Thursday, August 27, 2015
My paternal grandparents, Harold and Betty Ginsburgh, pictures taken in their 70s in the 1970s.
I've bristled against the steriotypes coming out of the large migration of Eastern European migration of Jews in the early twentieth century, the lower east side, garment trade, yiddishkeit. I was truly appalled when somebody I knew assured me that she knew all about my Jewishness based on her familiarity with this culture.
Being born Jewish has a lot of implications which I ponder. I cannot escape these strong cultural roots and inheritance. I find it rich and confounding. Maybe one reason why I keep writing about it.
My mother's family came to the US during the earlier German migration of the 1840s. The high German Jews; a stereotype which I luckily did not have to deal with growing up on the west coast. My father's family was more from the later Eastern European migration but push the boundaries. My paternal grandfather was the son of an immigrant from eastern Prussia. But my great grandfather came to the US as a young child around 1880. I don't know much about my great grandmother, the census record says the family came from 'Russia'. But I think she was native born. My paternal grandmother's family came from the Pale, now Ukraine around 1890. My great grandfather was a carpenter and a housepainter but, like other stereotypes, he rose dealing in real estate, apartment buildings and built up a sizable mortgage brokerage business in Cambridge MA.
My grandfather grew up as a classics geek in Rochester NY. He loved to show me his books and read from them in the original greek and latin. He spent his first two years as college at the University of Rochester, then transferring to Harvard on scholarship graduating in the Class of 1920. As I've written before, Harvard stayed the dominant institution in his life. I think there wasn't room at Harvard for transfer students for the first year (or maybe they didn't make any) and Jewish students boarded with Jewish families in Cambridge. I think my grandfather boarded in grandmother's home where they met.
To me, the astonishing part is that my grandparents, both children of immigrants, had no trace of immigrant culture about them. None. No Yiddish, no stories of the old country. Nothing. They identified as proper Boston citizens. That heritage occupied no part of their lives. My grandfather, an insurance executive and his proper wife participated in high culture activities. It wasn't a secret, it simply did not exist for them.