I’ve spent so much time writing about my paternal family history–particularly the refugee histories of my dad’s parents–that it sometimes seems as though my mom’s side doesn’t get very much attention. But appearances can be deceiving–just because I haven’t written quite so much about my maternal ancestors doesn’t mean that I don’t think about them. This past week, in fact, I’ve been thinking about them quite a lot. And that’s because I’ve just returned from several days in Berkeley, Calif., a trip occasioned by the Bar Mitzvah of my eldest cousin’s elder child.
My dad is an only child, and my mom is one of two siblings. My sister and I have three first cousins. Gathered together for the Bar Mitzvah, I found myself thinking again about our common past and the significance of our gathering in Berkeley for A’s Bar Mitzvah. I realized (and confirmed via the Ellis Island/Port of New York records) that it was 100 years ago–during the summer of 1913–that our grandmother’s father Jacob had left Eastern Europe to immigrate to the U.S. He left behind his wife (Yettie, after whom I am named), my then-infant grandmother, and two more children (twin daughters, then in utero).
Theirs was not an unusual story. As Paula Hyman has written:
Even though the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe was a “family migration,” the process of leaving the Old World for the New often temporarily disrupted families. Jews engaged in chain migration, in which one member of an extended family secured a place in the new country and then bought a ticket for siblings so that they could settle in America. Oftentimes, married men set out in advance to prepare the way economically and planned for their wives and children to join them once they were settled. Sometimes the delay in reuniting the family stretched into years, compelling women to raise their children alone and to take on the full responsibility of arranging a transoceanic voyage. (emphasis mine)
Our particular family reunited in 1920 in New York. More children were born to Jacob and Yettie in America. The Bar Mitzvah boy is not only the eldest of my maternal grandparents’ great-grandchildren; he is also the eldest of Jacob and Yettie’s great-great-grandchildren.
I don’t know what sort of life Jacob imagined when, a century ago, he left Europe on the SS George Washington. Connecting his departure from Bremen to his great-great-grandson’s Bar Mitzvah in Berkeley brings to mind so many other people, so many other stories and circumstances. I am proud to be part of this particular history.