Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a multipart series on the life and times of a young woman who came to America on her own in the early 1900s and made her way in a new country. The third part (“The Courtship of Freida Sima”) appeared as the front-page essay in the December 18 issue; part five will run in February.
In a perfect world everything always happens at the right time. One marries one’s childhood sweetheart, raises a family, and lives happily ever after. In a perfect world there are no worries about finances, age gaps, ideological differences, background.
In a perfect world one’s family is happily supportive of one’s choice. At times they are even among those who engineered the choice in the first place. But what happens when at a chance meeting you fall in love at first sight, at the most unforeseen time and in the most unexpected place? When you are traditional and a believer and the man you have fallen in love with is an atheist – and a communist to boot? When you, a single young woman with no “baggage,” find out that your love has a past life that isn’t about to go away?
And what do you do when he expects you to give up your entire life less than twenty-four hours after you’ve met and marry him the next day?
This is what happened to my grandmother, Freida Sima Ensenberg, who in America became Bertha Eisenberg (“Boitee” in her relatives’ parlance), when she went to a friend’s home on a rainy Motzaei Shabbos in February 1928 to keep her mind off a miserable head cold and ended up meeting the love of her life.
It is the story of a young woman of thirty-two, a veritable old maid in those days, who had given up hope of meeting her match and promised her younger siblings that if she didn’t marry in the next few months they would be free to break custom and marry before her.
It is the tale of a young immigrant from the Bukovina, the eldest of ten children living five thousand miles away from her parents and most of her siblings, who had to decide during the time it took to walk down five flights of stairs whether she had the courage to plunge into an adventure she never could have foreseen or imagined.
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My grandmother had come alone to New York as a fifteen year old who thirsted for an education. Having convinced her patriarchal father, Nachman, that if he let her immigrate she could work in America and send money back to Europe, she found her educational dream slipping away during the during the First World War, to be replaced by a new one: to re-unite her family in the United States as soon as possible.
To do so, she took on extra night-work, enabling her to send fares for her two next brothers in line to come to America. Abie came in 1920, Benny in 1923, and together the three began sending for the younger children to eventually join them.
Meanwhile, they began looking to build their own families in America. Abie had fallen in love with their first cousin Minna, who had come to New York shortly after he did, but he was waiting for her to grow up a bit more before marrying. Benny, who came at nineteen, didn’t want to begin looking for a wife before his older sister married. Freida Sima had dated sporadically before her brothers’ arrival and now began looking for a husband in earnest. But every suggestion the shadchan brought was rejected after a first or second date.