Personal space. Privacy. Boundaries. These are values that these days are held at a premium, even in large Jewish families. Not too long ago, however, this was a far cry from most people’s reality, especially among immigrant Jewish families in early twentieth-century America when it wasn’t uncommon for three generations to be living together in a small apartment for years on end.
There were even cases of four generations of a Jewish family living under one roof, particularly among late nineteenth-century immigrants who over time were joined by various family members. In some cases, grandparents always lived with their descendants; in others, they moved into their children’s homes only in their “golden years.”
Unlike my grandmother Freida Sima (the subject of a Jewish Press front-page series that ran monthly between Oct. 2015 and Nov. 2016), whose parents and grandparents remained in Europe when she came to New York in 1911, my mother-in-law, then known as Bernice Cohen, had grandparents and great-grandparents who had immigrated to America. She was therefore one of the lucky Jewish children in New York who grew up with zeides from two generations under one roof – her Zeide Victor (Avigdor Yisrael) Sheidler and his father-in-law, Bernice’s great-grandfather, Judah (Yehuda Leib) Krieger, whose long white beard was responsible for his nickname, “the White Zeide.”
Now in her mid-90s, Bernice’s recollections of that time give us a glimpse into a world somewhat familiar to our readers from the Freida Sima series, but told here from the perspective of the immigrant generation’s American-born children.
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“My family was from Eastern Europe, but we were very different from most Eastern European Jewish families in our neighborhood,” Bernice recalled. “Everyone and his or her parents were practically just off the boat, while my father Sam had come at age three and my mother Daisy was American-born, making me a second-generation American. Now that was rare!”
How did that rarity come about? Bernice’s ancestors were early members of the “Great Wave of Immigration” that began in 1881 and lasted until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. During that time more than 2.2 million Jews entered the U.S., mostly from Russia, Poland, and Romania. Many came to escape anti-Semitism, others to better themselves financially, still others some looking for adventure. While the bulk of Jewish immigrants came to America after 1900, Bernice’s maternal grandparents, Lena (Chaya Liba) Krieger and Victor Sheidler, had immigrated to New York in the early 1890s, although their parents had sent them for different reasons.
Bernice grew up on adventure stories of early Jewish immigrants in America, which taught her important values that became part of her life. The first was an appreciation of America as a refuge for Jews. As a young girl she learned how coming to America had saved Zeide Victor’s life:
“When pogroms against the Jews in Russia began, his parents took their five children and fled. My zeide had a twin brother, Alex, who died in flight. But the family soon realized that Victor was also in danger, not because of health but because the czar’s army forcibly conscripted young boys into Russian army. So they sent him to America to keep him safe.”
Another value she learned from these stories was the importance of Jewish organizations and institutions. In New York, Victor became a shoemaker, joining the Sabbath Observers’ Shoemaker’s Association, which became his substitute family, social framework, and, ultimately, burial society.
Why a shoemaker?
“In those days,” said Bernice, “most factory owners stated ‘If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday.’ So how could a Jew remain shomer Shabbos? By making a living in a manner that would not require him to work in a factory. That’s why Zeide Victor became a shoemaker, setting his own hours and workdays.”
Victor eventually brought his sisters and brother to America, while their parents remained in Europe. Soon after, he met and married Lena Krieger, a feisty young immigrant who had come to America alone as a teenager in 1893. The two made their home in the rooms behind Victor’s shoe store in the Bronx where their children were born.
Lena’s immigration occurred in stages. Family lore has it that the family first moved from Elizabethgrad in Ukraine to Manchester but had no intention of remaining there – America was their ultimate goal. The energetic and adventurous fifteen-year-old Lena was sent to New York to pave the way for her parents and siblings. Arriving in 1893 via Glasgow, she was listed on her ship’s manifest as a domestic, originally from Russia, in possession of one piece of luggage, a steamer trunk that now sits in Bernice’s home.
Lena initially went to live with a relative in Brooklyn, Mime (Aunt) Rochel. Looking at her niece, Mime Rochel disliked what she saw. “Your cheeks are too rosy,” she proclaimed. “That’s for the shtetl, we don’t look like that here!” She then gave Lena a vinegary drink to alter her complexion.
“As soon as she could, she left that happy domicile and found other mishpoche, other family, to live with,” Bernice remarked, speaking with relish about her grandmother’s immigration adventure. “Don’t let anyone stop you from living your dream” was the lesson she learned from her Bubba Lena’s story.
Like many immigrants, Lena worked in a factory, earning money to bring over the rest of her family. By century’s end she was reunited in New York with her parents, Yehuda Leib and Vichna, and her younger siblings.
Now that they had finally reached America, reality hit Lena’s parents in the face. How could a middle-aged Jewish immigrant in America at that time make a living? As a strictly Orthodox Sabbath observer, in what way could he compete for factory work against immigrants half his age?
Yehuda Leib defied all odds. He became a presser in a sweatshop while Vichnia ran the house. How long he lasted at each particular job was impossible to ascertain, as such immigrants were often fired before their first week was up when they refused to work on Saturday, but work he did. He was also quite impressive looking, even in old age. He had lovely white ringlets of hair, the aforementioned steely white beard, blue-gray penetrating eyes – and he smoked a pipe in which he would place the contents of half a cigar.
“I only knew them when they were much older,” Bernice recalled.” Bubba Vichna died when I was two, but the White Zeide lived with us until I was eleven. He was a funny man with crinkly eyes and a big smile, but he was also a tough old man whom you didn’t want to cross.”
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Bernice’s family was also different from many of the other families around them in terms of language. “Everybody around us spoke Yiddish at home,” she recalled, “while our family spoke English.”
Soon after meeting, teenage immigrants Lena and Victor had decided to speak English to each other and later to their children, possibly because of Lena’s earlier years in England.
According to Bernice, Yiddish became her parents’ secret language. “They only spoke Yiddish if they didn’t want us to understand.”
The family’s emphasis on reading, writing, and speaking proper English, helped Bernice develop a large and varied vocabulary, enabling her to complete complex crossword puzzles in pen, something she still does to this day.
There was, however, one exception to the English speaking rule. The White Zeide spoke only Yiddish, but knew one phrase in English that he used when necessary.
“He would sit outside Zeide Victor’s store on a little orange crate, and the non-Jewish children from the neighborhood, who weren’t used to seeing long beards, would come by and try to pull his. So this little man would swing his cane at them, yelling out the only phrase in English he knew – ‘Gerradahere!’ – Get out of here! –and they would go running. You didn’t want to get in front of his cane; he never missed!”
From the White Zeide Bernice learned the value of standing up for herself under all situations, even if it was necessary to use unconventional means.
What really made Bernice’s family unique, however, was neither language nor birthplace but generational expanse. “We were the only family I knew who had two zeidies from two generations living together.” How that came to be was the result of an unexpected chain of events.
As they grew older, Yehuda Leib and Vichna moved in with their daughter Lena and her family. In 1922 their oldest granddaughter, Daisy, married Sam Cohen, and a year later Bernice was born. Vichna passed away in 1925. Daisy had a second daughter in 1927 but suddenly became ill, as did Sam soon after. Those were the days before antibiotics, and what we would consider relatively benign illnesses could often be fatal.
In addition to caring for her father, husband, and younger children, Lena now found herself helping Daisy on a daily basis. Combining the two families in one apartment was the obvious solution to childcare issues while it also alleviated the overcrowded conditions in the Sheidler household behind the shoe store.
Sam and Daisy eventually found an apartment in the South Bronx large enough for the expanded family and thus the four-generation household was born and held strong until the White Zeide‘s death in 1934.
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In today’s Jewish world of early marriages and long lives, it is not uncommon for children to have great-grandparents, but in those days it was almost unheard of among Jewish immigrant families, especially since most grandparents had remained in Europe.
“It wasn’t always paradise in the Krieger-Sheidler-Cohen household,” Bernice acknowledged, remembering how the close quarters could cause friction. “For example, my father only got to sit at the head of his own table for the last two years of his life. Either Zeide Victor or the White Zeide sat there, but never my father.”
The two zeides, father-in-law and son-in-law, battled constantly – but never in anger. Bernice recalled how the two shared a private ritual every morning. “When they came home from Shacharis, the morning prayers, they would take out a bottle of Four Roses bourbon and drink a little l’chaim before breakfast. They wouldn’t start the day without that whiskey. Anyone who wanted to get into their good graces knew to bring them a bottle of Four Roses. Only after they happily shared a drink would they sit down together to have breakfast.”
Togetherness rituals between father-in-law and son-in-law continued into the next generation. “In his old age,” Bernice recalled, “my beloved Zeide Victor, a quiet man who wouldn’t step on an ant, turned into a big boxing fan. He and my father would sit together in front of our miniscule TV and watch the fights, really getting into the matches.”
I wondered aloud, half-jokingly, whether it was just whiskey and violence that kept the family together. My mother-in-law laughed, explaining how ties of kin extended far beyond the immediate family living under one roof.
“Uncles, aunts, and cousins were always in and out of our house. Some were real characters, like Veter – Uncle – Shmuel, my grandmother’s cousin, a man of the world who came and went, but always with a happy face. What a comedian! He had stories, sang songs, and traveled widely, but never made a living. He would pop in whenever he needed money and Bubba Lena would slip him a dollar or two and find him a corner to sleep. Zeide Victor couldn’t stand him and the White Zeide ignored him, but he kept coming back.”
But how does one cope while growing up in a four-generational immigrant Jewish family? Thinking back over her nine-plus decades, my mother-in-law pondered my question.
“It was really a different world then. Children were seen and not heard. I never really felt a lack of privacy, but as the eldest I had a lot of instructors and inspectors. There was always the issue of derech eretz, respect and manners, because of the older people around. Not only grandparents and great-grandparents but also uncles, aunts, and older cousins. Everyone had something to say about what I wore and how I behaved. Boundaries? Personal space? You must be joking!”
“But,” she added, “there was another side of growing up in such a household. We were one big family with a lot of love from so many generations. We learned to be respectful to family, friends, and neighbors. We were taught to be successful, but only by honest means, through a real work ethic. And most of all, we were charged to pass these lessons on to future generations.”
For Bernice, passing it on meant not only to children and grandchildren but long before that to her community, country, and the Jewish people at large. That was something she learned as part of her education – Jewish and secular, both of which differed somewhat from the standard education most Jewish children received at the time. But that is a story to be told here next month.
This installment of The Bernice Chronicles is dedicated in honor of Bernice’s newest great-grandchild, Be’eri Avraham Schwartz, born on 17 Kislev (Dec. 17) and named for her husband, Avraham Leib (Arthur) Schwartz, who passed away last year.