Category Archives: Immigrant Experience

Grandma Mary and Her Parents

My maternal grandma,  Mary, lost her father as a teenager (she was 14-years old). Her father, Raphael died November 30, 1897, and the death certificate lists food-poisoning as the cause, with a cold and indigestion as contributing factors towards heart failure. He died at home, in Manhattan.  Her mother, Felicia died December 29, 1902, at home, of heart disease (grandma was nineteen-years old). They are both buried at Calvary Cemetery.  I was stunned to learn that they both died before grandma turned twenty.

Grandma was an orphan, both parents deceased by the time she was nineteen-years old.  I now know this is why she was so empathetic and understanding, when my father died, always concerned about me, about my brother, and how we were.  She totally understood, having lost both of her parents by the time she, herself, was only nineteen-years old.  How sad for her, that she lost them both so young.  It must have altered her life immensely, in ways I can’t even begin to understand.  Losing one parent, my father, at the age of 16 was traumatic enough, and I can’t imagine losing two parents within five years.  I cried and cried upon discovering this fact.  May they all rest in peace, together as a family.

Life was hard, the stress of trying to maintain the necessities of life was difficult, often causing heart attacks, and disease, such as typhus or pneumonia, which was rampant in epidemic levels, and many immigrants died early in life due to these factors.  Several ancestral babies died, and I am assuming they might have contracted typhus or pneumonia.  There are other factors  of course, for my great-grandparents dying at the ages they did.

Being an immigrant forged many hardships.  Survival in an unknown world, with new surroundings, caused extreme stress on those who emigrated to America.  Assimilation was difficult, especially for those who didn’t speak English.  I am positive my great-grandparents only spoke Italian  Jobs for immigrants were few and far between, causing additional stress for families trying to maintain the essentials for life, food, shelter, clothing, etc.

There are times I sit and weep, thinking about the life they dreamed they would have, the life they actually had, and how life took its turns on Raphael, Felicia and their children.  I speak to them during those moments, and thank them for their endeavors to begin a new life.  I yearn for them, at times, yearn or long to know them, physically.  Genealogical research often brings up those emotions to those searching for links to their ancestral past.  You become so involved with lives of the past, and each time you find a new piece of data, the puzzle gets filled a bit more.  But, at the same time, you become so emotionally involved in not only the searching but the information received, as well.  It is life-altering in many ways.

After all, you realize that these individuals, these courageous, wonderful human beings, are your ancestors whom you are descended from, and without their emigration, without their lives as immigrants, you would not be here, in America, you simply would not be, at all.  It is difficult to escape that reality, while researching family history.  It is as if they are there, before your eyes, and in a sense they are.  Their DNA runs through my veins.

Original signatures on death, birth, and marriage certificates are intriguing, as well as the information garnered, such as addresses, dates, ages, names, etc.  Reasons for deaths often make sense in the scheme of future generations.  One becomes immediately consumed and involved.  At least I was consumed, and realized the profoundness of their journey from Italy to New York City, and wanting to start a new life, in an unknown world.  New York City was not only a ‘melting pot’, in 1890, but also a city that held extremes for daily existence.

Through death certificates, I realize the extent of the hard childhood my grandma had, losing both of her parents so young in life.  Research has also revealed to me the difficulties of daily life, hour to hour, at that point in time, in New York City.  Difficulties that Raphael and Felicia did their best to overcome, handling the struggles before them.  They somehow managed to fulfill the necessities needed, through long hours of hard work.  They were fighters, warriors of a societal age that often prevented immigrants to obtain a minimal, yet decent standard of living.  They persevered, along with their children.

My grandma Mary was a part of her parents’ struggle.  They made sure she went to school, in an age when education was often seen as a negative.  She worked after school.  Once she graduated, she worked full time as a dressmaker for a clothing company, with her salary helping her family maintain daily needs.

Upon the death of her parents, she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, continuing to work as a dressmaker.  Life was definitely difficult for all of the family members, each one an immigrant.

To me, grandma Mary is a testament to strength, courage and love, for succeeding within the confines of being an immigrant.  I thank her for sustaining the hardships thrust upon her, and her ability to move forward through unknown doors.  I am grateful that she had the tenacity to conquer the strains and stresses life set before her.

Grandma Mary was a warrior, before females were considered to have such recognition.

 

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Italian Immigrants

Having Italian ancestry in my family, books regarding New York City and Italian immigrants are quite popular in my reading genres. I enjoy both the historical fiction books and the nonfiction books.

I finished reading a novel called Elizabeth Street, by Laurie Fabiano. The story line takes place during the first decade of the 20th century. The book depicts based on the author’s own Italian immigrant family. The pages are filled with the essence of the hardships of daily living and survival during a harsh time period. Fortitude, desire, and the will to assimilate and conquer the living conditions, crime and social inequalities forced upon Italian immigrants seem to be the basis for the book, along with prejudice of the Italians. I am fascinated with what I have read, so far.

I have read other books regarding Italian immigration, and New York City immigrants, in general. Each book has given me new snippets to ponder.

How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, is an extremely compelling book.

Vita: A Novel, by Melania G. Mazzucco, is another compelling read regarding the Italian immigrant experience.

Openwork: A Novel, by Adria Bernardi depicts three generations of Italian families, and their journey from Italy to New York City.

I also recommend The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani

I watched a show on PBS entitled The Italian Americans. It is a two-part four-hour series. It ended last night-February 24th. You can watch episodes online.

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Review: Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel

Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, revolves around the Nasmertov family, who have emigrated from Odessa, a city by the sea, to Brighton Beach, another city by the sea. Brighton Beach was often called “Little Odessa”.

The comfort level of the area is one reason the family chose the location. An immigrant from Odessa could find anything that their homeland offered, in Brighton Beach. From food to furniture to household items to clothes and material goods, it could all be had.

This very fact is what held the elders of the family within its fold. It is what prompted them to convince their son, Pasha, to emigrate from Odessa. Pasha, on the other hand, procrastinated, and waited until the last minute.

His role in the book is one of a man who doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything in life, positive or otherwise. He lags behind in everything. He doesn’t quite get the situation or the city he has arrived in, and has no desire to find out the aspects of life within the realm of Brighton Beach.

The story deals with the way that life is perceived during a time of assimilation. It brings the reader snippets of the procedures to assimilate, and also yearnings for what once was in the homeland. The desire for change does not necessarily overrule the comfort of what the homeland held in a person’s daily life.

The reader is taken on a twenty-year journey through the Nasmertov family’s treks to fit in, to understand the cultural divide between homeland and their new land. The journey is humorous at times, but only to the extent of familial actions, and also how they are viewed by those around them. The humor is more of an enhancement of what it means to survive in a country so unlike the one you emigrated from.

Nostalgia is a strong undertone within the pages. Comfort levels of every aspect is depicted. Familial bonds do not necessarily provide the comfort one needs.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is filled with descriptions of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, that one can capture through their five senses. The novel is also an examination of the immigrant and their experiences and endeavors to fit in, despite strong memories of the past.

I enjoyed reading about the cultural issues, and enjoyed the word-imagery regarding the beach cities. I am extremely familiar with those cities and with the cultural aspects depicted in the story. I, myself, have fond memories of Brighton Beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The novel transported me back to times past.

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Review: The Gates of November

Chaim Potok’s The Gates of November is an extremely intense non-fiction book, written about a Jewish family. The book delves into the father/son relationship that Potok is well known for in his books.

Solomon Slepak is an old-school Russian Jew, a diehard Bolshevik. He became a Marxist when he emigrated to the America, and then returned to the Soviet Union. He was a stubborn and difficult man, and became a staunch and renowned Communist Party member, despite the fact that he was Jewish. Solomon Slepak resists the ideals of his son, Volodya, who is a “refusenik”, and basically disowns him.

Volodya sees what is occurring in the Soviet Union and wants no part of it. He wants to take his wife and two sons and emigrate to Israel. Thus he begins the process of paperwork and documentation. His bid to emigrate is refused, and he and his wife, Masha, become activists, working to try to help other Jews who are refused permission to emigrate, under Josef Stalin’s relentless rule.

Due to his activities, he is sent to a remote part of Siberia, where the conditions take their toll on his health. Masha asks for permission to be with him, and is granted such. He is exiled for over five years, under the harshest of conditions, not only weather, but food and daily sustenance and necessities (this articulation is putting it mildly).

Once he returns home, he tries to seek work, and finds menial jobs here and there, that don’t last for any length of time. He applies for permission to emigrate, once again. The process drags on for years, and we are given an overview of the social, political and diplomatic events and results during the years that go by, while he waits for a positive outcome.

I could articulate more on The Gates of November, but I suggest you read it yourself in order to grasp the depth of the story. The Gates of November is quite extreme in detail. Potok has shown us the degrees people will go to in order to manipulate others by leaving out none of the horrible events or descriptive word images.

Potok infuses the intensity of the time period under Josef Stalin’s rule. He details the depth of life under the most adverse and harshest of circumstances within the confines of the brutal Stalin reign. His book is based on personal accounts, taped and written interviews, videos, etc., in order to bring exactness to The Gates of November. It is not an easy book to read, due to the brutally detailed circumstances and events. But, it is a book most definitely worth reading, not only in comprehending the historical aspect regarding Jews under Soviet rule, but for the ongoing father/son relationship and family dynamics that Chaim Potok always manages to write so brilliantly about.

The Gates of November, by Chaim Potok,  is a masterful telling of Jewish familial life and dynamics under extreme social circumstances. It is both horrific and inspirational, and brings to the forefront the degrees of determination people have in order to obtain their goals. I highly recommend it to everyone.

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Lorri M. Review: How the Other Half Lives

howotheotherhalflives3 How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob A. Riis, is an astoundingly negative testament to New York City and its history, and to all of the immigrants and individuals whose hopes were enveloped, and often dashed, within the suffocating environment of the tenements and slums.

From Europe to Asia and the Middle East, immigrants from all countries were shepherded into unbearable survival conditions. They came to America hoping to have a better life, and the life they led was often worse than the one they left behind. The slum environment encompassed the worst possible lifestyle one can imagine

The living conditions described within the pages are appalling, and even more so when it is noted that landlords often forced labor upon their tenants. In other words, I will only rent to you if you will work for me, behind closed doors. This was an accepted form of behavior, and left the tenants with less than dignified circumstances. The environment was difficult and demeaning enough, never mind the added indignity of having to work almost twelve hours a day for your landlord.

Not only were the rooms that they lived in infested with vermin of all shapes and sizes, but families, individuals and strangers were more or less forced together in extremely close quarters.

The magnitude of the deplorable housing and working conditions is mind-boggling to this reader. I knew that life was harsh and difficult, but Riis brings the reader an in depth look into the horrific conditions forced upon the immigrants. His studies and photojournalism speak volumes to the squalor thrust upon the lower economic people. There weren’t too many choices for those seeking employment and housing.

Yes, there were choices, but not many, and finding the decent surroundings was extremely difficult for most, if not impossible. How the Other Half Lives opened my eyes to the worst of humanity, humanity and humiliation right under our noses, in the heart of New York City during the late 1800s.

How the Other Half Lives is intellectual, intense and compelling. It is written with honest assessments, forthrightness and shocking depictions. Riss’ documentations were his effort to bring forth the deplorable conditions of the slums and tenements. It is not a read for those with sensitive stomachs.

The enormity of information which Jacob A. Riis compiled through documents, his own documentation (both written and photographically), interviews and questionnaires, is astonishing. The magnitude of his project is all-encompassing, and that he was able to accomplish what he did, in the late 1800s, is masterful in every aspect.

As an aside: Some readers might find this book boring, and find the grammar, in some cases, to be difficult to digest. When reading it, one must try to remember the time frame that the book was written in, and the varied dialects of the immigrants. Not everyone spoke English, and those who did, were often speaking with heavy accents, broken English, and not necessarily schooled in the English language.

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Lorri M. Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

thegolemandthejinni I have been busy reading. I don’t normally read a book in this genre, but from the first page I was wrapped within the story. The 496-page book The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel, by Helene Wecker, is quite unique and extraordinary, and for a first novel, I thought it was extremely well-written. I would rate the novel 3.5 stars, with five being the highest, mainly due to the historical background.

It is a story, as the title states, about a golem and a jinni. The novel is a combination of historical fiction, fantasy, superstition, and so much more. The golem is a super-strong, clay creature in female form that was created for a man who is a withdrawn person, and can not seem to find a wife, a woman who wants to be married to him. He decides to have her created to specific specifications. He takes the golem with him, when he departs for New York City from Europe. Her “master” dies on the ship, and she disembarks in New York City. She meets a Rabbi, who takes her in, knowing she is of the “earth”. She begins her “life” with Jewish roots.

The Jinni has managed to escape out of the lamp he has been held in for over one thousand years, due to a tinsmith breaking inadvertently creating an opening. He is a jinni that has been imprisoned within the walls of the lamp, and comes out in human form in New York City. His origins are Arabian Syria, and through fire as his force, he must stay away from water, especially rivers and rain. The two of them eventually meet, and their unusual friendship begins.

Their relationship develops, each one a stranger and immigrant in a new land. Each one not actually human, yet each one takes on human qualities. The story envelops Arabs, Muslims and Jews within the pages, not in a conflicting manner, but in acceptance of each other and their cultures. That, in itself, is worth the read. The communities of Little Syria and the Jewish sector, blend together, and the reader is given scenes of life, not only in the two communities within New York City, but of 1898 New York City just before the turn of the century. The writing of the scenarios by Wecker is fantastic! Wecker is masterful in her descriptions of New York City at the end of the 19th century. Her ability to illuminate the streets filled with carts, horses, trolleys, architecture, people from all over the world, shops, and daily life is impeccable. She captures the very essence of olde New York City. The reader can visualize her portraits, inhale the aromas, hear the noises, and feel the essence of city life on a daily basis. Her minute details breathe life into each sentence, each page.

The fact that the Golem (Chava), and the Jinni (Ahmad) are basically immigrants learning to assimilate and cope with every day living in realms they don’t understand is not a new concept, in reality. But, within the fact that they are not human, not only do they have to try to blend in within their environment, but also have to try to appear to be human, with human mannerisms, actions, and qualities. Chava is bright and clever, always aware and cognizant. Jinni is mocking and arrogant, yet still trapped in human form. Chava is constantly watching and learning, trying to adapt. She is sensitive, and trusting, trying to find independence. Within that sphere, she must always remind herself not to show her physical strength. The Jinni can take on human form, and within that abilty, he must be cautious of his warmth, his sexual desires, his inability to feel emotions or understand others. He is self-absorbed.

There are other characters that play into the story line. From the Rabbi to the bakery owners, the tinsmith who lets Ahmad work in his shop to the ice cream man, people come and go within the pages, but all are integral to the story line. Cultural barriers are opened, and acceptance is gained by one community for the other. There are back stories, as the novel jumps back and forward in time, but not in a manner that the reader can’t keep up with. The back stories are as important as the current time period.

The supernatural, magical creatures, superstitions, Kabbalah all combine in one incredible novel. Some of it lends the reader to disassociate their non-belief, but that is the beauty of the story that Weckler has written.

The human condition and efforts to survive in an unknown land is brilliantly brought to the forefront with sensitivity and clarity. Many questions were brought to my mind: Is it worth the effort to try to overcome the challenges of cultural mores a nd realities? What is freedom? What is enslavement? Are we really slaves to our environment, or a slave to a former world with old and traditional ideals? Are we product of old and new? What is assimilation, and does it require mimicking those around us, or letting others manipulate us into what they want us to be? These and so many more questions were food for thought.

Within the pages of this fantasy and adventure story we see life through the eyes of those who are trying to find themselves within a strange, and sometimes hostile environment. Life is depicted in all of its beauty and ugliness, with the positives and the negatives. New York City is illuminated through vivid word-imagery, people and their personalities are excellently depicted. Cultural mores are drawn together, showing the similarities within both the Syrian community and the Jewish community. Each culture wants the same for their own kind. The human situation and all it encompasses are woven within the tapestry of the pages within The Golem and the Jinni.

Helene Wecker is masterful, in my opinion, in her ability to portray the characters within the varied settings and cultural aspects. I especially enjoyed the historical aspects of The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel, within the realm of an adult fairy tale!

May 20, 2013 11 Sivan, 5773

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