I’ve heard the stories at least a hundred times: My Great Grandma Tsiryl dry-heaving over the side of a steamer ship as they rolled up into Baltimore Harbor in 1904. A pregnant Great Grandma Esther stoically clutching the belly that held the baby that would one day be my grandfather while ocean waves battered the hull of the last ship out of Europe before World War I.
Two different women from two different places, and yet they shared such a similar experience with each other and with the thousands upon thousands of other Jewish immigrants who left Eastern Europe for American shores. They crammed their lives into small suitcases – sometimes with incredible forethought, other times in great haste, they kissed their families goodbye, and on trains or buggies or by foot they traveled over hostile terrain toward distant harbors, and ultimately onto ships that would take them excruciatingly slowly, slowly, slowly away from the achingly familiar.
(Cue Itzhak Perlman playing something in a minor key.)
And like so many others who left the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe during those fragile years at the turn of the 20th century, my Great Grandmothers made it work. They gave birth to American babies. They raised their children in broken English. They played Mah Jong and drank coffee with other landsman in cramped apartments in big cities far away from their childhood friends. They waited for letters from their families. They dreaded the inevitable telegram. They celebrated mitzvahs and simchas at the synagogue. They sat shiva. They buried their own on foreign soil. Read the rest of this entry →