Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mother's Day

Barely in time for Mother’s Day, some important news just reached me about my mother. The true where and when of her comes from my daughter, Lauren, who plumbed the archives and discovered that my dear departed Mom did not take the A train from the Bronx into this world on January 1st, 1900, as she always claimed. Instead she arrived here as a toddler in steerage from the shtetel probably a year or two before that.

We now know that my grandparents checked in at Ellis Island sometime in 1900. The only way she could have been born here, as she said, is if the boat landed at dawn and her mother gave birth that afternoon. Sorry to take away that auspicious birthday but it is likely a fib. Why quibble about the time and place?; because her secret tells me much about her and myself.

(My friend, Ed, once told me of a visit to his Grandpa, after many months away. During that interval Ed had grown a mustache. When the old man opened the door and saw his face he ran and hid in the closet. His mind had snapped back to those days of pogroms. Cossacks had the mustache. Jews had the beards.)

In those days new arrivals had much to put behind them. Life among the Jewish peasantry of Eastern Europe was filled with dread and danger. A knock on the door or the sound of hooves was a signal to hide. Secrecy and cunning were necessary for survival which translated well into the push-cart life in America along with a high value for education, helping them to assimilate.

In contrast to these immigrants who were heavily liberal Democrats are the more recently arrived Russian Jews. My experience with those who emigrated during the last decade of the U.S.S.R., is of a population which retains their native language, despises Gorbachev and votes as a Republican block. They tend to be observant in religion and are congenital entrepreneurs. They straddle the Communist culture of entitlement while embracing opportunistic Capitalism. But I digress.

My mother was a fearful person frightened, I suspect, by her five brothers who themselves carried their early traumas into the household. No wonder she spent her life dis-identifying with the Old World. The fiction of her birth date in New York City must have been prompted by a mixture of shame and her need for re-invention. She stuck to her story and deserves credit for her imagination.

Until the end, when she mellowed a bit, her days were spent planning for worst case scenarios; she squeezed some life from my hand, crossing the street as if cars were assassins, merchants out to steal her purse, landlords gouging her on the rent. Even as she concealed her true birthplace she revealed it in all the curses she carried in her mouth and the aggravation that stooped her back.

I tried to hold my mother as a negative model. I would speak softly, trust everyone and presume benign traffic in the world. However I also own my inheritance. I absorbed her denial of tradition, avoided Yiddish roots and rituals and anything with a whiff of the Old World as if I, too, had just fled mustachioed Cossacks ready to loot my village. If this explains the genesis of my disdain so be it. I prefer to think of it as an affirmation rather than a rejection. My belief turns toward a universality that bridges differences and celebrates life across borders and walls. Bless my mother for her arduous journey and her great fabrication which landed me here.


  1. Your mother and my father, Norm. My dad always said he was born in Brooklyn. Not until I was about 20, when he needed to attend a biochem conference in Europe, did he come clean. Guess he figured he couldn’t lie on a passport application, so he might as well out himself to the rest of us.

    He came here at the age of 7 in 1914. He was immediately quarantined on Ellis Island, stayed there for a couple of weeks, not able to speak a word of English. Then in the schools in Brooklyn he was teased. Overnight, he became an American.

    To this day, I don’t know how much he remembered of Sicily. None of that family talked about their life there. No pogroms, of course. But there was grinding poverty and rampant crime. I thank my grandfather for bringing his 9 children here. I thank my father’s older sisters who worked in the garment factories so that my father could go to college. I owe my comfortable life to those people.

  2. Thanks for your story, Ruth. I suppose there are many of us whose parents gave full meaning to the phrase, NEW WORLD, a time for erasing as well as starting out. One door opens, the other closes.