My Family Story

Yom Kippur 5773

A few weeks ago during our dedication, David Nierenberg told us the story of his family. He told us about the line of rabbis who make up his family history and the values that have been passed down through him. He spoke about his family Ner Tamid that he has generously donated for my office, and then he said that the Ner Tamid, the eternal light would not go out on his watch. He challenged us to tell our own stories because those stories make up who each of us is and combined they are the stories of our community. This challenge I think resonated with many of us. Knowing our histories can inform our futures, and all of it is a part of the story of Congregation Kol Ami.

Even before our dedication, Teresa Litman and Doug Green had begun another congregational project called the Voices of Kol Ami. Doug has begun recording members of our congregation telling their stories. Last week, Cheryl Richards stood on the bima and told the story of her mother’s immigration into the US, and the Talit that her grandmother had carried across the ocean to present to her grandfather when she arrived in NY. Hearing these stories help shape our understandings of each other, they open a window for us into each other’s lives.

So tonight I wanted to share with you my family’s history. David Nierenberg spoke about the dignity and commitments of his family, Cheryl spoke about the importance of the symbol of that Talit how what was a piece of fabric to her mother was a ritual object to her grandmother. From my family you will hear about daring escapes, two incidents of cross-dressing, and rampant horse thievery.

On my maternal grandmother’s side what we know begins with my great-grandfather, known by all of us as Grandpa Sam. (slide 2) My most powerful memory of Grandpa Sam came in 1977 when I was 8 years old. Our family had secretly flown to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida along with my grandparents, aunt and uncle and first and second cousins to celebrate Grandpa Sam’s 90th surprise birthday party. Grandpa Sam and my great-uncle Jack, Sam’s son, both lived in Florida, so as the time neared we all, 4 great grandchildren, 5 grandchildren and my grandparents hid behind doors, under tables, behind couches, and waited as Grandpa Sam entered uncle Jack’s home for his birthday dinner. Just like on TV, we all jumped out of our hiding spots and shouted “surprise!” Well, I will tell you that there are very few 90 years olds one could do that to without worrying about subsequent heart troubles. But not Grandpa Sam. He was surprised, he smiled and laughed and soon started pulling coins out of our ears and showing us how he could make the coin dance across the back of his fingers.

But of course his story doesn’t begin at his 90th birthday. (slide 3) He was born in Czarist Russia in Kiev. As a teenager he stood on a soapbox on a street corner and spoke out against the Czar, because, Sam Falitz was a socialist. He was arrested and sent to Siberia. Not content to stay in that wasteland, he managed to sneak onto a French fishing vessel and stowe away. Not only was this an incredibly daring move because it was a prison break, but also because he didn’t know what might happen if he was found, and because he had no supplies he didn’t know what might happen if he wasn’t found. One of the French crewmen did find him, which was a lucky break, because that crewman brought him some food and water along the journey which no doubt saved his life.

I don’t know what happened when he got off the ship in France, nor exactly how he was able to come to NY, but he managed it, and when he was 22 he married my great grandmother Minnie. (slide 4—on her 90th birthday) Grandma Minnie was the youngest of 9 and her father was the chief rabbi of Odessa. This was not impressive to Minnie at all. What she saw was that her father spent all day studying while her mother worked constantly to feed and care for the 9 children. We believe that grandma Minnie was probably very neglected as a child, and this turned her completely against all Jewish practice. As a teenager she came to NY with her mother and one of her older sisters. (slide 5—that’s her mother)

Together, Minnie and Sam had three children, Jack, Elizabeth, and my grandmother Ethel. (slide 6—my nana) Minnie worked as a seamstress, and Sam as you might guess was a wheeler dealer, the census records have him listed as being in real estate, he dealt with mortgages and bought and sold investment properties. He knew important artistic and intellectual people, he knew George Balanchine, he was an early contributer to the founding of the New School of Social Research. Eventually he was able to bring his two older brothers, Itzik and Nathan to the US as well.

Now there’s this story that has come down in family lore. For some reason Grandpa Sam was in jail again, and Grandma Minnie came to visit him. She brought some extra  clothing with her and put it on Grandpa Sam, then she was able to sneak him out of jail because dressed as he was the guards thought he was a woman. As far as we know that was the end of the story for whatever crime it was he had been imprisoned for.

The story of Sam and Minnie is not one of the great love stories of the ages, at some point Sam moved out, but always sent money to his wife and children, always made sure they had what they needed. For her part, Minnie made sure that each week the children had some contact with Sam. My grandmother remembered standing on top of crates in order to speak to her father on the phone regularly.

My maternal grandfather’s parents were Sadie and Moe Weintraub. (slide 7—their 50th anniversary) Grandma Sadie was always very proud of the fact that she was born in NY. Her father had died when she was very young, and to feed her daughter and two sons, Sadie’s mother Anna would sell food from her pushcart but she did it dressed as a man. Whether she could earn more money as a man or it was safer that way, we don’t know, but this seems to have been her regular method. Anna was not pleased when Sadie decided to marry Moe who was not only an immigrant, but also from Galicia, Austria. For those unfamiliar, Galicianers were generally considered to be thieves. But not grandpa Moe. He was a typesetter, and a member of the union. This was useful because it meant that he was able to get his son, my grandfather Seymour into the union as well. It was apparently a difficult one to get into. Sadie and Moe kept a kosher home, Sadie would bring home her meat and salt it and let it dry on the window sill, they celebrated holidays, and my grandfather and his brother Larry both became Bar Mitzvah, but my grandfather never liked Hebrew school, because whenever he made a mistake the rabbi would whack the back of his hands with a ruler.

My grandfather served in World War II, (slide 8) where he marched all over France.  After the war, he worked nights for many years as a typesetter for the Morning Telegraph, which was a horse racing sheet. When they changed over to computer printing he learned that skill as well, but when the company moved from NY to NJ, he didn’t want to move, so went to work as a printer for the NY Times which is the job I remember him doing before he retired. MyNana Ethel worked as a bookkeeper. (slide 9) She was very good at it and was able to save several companies she worked for from bankruptcy by making calls and demanding payments. She became a bookkeeper after high school primarily because she was not a very good at typing, but if there had been money for her to go to college, she always said she would have liked to have been a lawyer. My grandparents knew and acknowledged that they were Jewish, and my uncle did become a Bar Mitzvah, but outside of that, religious practice was not an important part of their lives. For their 50th wedding anniversary I officiated at a renewal of their vows, and while preparing for the ceremony, my grandmother eyeballed me and said, say whatever you want, but not too much God stuff.

Now, on my father’s side of the family we have the horse thieves. My grandfather, Poppy Morry (slide 10—that’s him on the end) was born in a town called Kippel Cabernia in what was sometimes Ukraine and sometimes Poland. My great grandfather was an important Synagogue macher, and they owned a hostel with a stable, and when people came through town they would stay at the hostel and they would leave their horses in the stables. My grandfather’s earliest memory was his contribution to the family business when he was a toddler. When buying, selling and trading horses, one “looks the horse in the mouth,” because it is the teeth that help determine the horse’s age. When the family was preparing to sell or trade one of their horses, they would lie it down on the ground, and my three year old grandfather would be placed on the horse’s head to hold it down while they cleaned the teeth to make the horse seem younger. You might say that’s not technically stealing, but it’s not technically honest either.

Eventually my great grandfather and his daughter, my great aunt Ida were the first members of the family to emigrate, there was some family in Canada, and so that was where they went first, and eventually moved to Rochester, NY. Meanwhile back in Kippel Cabernia the Boleshviks were coming and conscripting all of the teenage boys and the men into military service. In their small Jewish town one older teenager was conscripted but he managed to escape along with a horse and a wagonload of food. He brought it back to Kippel Cabernia handed the food out to everyone in town, they all packed up together and left. And they all joined my great grandfather in Rochester. My father remembers as a boy that his father would always take him to one particular barber in town. My poppy would tell him he had to have his hair cut there and be extra respectful, because it was that barber who had ensured the survival of the entire community by bringing back the wagonload of food.

In Rochester they all built what was known as the Kippeler Schul, and my great grandfather continued to be a big macher in the schul. The Dunsker family had the seats of honor on the eastern wall of the sanctuary, and my father had to become Bar Mitzvah twice, once at the conservative synagogue where he could attend Hebrew school and a second time at the Kippeler Schul. My father’s older cousin Irene remembers that as a girl, at some point they realized that they hadn’t built the Schul to face east correctly and she remembers watching the construction trucks come in to pick up and turn the entire building. To me that sounded like a Chelm story. In Chelm they will always solve every problem with the most ridiculous solutions. I asked Irene why they didn’t just move the bima instead of turning the entire building. All we know is they seemed to think lifting and turning the building was the best way to go.

When I was in college I studied Women’s History and one of my assignments was to interview a woman who had lived through the Great Depression and write about her experience. I interviewed my Nana Ann. She was born in Rochester, and her earliest childhood memories were of her father’s ice wagon. On Sunday evenings they would drive through town delivering blocks of ice. For her this time meant that she got to sit up front with her father while her brothers were in the back with the ice picks, hacking off chunks and carrying in the blocks to the different homes. My father remembers visiting his grandparents house as a kid and it always seemed like a weapons warehouse because of all the ice picks and different tools of the trade which were everywhere.

Part of my grandmother’s family story I learned in a strange way when I began my position in Suffern NY, the congregation I served before coming here. The woman who put together the bulletin, Sue Ellen is her name, called and asked if I was related to her old friend and pseudo-cousin Larry Dunsker, who happens to be  my father. The woman’s maiden name was Senzel and my grandmother’s maiden name was Sanzel. That is because both families came from a Russian town called Chetlin, and the Senzel family came to Rochester first. When my grandmother’s family emigrated the Senzel family sponsored them, and since they needed to be related, my grandmother’s family changed their name to Sanzel in order to appear to be related. When Sue Ellen’s father died she thanked me for knowing exactly how to pronounce her last name, I told her I would always know how to pronounce Senzel, because the whole time that I worked for my cousin in high school at Sanzel’s Pharmacy, we joked about the high falutin’ way it was pronounced when we all knew it should be Senzel. What I hadn’t understood until I met Sue Ellen was that it wasn’t even our name to begin with!

(slide 11) So why do I tell you these stories tonight? It isn’t only because of what David Nierenberg said a few weeks ago. It’s also because knowing where we come from helps us to understand how we got to where we are now. It helps us to understand all the various historical and cultural forces that shaped our families and certainly influenced us. The more I learn about my family, the more I understand that they were fighters and survivors. The same was probably true for many of our families, Jews and Judaism would not have survived at all if our people weren’t determined to do whatever it took to keep their families and their traditions alive. Change their names, stowe aboard ships, cross dress, even pick up whole buildings. The other important motif that emerged for me as I looked into my family is how survival wasn’t just about one individual’s ingenuity. My grandpa Sam survived and thus all the rest of us through him because someone else broke the rules to save his life. On my father’s side of the family, one teenager stole a wagonload of food and was able to rescue an entire community. There are so many families that are beholden to that one act of bravery.

In Rochester, NY I had cousins around every corner, relatives of mine seemed to be everywhere. But the most wonderful and the most disturbing thing about that was how much I looked like my cousins on my father’s side, especially my 2nd cousin Jennifer who was a year older. (slide 12) I was regularly confused for her by adults that had grown up with my father and her father. And in the middle of a conversation I would realize that they thought I was her, and I would have to start answering questions about her family rather than mine as if I was her, because I didn’t know how to explain to the adult that I wasn’t who they thought I was, but that everyone made that mistake. But the strangest part is that my father was adopted, and I was not biologically related to all these people who I looked like and was confused for. (slide 13) When I was a child my father spent a lot of time working to find his biological family. And he did. When he found them his birth mother had already passed away, but he had a younger brother, aunts and uncles and cousins who never knew he had existed. We also found short women with my crazy hair, and I fit in with that family as well. What I learned from that experience is that while in many ways we are the products of our birth and our history, we are also the products of our environments and the communities that take us in.

There are many factors that contribute to the survival of one family over another or one community rather than another. Understanding our stories I think again and again will show us that our families continue because of some measure of moxy in the face of difficulty, skills or knowledge that took them out of harms way, a commitment to family, a commitment to community, and the ability to take help when it was offered. As we move forward it behooves us to learn those lessons. Individuals survive mostly when they look after each other, communities survive when they care for each other, and help can come from anyplace. Let us all make the same commitment we heard here a few weeks ago, that the ner tamid, the eternal light of community of family and of commitment will not go out on our watch.

I do hope that many of you will share your family’s stories this afternoon during our study session. I found that retelling the stories made me think about my family with pride and joy for their contributions, I look forward to sharing that experience with others as well. My story is now a part of our story, each of us has one that is worth telling and hearing.