One-Breasted Tour Through Dixie


I am so sad because I'm leaving the South on Tuesday. I'm in Selma tonight, having spent the afternoon in the Reform temple with a very nice and spry president of the congregation who is 85. He is 10 percent of the congregation, and ten years younger than the oldest member. He put captions on two recent pictures. On the group standing together: The last of the Mohicans. On a photo of the members sitting around on the pews in the nearly-empty sanctuary: Reserve seating at Mishkan Israel.

The synagogue was started by German Jews; my great-grandfather and his brothers-in-law were fresh-from-the-shtetl Eastern European Jews who were presumably members of the Orthodox synagogue, which no longer has members or a building. It's now the site of the post office. Most of the documents and photos at Mishkan Israel pertain to that synagogue, but I saw a copy of minutes from 1912 from B'nai Abraham, the Orthodox shul. It was in Yiddish, which I should know how to read after ten years of study, but I know I'll have to get it translated.

What I know: My great-grandfather Zendel aka Sidney was born in Plungian, Lithuania, in 1874. He arrived in the U.S. in 1901. His wife Sarah, who was four years older (they allegedly told the census enumerator Miss Lula Hamilton, who got some names wrong; maybe she was better with figures), arrived in 1906 with five kids. This was typical for immigrants, of course. Imagine coming over on the boat with children aged four, five, seven and nine (the latter, my grandmother, Bessie aka Bayle Maryassa) Mindel. Imagine living in the shtetl Pusvatyn (better or worse than Plungian?), your husband has left for America, he says he'll send for you but you never know, you've heard of women who go overseas and they find their husbands are living with a real American woman who speaks English, the men abandon their faithful wives and don't release them with a religious divorce and they are isolated and floating and alone, with their children and Yiddish and nothing else in the new country. He goes and you're pregnant and have the fourth baby, which he doesn't see grow into a toddler and then a little girl. But he does send money for passage and you come, five years later, to 517 Washington Street in Selma. And two years later, an American baby is born. And 103 years later, Bessie's granddaughter aka Cancer Bitch makes a visit and there's a gas station where one house was, and probably an empty lot where the other was, and anyone can see them from their computer, thanks to the Google satellite system, the big eye that sees and records everything.

Why Selma? Why Alabama? It's always the same reason: someone else was already there. In this case, Sarah's brothers Louis, Joe and Samuel Rosenburg nee Pruchna. Samuel came to the U.S. in 1892. Today I put stones on the graves of Louis and Joe and Louis's wife Mattie Smith. The graves were in a row and there was space for another head stone, for Joe's wife, but she wasn't buried there. I don't know where Samuel and his wife Jennie are. I do know that they married in 1910, when he was 38, five-foot-six and 200 pounds, and she was 28, the same height and weighed 150, and had been in this country five years.

What does this mean? Why is genealogy the alleged second-most popular hobby in the US?
The one-breasted researcher has thoughts on this, which she will relate later.,

5 comments:

Patty O'Furniture said...

Hello from another unilateral latter day Alex Haley....

My maternal grandparents were German Jews. I don't know much of my grandmother's history, she was said to be from one of Chicago's oldest Jewish families. My grandfather was born in Baden. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1907 with $20 and the address of his uncle in Chicago. (We have his boat ticket, etc.) He was 19. His mother came over a year later.

My paternal great grandparents arrived in Boston from during the Great Hunger of 1847. My grandfather went to BC as did my great uncle. Most of my aunties and uncles, too. My uncle said there was no point in an Irish Catholic filling out Harvard, Princeton, etc. paperwork during my grandfather's school days. It was a case of "No Irish need apply."

Cancer Bitch said...

They didn't want too many Jews at Harvard, either. I read in the NYReview of Books that the college interview was instituted by the Ivy League so that they could suss out the Jews who had changed their names and weren't obviously Jewish on paper.
What was the grandparents' last name?

POF said...

May/Isaac

ruth pennebaker said...

CB, honey -- Since I'm your elder, I have to tell you I think the word "spry" should be banned from the English language (maybe the Germans would want it?). Trust me, I'll knock the teeth out of anybody who calls me that.

Cancer Bitch said...

So "spry" is paternalistic? I'll stop, I swear.
C. Bitch