Monday, July 21, 2008

Current Projects V: Family history

My uncle Arnold was always the family historian. In my 20s and 30s, I began to take an earnest interest in my family's history, and Arnold was only too glad to share stories and artifacts. He died tragically a few years ago, and more of these treasures came into my possession. A couple of years ago, I was looking at a Certificate of Naturalization for my great-grandfather (Arnold and my father's grandfather), Max Rubin, and noticed that he arrived in America (from Pinsk, then in Russia) on July 8, 1907. It occurred to me that with the centennial of his immigration about a year away, there was an excellent opportunity to prepare a family history and arrange an event bringing together relatives far and near to celebrate my family's 100 years in America.

I set out poring over the documents I had, interviewed a number of great aunts and uncles (thankfully, at the time I was doing my research, five of Max and his wife Rose's brood of 11 were still alive; as I write this, four remain). The stories I uncovered were truly awe-inspiring. Various websites (such as and the Ellis Island Foundation) were very helpful as well. Here are a few nuggets from Max's journey, excerpted from the report I wrote and had printed and bound for the celebration. Then I'll tell more about the celebration itself, which truly was a day to remember.

In the late 1800s, Russian Pinsk was home to a family headed by a man named Myer Rubacha. It is believed that Myer was twice married, yet neither wife’s name is known. By his second wife, Myer had two sons, Fischel and Mordecai (the latter born August 25, 1883, and known by his Russian name Morche), and probably one daughter, whose name is not recalled.

Morche had a friend named Wigder Kirsner, whose family had some money. Wigder had a younger sister named Reizel, born on May 25, 1885 (though her death certificate says July 25). Their father, Harry, worked with horses and all the family were capable riders. Esther, their mother, sold used clothes. The family maintained two houses, one in which they lived and one that stored the clothes.

Reizel, only 16, had eyes for Morche, to such an extent that her parents took to prohibiting him from visiting her because of his orphan status. Morche, however, was equally smitten, and would steal away to her window at night to speak with her. Eventually it became apparent to all that Reizel and Morche were very much in love. In spite of the fact that this was a time when arranged marriages were common, the two were allowed to indulge their mutual attraction and to wed. At the time of their marriage in December 1902, Morche was 19 and Reizel was 17. It wasn’t long before Reizel became pregnant, and their first child, Perl, was born on September 22, 1903.

Fischel, who apparently never married, had decided to join the masses from throughout eastern and western Europe who believed that America offered a level of freedom and opportunity they would never know in their native lands. It is not known when or by what means he came to America, or how he paid for his passage, but like most of those of his and succeeding generations, he came to Ellis Island and took up residence in New York.

A skilled carpenter, Morche was never idle. As a young husband, he was not idle, either. Their second child, Heschel (his Russian name), or Zvi Beinish (named after Reizel’s father), arrived on May 15, 1905. Early in 1907, Reizel was pregnant a third time. However, there were fears that Morche would be drafted into the army. A decision was made that he should join Fischel in America. Fischel paid his way, and in late June of 1907, Morche boarded a train from Pinsk to the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. On June 30, he sailed from Antwerp on the Kroonland, bound for New York harbor, arriving nine days later.

It would not take long for Morche to undertake his first adventure. When registering at Ellis Island, he informed the officer that he would be staying with his brother, Fischel Rubacha, residing at 529 99th Street in New York. Apparently, he was given directions to the address, which may have been a rooming house. When Morche arrived, he asked for Fischel Rubacha. He was told there was no one of that name living there. He confirmed the address and was told again that no one had ever heard of a Fischel Rubacha.

Confused, Morche started to walk away when he heard his name called. It was Fischel; which is to say it was Fischel. Now, however, it was Phil. Phil Rubin, returning home to meet his brother. He explained to his newly arrived sibling that Rubin was a more American-sounding name and easier for people to spell. Following his elder brother’s advice, Morche Rubacha became Max Rubin.

It is not known how long Max stayed with his brother. But by year’s end – December 10, to be exact – a second daughter, Scheindel, was born to Reizel, who now had three children to feed and raise without a husband. It was essential that Max find steady work quickly, not only to support his family back in Russia, but also to support himself in America. Fate intervened when the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 decimated the Massachusetts city. Surely, there would be work there for a carpenter. And so he left his brother and went east (thus ensuring his progeny would be Red Sox – and not Yankees – fans).

In 1911, Max apparently had saved enough to rent a three-room apartment at 42 West Third Street large enough for his family. He was able to pay the passage fares (steerage rate, of course) for his wife and his three children. Now, it was Reizel’s turn to have an adventure.

Difficult as it was for a man to travel alone from his village in Russia by train to board a ship and travel to America, how much more challenging it must have been for a woman at that time – particularly a 25-year-old woman with three children, ages 10-1/2 (Perl), nearly six (Heschel), and not quite 3-1/2 (Scheindel). But came they did, though not without difficulty. On the train from Wolki (a suburb of Pinsk), Russia, to Rotterdam, where they would board a ship named for the port city, Heschel somehow fell off the rear platform. Though he sustained a nasty gash above his forehead, he got back up and began to run after the accelerating locomotive as fast as his six-year-old legs could take him. Reizel either saw what had happened or soon realized that her only boy was no longer on the train and she pleaded with the conductor to stop the train. Soon enough, Heschel was reunited with his family and his injury was cleaned and dressed.

Reizel and her children sailed from Rotterdam on April 1, 1911, and arrived on April 11. While the ship’s manifest listed their names as Reizel, Perl, Hersch, and Scheindel Rubacha, in short order they became Rose, Pauline, Harry, and Jeanette Rubin. (Harry is my grandfather. My older daughter, Hannah, is named for him. Jeanette, whose grave is next to that of Max and Rose, is the grandmother of comedian Gary Gulman.)

Now that Max and Rose were together, new children came with remarkable regularity. Freddie (known as Frank) was born on February 15, 1912. The following year, to the exact day, on February 15, 1913, Myer (known as Mike) joined the family. Bloomka (known as Bertha) arrived on March 30, 1914; and Bessie was born on April 30, 1915. For some reason (possibly luck, possibly miscarriage), more than three years passed before the next child, Celia (known as Cele), was born.

Three years after Cele was born, in 1921, Rose gave birth to Mildred (she was named Minnie but her birth certificate said Mildred). The following year, Allen arrived. It was time to move the family to a larger dwelling. Max purchased a three-decker on 123 Grove Street, with the family occupying the middle floor.

As the oldest son, Harry worked many different jobs to earn money for the family. One of his jobs was as delivery boy for a shochet (ritual slaughterer) named Gershon Levine. One of Gershon’s daughters, Martha, worked in the slaughterhouse as his bookkeeper. Like Morche and Reizel, Harry and Martha became smitten with each other despite their class differences. Soon, they were engaged to be married. But not so fast. It turned out that Rose Rubin was pregnant yet again! Herb completed the family in 1925.

The 11th child, and the first of Max and Rose’s children to be born in a hospital (Chelsea Memorial Hospital on Bellingham Street), Herb delayed Harry and Martha’s wedding until February 14, 1926. (My bar mitzvah was held 50 years later to the day; that night we had another big bash to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.)

November 19, 1960 was a Shabbat morning. At 77 years of age, with a 75-year-old wife who had birthed 11 children, Max and Rose performed what is considered a “double mitzvah”: making love on the Sabbath. Afterwards, while getting dressed for shul, he had a heart attack and died. Rose survived him by more than a quarter of a century; she died from complications of pneumonia on March 1, 1987, at the age of 101.

On July 7, 2008, one day prior to the 100th anniversary of Max's arrival in America, we held a large celebration, which began in the cemetery where Max and Rose are buried. Amazingly, I found out only after starting my research that they were buried in the city in which I live, Melrose, Massachusetts! We gathered around their stone, I spoke some prepared remarks, then people were invited to speak from their hearts and their memories. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant and had a wonderful lunch, during which each attendee (age range: less than 1 to 94) received a copy of the printed report. I was proud to have brought so much nachas (pride) to my family. At some point, I want to refine and expand the report into a larger, more depthful and comprehensive work; I want to do the same for my grandfather, and for my sister, Donna, who died at age 7 from leukemia when I was exactly 54 weeks old.

I believe each family has in its past a treasure trove of inspiring stories about those generations of heroes who risked so much to build a better life for their families. I would encourage any and all who may be reading this to speak to your senior relatives while they're still around. Don't let them take their knowledge and wisdom into the grave with them. For your sake and for your children, preserve your family's history and make it a core part of your identity.


Larry Lehmer said...

Great work, Jason. Every family has stories worth saving. Your family is fortunate that you were there to take up the torch. Bravo!

Jason M. Rubin said...

Thanks, Larry. I just spent the weekend with relatives. There's nothing like family, and it's the history, and especially the stories, that binds us together.