Tuesday, July 28, 2020

My Life in 50 Objects, 7: Lenin, with Accessories

Lenin’s bust is something else I took from Grandpa Sam’s apartment after he died. I never knew he had this, so never asked him when he got it and what he thought about Lenin. I wonder if it belonged to his second wife, Gussie Linn, who was much more of a Communist than he was. After they returned from their trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1972, he told us about flying to Riga to visit Gussie’s relatives. He mentioned that the flight was a bit over a couple of hours and the passengers were only given some candy. Gussie immediately protested that the flight wasn’t that long. Sam replied mildly, “I’m not criticizing the Soviet Union.”
            The hat and the boa had nothing to do with Sam. The hat was part of a gift for my 50th birthday party from Meredith Bernstein, a literary agent and college friend of Ricki Levitt, who was a student of my old friend Gerald when he was TA’ing at the University of Rochester in the 1960s. The boa? This was from some recent party, I think—events in the past 10-15 years are, oddly, less sharp in my memory. 
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Sunday, July 19, 2020

My Life in 50 Objects, part 6

            This collage was put together by my grandpa Sam. Sam Leibowitz was my mother’s father, born in what was then Russia (and is now Ukraine), on an estate where his father was the overseer. (One reason so many Russian peasants were anti-Semitic was because so many Russian nobles hired Jews to be their overseers. Thus, the taxes and other payments due to estate owners were collected by Jewish men, who bore the brunt of hatred for what the peasants had to give up.) So the photos are my mother’s family.
            On the left, second from the top, are my parents, Joe and Leah. I think this is from around the time they got married, though they didn’t have a big ceremony. They had to wait until she graduated from William and Mary College, in 1940, because the school (a public institution) didn’t allow married women to be students.
            Going clockwise, the top left corner is another wedding, in 1949. I think the wedding coupkle, in the center back, are Jeannette and Adolph Blank. Sitting around the table, from front left, are the bride’s father, Morris (one of Sam’s younger brothers), Leah with Mark on her lap, Joe with me on his lap, the newlyweds, Sam, Carla (who must be standing on a chair), Grandma Liz, and the bride’s mother, Mary.
            Next photo must be Sam’s family. I’m guessing this was taken once they were all in the United States, coming in at least four different trips: first Sam’s oldest sister (1905), then Sam (1906), then his next older sister (1907), and then his mother with three (or four) of her youngest children (1910). On the other hand, the man on the left looks much older than Sam, so perhaps he is the husband of Sam’s oldest sister. I may be totally wrong about who these people are, but if I am, there’s no one to tell me. Here’s my guess: Seated on the right is Sam’s mother, Yechaved (but she has a different name in the 1910 census), and on the left perhaps his oldest sister, Rose. Between the two seated women is Sadie, who looks about 10 here. She died young, at 13; one story says it was on board the ship New Zealand, but since the 1910 census puts her in the U.S., I think this story isn’t true. Standing from right: Rose, Sam, Max or Morris or Sol, and if this is Rose’s husband, that’s Jack Breiman.
            In the upper right corner, this is clearly Sam, perhaps his mother, and Sadie.
            In the row below, from left, the photo that’s labeled 1929 cannot be right. The youngest girl looks like my mother’s cousin, Honey Lee, who was born in 1930. She might be two in this photo, which would make Anita, next to her, eight, and Leah, standing behind, 14. The next photo to the right is, I think, Leah when she was about two, and that may be her grandmother in the window. This looks like the country, but I have no idea where. And on the far right, from the right, Leah’s mother, Liz; an unhappy-looking seven-year-old Leah; Sam, holding baby Anita; and Liz’s parents, Nathan and Rebecca Ohrenstein. This would be around 1925.
            Below this photo is Anita, probably around 30, with a tiny child photo, and below her, Ben Morreale, her husband for 38 years. Many stories attached to them, which I will relate elsewhere.
            In the center is a photo of Nathan and Rebecca, and below them, Sam, standing, Liz with coffee cup, and Leah, between one and two? These two pictures are clearly studio shots, but if there was an occasion for them, I don’t know what it is.
            Immediately to the left, we’re getting into the modern era: me at about five; my brother, Mark, at three, and below Mark, sister Carla, at age one. I think these photos were taken by a photographer wandering through our Brooklyn neighborhood rather than in a studio. But look, Carla is holding a ball just as Leah is almost 30 years earlier. Do studio photographers still use that prop for tots?
            To the right of baby Carla are two pictures from 1960, in Gladwyne. On the left, Mark, me, and Carla are in front of the back of our new house, and on the right is after my high school graduation, with Grandpa Sam holding our enormous tiger cat, parents to my left, Mark in the back, and Carla with a hand on the cat.
            Below Ben is a studio shot of Sam’s mother and one of his sisters. To the left is toddler Leah, around two(?), with her three grandparents, and parents standing in the back. The wedding couple are, I think, the same couple as in the photo at the top, Jeannette and Adolph Blank. And to their left, another 1960 graduation photo, this time with Liz instead of Sam included.
            The bottom row of photos is less known to me. Who is the man in the lower-left picture? To his right is my mother’s cousin Honey Lee, in the beret, and the date in the photo below her is clearly wrong: Honey looks about 10, so this would be about 1940. Next to her is her grandmother, and behind her, her father, Morris Rappaport, and mother Esther, Liz’s younger sister. The next photo is another mystery, either one of Sam’s sisters or one of his brothers, and presumably their daughter. And could the date be as wrong as some of these others?
            The final three snapshots: Milly, married to Lou (Liz’s younger brother), and Esther, Honey's mother.
            This is one introduction to part of my family.

My Life in 50 Objects: Bulgarian perfumier

           This is a gift from Christina Kotchemidova, who I first met at the founding meeting of the Network of East-West Women in 1991. She came from Bulgaria, and for the longest time, whenever I thought of the Bulgarian members of NEWW, I could only remember the young Bulgarian woman in the film Casablanca, set in WWII, who with her husband are hoping to get transit out of Axis-occupied territory to the U.S. She tells Rick, the Humphrey Bogart character, “In Bulgaria, the devil has the people by the throat.”
          When I visited Christina in Sofia in 1994, that seemed partly to be true. A monument to a Communist hero was besmirched with graffiti, and the grand building was now a bazaar of stalls, with people selling anything they could, and children picking pockets. On the other hand, the main square was almost a showplace for tolerance, with an Orthodox church, a synagogue, and a mosque within yards of each other.
            Christina came to New York with her two children a year after NEWW was founded to attend NYU’s graduate journalism program. She had worked as a writer and translator in Bulgaria, and her 14-year-old daughter was gung-ho to come to the States. The daughter was severely disappointed with American girls, however. Eager to follow politics and our 1992 election, she couldn’t find anyone in the private girls school we helped get her into to share her interest, and in a few months, she only wanted to go back to Sofia, where young people were eager to discuss politics of all sorts.
            After getting her M.A., Christina returned to Bulgaria and began teaching for severak years. Then she came back to NYU, got a Ph.D., and then a job teaching at Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama. She arrived there a week before Hurricane Katrina struck and had to evacuate to a friend’s in Atlanta. What an introduction to a new part of the country. She was amazed at how orderly drivers were when the power went out and traffic lights no longer worked. That would never have happened in Bulgaria, she said.
            She has since gotten tenure, both her children have attended American universities, gotten their Ph.D.s, and are either teaching or working for a multinational corporation. A story of successful immigrants.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

SOLTuesday: My Life in 50 Objects, part 5

Both of these two things belonged to my grandfather Sam Leibowitz, and they seem to show opposite sides of his interest. I wish I had been able to ask him how these fit together.
            I wasn’t surprised by all the Soviet pins, though I don’t know whether he got all of them in his one trip to the Soviet Union in 1971 (when he left home to come to the U.S. in 1906 it was still Russia), or whether he got some of them earlier. Five identical pins say “Mir” (or Peace) on top, “Mai” (May?) on the bottom. Two pins celebrate the centennial of Lenin’s birth (1870-1970). A few are simply about Moscow, and then there is a pin for Latvia, and another for Riga, the Latvian capital. Sam went to the Soviet Union with his second wife, who came originally from Riga, and she still had relatives living there.
            I knew Sam had been a member of the CPUSA. In the late 1940s, he was forced to take early retirement from the Fur and Leather Workers Union because he wouldn’t sign the anti-Communist affidavit that the new Taft-Hartley Act required of union officers. But I never had any conversations with him about his politics. And he was not at all like anyone’s stereotypes of a Communist. 

            But this next object? I didn’t know about this until after he died, at 82. It’s a scroll, in Hebrew, and my mother told me it was the Book of Esther. This is the Old Testament story celebrated by the holiday of Purim. I’ve always liked this story since it has a female hero. But why did Sam have it? What did it mean for him? How did he acquire it? I know that religion meant little to him. One of his early union organizing tactics was to sit outside a workplace and eat a ham sandwich, very not kosher, to show the Jewish workers that God wouldn’t strike him dead, either for eating the ham sandwich or talking about the benefits of a union. Was this a gift from mother? and inheritance from his father? or from his in-laws?
            The never-ending and never-to-be-answered questions.
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