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From East Europe to the East Bay: 100 Years After Emigration, a Bar Mitzvah in Berkeley

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.

My great-grandfather, pictured about 30 years after his arrival in the U.S., with his daughters, first son-in-law, and first grandchild. (The boy who became a Bar Mitzvah this weekend is the eldest grandson of the tyke on the trike.)

My great-grandfather, pictured about 30 years after his arrival in the U.S., with his daughters, first son-in-law, and first grandchild. (The boy who became a Bar Mitzvah this weekend is the eldest grandson of the tyke on the trike.)



7 Responses »

  1. Dear Erika:
    I always like to get involved in your writings. It’s so nice to know you and your family and the history I’ve been allowed to be part of since you were a little girl. I wish I could have your talent and patience to collect some of my family’s background -or at least my own. My children want to know, but they’re always busy! And then, time goes by…
    All the best and keep doing what you do so well!
    Love, Jeannette

    • Thank you, Jeannette! I hope that you will be able to get your own stories and histories down someday. I’m sure that your children (and theirs) will appreciate it!

  2. Erika, I just love this! So many changes, yet some things stay the same. Your chronicles are a treasure.

    Love, Ronnie

  3. Thanks, cuz (once-removed) for filling in some more pieces of the fascinating jigsaw puzzle that explains how our family arrived where we are today.

    Since you spend considerable time contemplating geneology, perhaps you could address in some of your future writings why, or why not, the connections across time seem to matter so much to some of us while other family members seem so indifferent.

    It feels like it has something to do with the conscious or unconscious approach each of us chooses to forge his or her self-identity. Some of my relatives are so resolved to “making it” “on their own” that they run the other way whenever they sense “family” is nearby.

    Also, it seems somewhat related to whether one perceives his/her past as attractive or abhorrent. My paternal grandmother was so “ashamed” of her pogrom-filled childhood in Lithuania that she told everyone she was born in America.

    Like author Daniel Silva was saying on NPR yesterday*, families have the potential to be either the most wonderful or the most horrible of vehicles to carry us through life.

    * http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-07-11/daniel-silva-english-girl

  4. Dear Erika,
    How beautifully you write!
    This is fascinating.
    I also love the photograph – it tells an interesting story, as well.

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