’t last long, because by the 1920 census, the family was in Washington, D.C., where James ran first one, then two clothing stores, becoming prosperous enough to buy a house, which was then lost when the Depression hit and both stores closed. Then James opened a grocery store, with the family living upstairs, where they had no electricity, a wood stove for cooking and gas for lighting. There was a telephone, in the store.   James was also a supporter of the Russian Revolution. He and Rose belonged to an organization called the International Workers Order, one of those nationality-based groups that helped members before there was Social Security and health insurance. (The IWO was red-baited out of existence in the 1950s.) During the Depression, if customers came into his store and couldn’t pay, he gave them credit, and it being the Depression, often he never did get paid. When I knew him, he was a super in an apartment building in Washington before moving to Florida, which all grandparents do, don’t they?
            There are few photos of my paternal grandparents. When I find one, I’ll stick it in here. 
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Friday, January 10, 2020

Essay #1: What Am I Writing About? or When Will I Write?

Essay #1: What Am I Writing About? or When Will I Write?
            Since 2017, I have attempted to write an essay a week. I have usually gotten through January, and the first year I may even have gotten to early March. Then life intervened, or something. Anyway, I never, repeat, NEVER wrote an essay every week for even half of the entire year. So why will this year be any different?
            It’s not that I don’t have plenty to say, and many topics I would like to opine on. Part of the problem is deciding which idea will get and keep my attention this week. Part of the problem is a terminal lack of discipline. Dorothy Brande, in her 1934 guide “Becoming a Writer,” had two exercises: one put you in touch with your imagination, the other trained discipline. Of course, I failed totally on discipline. That exercise involved picking a time EVERY DAY when you would stop whatever you were doing and devote 15 minutes (only 15 minutes) to writing.
            Okay, maybe at the age of 77, I can attempt, one more time, to learn discipline. So what time of the day will become my writing time? When can I know that I can have 15 minutes without distraction to write? 8 p.m.? (But what if I go out in the evening? There are many groups I am part of.) 10 a.m.? (After breakfast, before I start my four-days-a-week freelance work? Followed by stretches and exercises?)
            Okay, let’s say 10 a.m. Every morning. Right after breakfast, before brushing teeth, before stretches and exercises. Write, brush teeth, stretches and exercises, whatever comes next.
            This will be my first essay. I’m leaving the original title, and adding what the essay became as a secondary title. I’m a week behind, but no punishing of self. Wish me luck.
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