In 1914 my great-grandfather, Morris, lived on Henry Street. Today, I stand on his steps under the awning, avoiding the wind. I see the Manhattan Bridge looming above, and if I were to knock down the Meyer London Public School, I could see the Williamsburg Bridge. An old tree sits across the street. A shop next store sells rice cookers and mops wrapped in disintegrating cellophane. A man wearing a suit and neon green sneakers shuffles past me. Little girls hold umbrellas, following their mothers. One block away hipsters eat oysters and celery root pot pie. This is Chinatown.
A building permit sign is posted on the brown door of 105 Henry Street, and I worry that the building is in disrepair. Earlier, as I walked along Allen Street towards this old building, I considered that this building could be an empty lot, an elevator building, a condemned building. The old is so easily replaced. As I stand before a solid brick 105, I feel relief and elation. I move aside as a woman with a bowl cut walks out the door wearing a pale pink blouse and pleated pants.
I tell her “My great-grandfather lived here in 1914!” She shakes her head, not understanding. I start to pantomime my family’s immigration story to her, and she walks away.
I stand for several minutes by the building, in the rain. At last, a redhead walks by. He looks about my age, and wears a hat that signals coolness. Still excited, I tell him that in 1914, my great-grandfather lived in the building where we stood. Morris walked along this sidewalk, the dust of Lithuania still on his shoulders. I ask the redhead to tell me about his great-grandfather. He tells me he doesn’t know anything about his great-grandfather, and that he is in a rush. He ambles away. I don’t like him.
A few minutes later, a guy walks out of the building. I talk to him, and he talks back in fluent native English. He hauls an orange covered laundry cart behind him. I tell him that my great-grandfather lived in this building in 1914. He stops. We chat. I ask him if he knows anything about his great-grandfathers. He tells me no. He has to get going, but he suggests that I wait by the door for an hour – a woman named Thea, his upstairs neighbor, will walk out of the building to stretch her legs, eventually. Thea, he promises, is a talker. She is old, he says. Like 90. She has lived in the building for over 35 years, when this used to be a Jewish neighborhood. As he walks away, his gaggle of laundry follows behind. We wave goodbye, and I ask him what he does. He runs a nightclub. He just woke up. It’s 3:42 p.m.
I imagine my great-grandfather – who in 1914, worked in a factory that made trusses for male hernias – walking up the stairs to his apartment, passing the gay nightclub owner with his delicates.
This morning, I decided to come to Henry Street because I wanted to see what my great-grandfather saw when he first came to this country, back when he worked in the truss factory, before he met my great-grandmother Lena at her father’s grocer and moved to Brooklyn with her, before he moved with Lena to Ohio where he had a used furniture store and three daughters Here, he saw the tree before me. Here, he saw the Manhattan Bridge, probably when there was no subway rattling through the lower level. Here, he saw wide boulevards with signs in Hebrew instead of Chinese. On this step, he stood on a different layer of brown paint beneath my feet. I wonder if he ever sat on the big cement arm of this porch peeling a banana he bought on Hester Street.
I stand in the wind, pondering whether to wait for Thea for the next hour. I look at the names next to the buzzers. I see Thea’s name. I consider buzzing her apartment.
I decide to wait. My sister calls. She’s driving to Starbucks with my nephew, who my sister tries to convince to spend an afternoon in the city with me, promising ice cream on my behalf. He says he’d rather I come to his house and push him on his swing. I tell my sister where I am –105 Henry Street, where our great-grandfather once lived. I tell her about the truss factory. We are amused. Years ago, when I was still living in California, my family did a dead person ancestor tour of New York. They visited the graves of some of our relatives. They went to the Brooklyn house where Morris and Lena eventually lived together. It’s now a halfway house. They went to the house where I first lived in 1978. They told me the neighbors still lived there, and they still had caged rabbits in the backyard. On their tour, they never made it to 105 Henry Street. That was my discovery.
I say goodbye to my sister, and right away my mother calls. She tells me about her blood work – she had some genetic testing done. She is out on a walk. It’s 80 degrees in Ohio. I hang up. 50 minutes have gone by, and I no longer want to wait for Thea. If Thea is truly 90 years old, then I would hope she has the sense to stay indoors on a cold day. I say goodbye to the young version my young great-grandfather, and step off his stoop, leaving Chinatown.
I walk along Orchard Street where things start to look like the Lower East Side. I pass a man who spits French into his cell phone. I pass two vintage clothing stores that double as bars. I pass a zipper store. I walk along Orchard and make a left on Houston. At Bleeker, I get on the 6 train. I wonder how far uptown Morris got. Did he ever go to the Met? I stop at my library to pick up some books on reserve, I walk home to snack on a banana, and I call a friend. We talk. I tell her about my trip to Henry Street. I tell her about Morris, and how he worked at a hernia truss factory for men. She explains the difference between a hernia and a hemorrhoid. I had them confused all day. I had been imagining my sweet little from-the-shtetl great-grandfather making Victorian style anal plugs made of leather and steel, when truly, he was making tight male underpants to bind male groin bulges. He did this in a factory in New York, when just seconds before that, and in another country, he milked a goat while davening.
I love my great-grandfather, Morris.
My great-grandfather Morris came to Ellis Island in either 1906 or 1909. He came from Gelvan, Lithuania. As a teenager, he left his country, his synagogue, and his bed. He left his father, his step-mother, and the Bubbe. He left bare feet, skinny chickens, and half-built walls.
From 1909 to 1925, Morris and his father wrote letters thick with God, the Torah, sisters, cousins, and counts of rubles and kopecks. From 1909 to 1925, Morris became an American living in New York, a husband to an American girl from Brooklyn, a hernia truss factory worker, a furniture shop owner, and a father to my grandmother in 1922.
Morris has 24 great-grandchildren. My sister is his first; I am his second. While Morris was building an American life, with his Yiddish accent and his earnest attempts to read Gone with the Wind, his family in Gelvan struggled to buy bread and meat. They were murdered in 1925 by bandits who were looking for money after learning that a “rich” cousin from America had just visited. Morris learned of his family’s murder and the three bandit’s death sentence from a newspaper clipping sent in the mail. He never spoke of any of this. My grandmother found sixteen years of letters when her father died. The letters are part of our family’s blood. We are a family that talks to strangers and wants to know about you, the people you love, and where you began.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Washington, DC with my sister and her family, and saw my sister become friends with our Afghani driver, a former engineer. Ahmed spent the afternoon with us in the air and space museum pushing a stroller, explaining to us that the The Kite Runner was not real, showing us photos of his children, and holding my nephew, who incidentally, had the same number of teeth as Ahmed (4). After we left Washington, DC, Ahmed and my sister exchanged texts and phone calls. This is normal. Last week, in a seven minute cab ride with friends we learned how our Ghanaian cab driver met his wife 17 years ago at a Madrasah.
I appreciate Morris’s reinvention of himself. He didn’t come to New York to become self-actualized, as opposed to me and my quest for the meaning of my life. He came here for a better chance of survival, and to have a family. I think Morris could relate to Ahmed and the Ghanaian. It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters what is in your heart. I don’t think Morris would be any more impressed to learn that his 24 great-grandchildren are well-educated lawyers, consultants, social workers, third graders, commercial bankers, and non-profit leaders, than if he were to learn that we were denture manufacturers, telephone operators, or hemorrhoid cream chemists. He would only care about the things his father impressed upon him:
Long life and peace to my dear son, loving as my soul, Moishe-Joisef, who should be well. I pray that you do the will of our Eternal One who wrote in the holy Torah that you should be fruitful and multiply. And about a livelihood, you shouldn’t worry. Our dear Lord, who created you on this earth, prepared a livelihood for you before you were born. If you, my dear sweet children, will observe God’s Torah, you will always have honor and income and success. Write to me, my dear son, if you have time, regularly, to study a page of Talmud every week and at least see to it, my dear son, to study daily a little of the code of Jewish Law, because the Holy Temple was destroyed, God has nothing left but four cubits of Religious Law and it is a commandment and a duty upon me to write to you, my loving children, that you should pay reverence to the law, to serve Him with all your heart. And then you shall be successful. I am also asking you, my loving son, to see to it that you fulfill the commandment of God that is written in the Torah; therefore a man should leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, because it is no good for a man to be alone. This is how King Solomon said: Find a woman – find goodness. A lot of good luck, long life, and happiness I wish my wise son, Moishe-Joisef, who should always have the best of everything.
Long life to us all. I believe that seeking a spiritual life and adhering to principles of honesty and kindness will continue to rain in love and livelihood. I will now turn off this computer, sit on a pillow, and pray to cleave.
Now, about you. Who were your great-grandparents? What are their names? How did they make their livelihood? Where did they came from? What do you know about them? What is your family’s immigration story? Our ancestors stories and blood still flow inside us. We see their trees grow.