This letter is part of an ongoing project. I have been researching our family’s history for many years now and have really enjoyed all of the work. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of enjoying the process is that I often get bogged down in the details and lose sight of the people whom I’m studying. That’s the reason that I started this letter-writing project. I hope that by addressing my relatives (which includes you!) directly, I’ll be able to form a clearer picture of who they were and what their lives were truly like.
So, now that I’ve explained the purpose of this letter, I guess I should introduce myself. Your daughter, Hilda, married Joseph Alec Magdovitz. Joe and Hilda’s daughter, Joy, married Leo Bearman Jr. Leo and Joy are my grandparents. To put it more simply, you are my great, great-grandfather
Morris, I’ve been planning on writing you for a while now, but after thinking about you a lot last week, I decided that now was the time!
I wonder what you would think if you knew that one of your great, great-granddaughters is a Reform rabbi serving a congregation in Connecticut. I know that you came from a traditional background and I assume that the idea of a woman rabbi might have been beyond your comfort zone. Let’s set that aside for now- we can discuss the gender politics in our next letter.
I wanted to tell you that you inspired my latest sermon. You see, our country is going through a very difficult time right now, and last week it was announced that refugees and immigrants would be banned from entering our country based on their religious beliefs. Your naturalization certificate hangs on my wall, and, every time I walk past it, I think about your journey to the United States. This was particularly true after the news of what is being called the “Muslim Ban” broke last week. And so, I wrote a sermon about our family and our country being made up of immigrants. I wrote it in honor of you and all of my ancestors who left the countries of their birth and moved here to start a new life.
Morris, I’ve been gathering details about your life, and I think that I have a pretty good picture of who you were.
The first time I met you, you appeared as a five-year-old named Moses Reismann on the manifest of the S. S. Rhaetia which took passengers from Hamburg and Le Havre to New York City in 1894. The next time I found you in the historical record, you were in Illinois and appear as Morris Reisman, the brand-new husband of Lena.
Between 1910 and 1920, you became the father of Jerome, Hilda, and Mervin. During your life, you lived in Illinois, Missouri, and eventually seem to settled in Arkansas.
Morris, I was shocked by what I found in the 1920 federal census for Hughes, Arkansas. Besides the Reisman family there was ONE other Jew from Russia and ONE immigrant from Ireland. What was it like for you and Lena to be two of the four adult immigrants in that small town? On the 1920 census, there is a note that says that for both you and Lena, your mother tongue was “Jewish.” I assume that means that you and she spoke Yiddish. Since you arrived in this country at such a young age, did you also learn to speak English well? If you did speak English, I wonder whether or not you had an accent.
I know that you arrived during the Americanization movement, where immigrants from all different backgrounds were encouraged to make the transition to American cultural standards as quickly as possible. I wonder if your parents, Max and Freide, encouraged you and your siblings to immerse yourselves in typical American activities like sports and if they balanced those new goals with trips to the cheder for Hebrew and religious education.
I wonder if they ever felt nostalgia for their lives in Starokostiantyniv (or as you called it on your naturalization papers, Old Constantine), or if they were happy to be out of that world.
I have to tell you, Morris, that with the benefit of hindsight, I feel very lucky that our family left Old Constantine when they did because sixty years after your arrival in New York, when you were registering for the draft of the second world war, there were a series of brutal massacres in that town. Thousands and thousands of Jewish people in Old Constantine were killed. I wonder if you heard about these massacres in the newspapers or on the radio and whether you could remember the people you knew as a tiny child living in Russia.
I have a photo of you and Lena, my great-grandparents, and my grandmother in your store in Hughes. While the space does not look huge, it holds an impressive looking collection of items. I hope that when you and Lena stood at the counter, you felt like you had achieved something real and strong. It is remarkable to think of how far you had journeyed and how different your life was from the generations of men and women who came before you. I am grateful to your parents, my great, great, great-grandparents, for being brave enough to take a chance and start over in this country. I am grateful that we were allowed to do so.
Papu, as I conclude this letter, I just want to say thank you for the hard work and determination that you and Lena brought to your lives and our family. Please know that we still going strong and that we remember where and whom we come from.
Your great, great-granddaughter, Rachel
Ps: I was born on your birthday (ninety-eight years later)! So, happy almost birthday to the both of us!