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Memoir Part 1: My Early Years: The Bronx

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I come from Russian Jews–Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews of Mediterranean Europe. I don’t know how my distant ancestors came to live in Russia. Historical evidence suggests that Jews like them, after being driven out of Palestine one or two thousand years ago, had migrated to Western Europe. Most likely they found life there, as the Dark ages metastasized into the witch hunts of the Inquisition, increasingly difficult. If it wasn’t Muslims or Huns trying to kill them, it was Christians. Always, somebody hated on them: somebody in power, which may be why I have issues with abusive powerful people to this day.

My four grandparents, all born in the 1880s, hailed from what is today’s Ukraine, near Odessa, although for large parts of its history it had veered between the Russian and Polish empires. I know very little of my mother’s parents. Both died well before I was born, on June 14, 1946. My maternal grandfather, Harry, co-founded the first synagogue in Oklahoma, when it was still Indian territory. I’m sure he and his wife, Reva, left Russia for the same reason millions of others did: to avoid the pogroms everyone knew were coming. But why they settled in Oklahoma (of all places) is a complete riddle.

My father’s parents, Max and Rose, moved to America in 1913. The both lived long. Grandpa Max died around 1953, when I was seven. Grandma Rose lived until 1968 or 1969. I was very close to both. They never fully lost their Russian immigrant ways. Both spoke English with thick accents. The furniture in their small apartment was old-fashioned Victorian, with doilies on the tables and anti-macassars on the chair backs. They kept kosher, but were not otherwise particularly religious. I remember walking with Grandpa to the kosher butcher, on the other side of the tracks in the South Bronx where we lived. He would select a live chicken, which the butcher would ritually slaughter, then throw into a sack, feathers and all. Grandma made wonderful chicken soup, the best I’ve ever had; she insisted the secret was to include the chicken’s feet in the broth.

I remember, too, when Grandma got very old and had dementia. She lived by herself, a sweet lady, content in her gathering darkness. I visited with her in the late 1960s. Grandma sat in a chair and I in another. Neither of us said anything for an hour. Afterwards I kissed her goodbye. It was the last time I ever saw her.

Aspects of my grandparents’ Judaism have pervaded my life and thought. While they were not observant, they were culturally Jewish; they could not escape their past—the past of the Torah, of the wanderings of the Jewish people, of centuries of shtetl life and persecution, living and working with their own kind, always with an abiding faith in the value of education and hard work. They were a people apart: and that sense of being “the other” has haunted me from birth. No matter where European Jewry scattered in the early decades of the 20th century, they maintained this self-identity, this common bond: and nowhere in America, perhaps, was the Jewish diasporic experience more apparent than in The Bronx.

The borough, connected to the U.S. mainland unlike Manhattan island, was first settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, as a kind of northern suburb. It was a leafy, country place of rolling hills, surrounded by rivers teeming with fish and forests bursting with game. Manhattanites with money built summer places there. Jonas Bronck, who had emigrated to the Dutch New Amsterdam in 1639, established his farm, across the Harlem River from upper Manhattan, around 1640. Visitors were said to have been “to the Broncks’,” whence The Bronx got its name.

Max and Rose and their three children moved there sometime in the early 1930s. My generation of the family bitterly regrets having asked so few questions of our grandparents and parents while they lived. There is so much we don’t know, and never will. Why did Rose and Max move to The Bronx? Undoubtedly they’d begun life in America in New York, after going through Ellis Island; from there, there’s little doubt they went on to the Lower East Side, although we have no definite knowledge of that. We know that, after a while, they moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to Riverside Drive. But why they made the schlep to The Bronx is a mystery, although they weren’t alone. When I was little, it was said that The Bronx contained more Jews than the State of Israel.

They made their home in one of the thousands of six-story brick tenement buildings erected in the borough to house the enormous influx of new residents. In our case, the address was a famous one in our family: 760 Grand Concourse—“760” for short–a place known to this day by the fifth generation of my relatives who may never even have seen it. At one point, four generations of the family dwelt there; The Bronx exists in my cultural DNA as strongly as does my Jewish heritage. 760, which still stands, was a few blocks from the 161st Street subway stop of the D-Train, where Yankee Stadium was and is. The New York Yankees are also an indelible part of my childhood.

[This is Part 1 of a new memoir. I’ll publish future parts on an occasional basis.]

  1. Paula Fins says:

    How warm and charming a read. Brings back my own memories of living on the lower east side of Manhattan when I was a child.

  2. Thanks Paula!

  3. Paul Stark says:

    Can’t wait for the next installment. 760 was a special place, unlike any other I’ve ever encountered.

  4. Bob Rossi says:

    Very absorbing piece. As I read it, I thought that it should be part of a longer memoir. Now I see that it is.
    My grandparents spent much of their adult life living in the Bronx. I believe my father’s parents (the Italian side) emigrated to the US and first lived in the Lower East Side before moving to the Bronx. My mother’s parents (the Jewish side, Ashkenazi) always lived in the Bronx when I knew them, but I don’t know whether that was the only place they lived in NY. Like you, I never really inquired about my grandparents’ background. Not only why they lived where they did, but even, in some cases, where they and their parents came from. I know a little about my father’s side, but hardly anything about my mother’s. When I started doing genealogy research a few years ago, I quickly hit a brick wall because I knew so little about their background.

  5. Maureen Merson Tiras says:

    Very interesting Steve. Learned some about my grandparents on my fathers side

  6. A cousin! How you doing, Maureen?

  7. MARION LEVY says:

    I still remember those days in the 50’s and out 6th grade teacher, I think her name was Mrs. Streng. I lived in 800 and my family had 3 apartment in that building. There was a 4th Levy but no relation. My maternal grandmother died in 1955 before we moved to 800 and I never knew my father or his family as my parents were divorced when I was an infant but my grandfather and aunt had 1 apartment, my uncle and his wife had another and my mom and I was in the 3rd apartment on the other side of the building. We moved into that building just before 6th grade.

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