Family memories – and mistakes
My 11-year-old granddaughter Aviva recently had a school assignment to interview an older relative about a move they made from one neighborhood to another. Some of the questions were: How old were you when you moved? What influenced the decision to move and did anyone struggle with it? Which move did you feel impacted your life the most? Do you regret any of your moves?
Wisely, Aviva decided to interview her grandmother/savta Sharon — my wife — who had moved a number of times over the years.
As is her wont, Sharon took her part in this project very seriously. She therefore initiated what became a lengthy email thread with her siblings discussing their family’s first move, from Crown Heights to Washington Heights. That was in 1951, when Sharon was 4. Everyone knew why they had moved; their father, Rabbi Murry S. Penkower, had been hired as the rabbi of Congregation Mt. Sinai Anshe Emeth (now Mt. Sinai Jewish Center), which at that time was located where the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (“under the apartments” for commuters) now runs. (Eminent domain later caused it to relocate to its present location on Bennett Avenue.) And so the family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
The other details of the move and the family members’ feelings about it were, however, much less clear. Indeed, the siblings weren’t quite sure exactly what Rabbi Penkower, who was taking his first full-time rabbinical position, had been doing for a living while in Brooklyn. (The consensus, after discussion and a search of memories, is that most probably he was in the textile business with one of his brothers.) Nor do they remember any discussions with their parents about what the move would mean for the family.
This lack of memory, a common trait of our age cohort, is not surprising. What is striking, though, is that as adults, none of them had ever asked about this time. Rabbi Penkower’s change of profession and this move was a really big deal for the family. How did they feel about moving away from their many Brooklyn relatives to a relative-less Washington Heights? How did they feel about the impact it would have on their children; i.e., they would become P.K.’s (preacher’s kids); the younger three would attend a day school in a completely different Manhattan neighborhood, requiring a lengthy school bus ride twice daily and resulting in almost no nearby school friends on Shabbat and yom tov; and their oldest child would have to commute to Brooklyn during their first year in Manhattan to finish eighth grade? They don’t know, because they didn’t ask.
Now, before you think that I’m lording it over my wife and siblings-in-law for their missed opportunities, let me quickly make clear that my point in this column is exactly the opposite. What struck me, as Sharon and I discussed this, was that I had been in a similar situation and had done — or more accurately, not done — exactly the same thing.
Like Sharon’s parents, in the early 1950s my parents and their three young children moved from the Grand Concourse/Yankee Stadium area of the Bronx to Far Rockaway, Queens. Our moves were similar in some ways and quite different in others.
In both, work conditions changed. Rabbi Penkower, once a businessman working in the city (as outer borough people call Manhattan), became a congregational rabbi working close to home. My father, while remaining a partner in his East 40th Street accounting firm, replaced a quick subway ride to his office with a lengthier Long Island Railroad, or a much lengthier subway, commute. Also, schooling for the children in both families switched from yeshivot with a more right-wing orientation (the Bronx school my older brother attended taught Jewish studies in Yiddish) to classic modern Orthodox day schools, where Jewish studies were taught in Hebrew — Ivris be-Ivris (that’s not a typo — the schools hadn’t yet switched to speaking Hebrew the way Israelis do).
Yet there were significant differences as well. The Penkowers moved from an apartment in an urban area, on a busy street, with traffic lights, near a large public park, to a similar apartment on a similar street near a similar park in a similar urban area. In contrast, the Kaplans moved from an apartment in a six-story building on a heavily trafficked six-lane Bronx thoroughfare near Yankee Stadium to a two-story single-family house with a backyard on a quiet dead end street near a real sandlot in a suburb abutting Rockaway Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. Also, while the Penkower children’s new school required a long commute, ours was a quick school bus ride or, especially for me, a bike ride away.
Relatives were a mixed bag. Both families moved to areas in which no close relatives lived. (For us, it would be a decade before my Uncle Eli, Aunt Cherie, and their family also moved to Far Rockaway, and even longer before my maternal grandparents joined us.) However, while the Penkowers left a Brooklyn in which they had been surrounded by grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, we moved away only from my maternal grandparents and a favorite aunt and uncle whose daughter Elaine, my mother’s first cousin, was almost like a sister to her.
So, did I ever ask my parents about any of this? Was I any wiser than my wife or her siblings? Nope. I never asked my parents a single question about this important move, which impacted and changed our lives in so many ways. Indeed, though I had a particularly close relationship with my grandparents, I never asked them about a move that certainly altered their lives as well. How could I have been so dense? How could I have been so non-curious about such significant family matters? Foolishness and blindness of youth, possibly, though my foolishness and blindness lasted long past youth.
(After I finished writing this column, but before I submitted it, I realized that while the above paragraph is accurate regarding my personal folly, I wasn’t really being fair to others. My brother-in-law Monty, an eminent scholar and academic, had put on his historian’s hat and interviewed his parents about their lives, taping the interviews, and later converting the tapes to CDs. Some members of my family think they did something similar with my parents. And if, or once — I’m optimistic — we find all those CDs, we’ll know if they include information about the moves.)
So now that I’ve beaten myself up — and rightfully so — over my failings, you might begin to think that I’m writing this because I’m a masochist. Wrong. The real reason is to reiterate a point I made a number of years ago in a column titled “You Can Go Home Again.” (Having been in the columnist business for more than seven years, I believe I’m entitled to repeat an idea every once in a while, as long as I use different stories and examples.) As I wrote then, for those of you still blessed with living parents or even more blessed with living grandparents, don’t ignore the opportunity to ask them about their lives. Do what Aviva did and “ask questions, find out facts and family lore about your parents, grandparents, and larger family before you discover there’s no one left to ask. You can’t pass down family history you don’t know. You can’t go home again if you don’t know where — and what — home was.”
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.