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November 18, 1988 - Image 24

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-11-18

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The Jewish Chorus:

Voices of the American
Jewish Experience

Journalist Howard Simons traveled around the
United States for four years taping the memories of
American Jews. He ended his journey convinced
that Jews have come closer to realizing the
American Dream than any other group.
A book excerpt.


Special to The Jewish News

In The Beginning


y paternal grandfather, in whose
brownstone I lived my formative
years, came to the United States
from Ciechanow, Poland, at the
turn of the 20th century, a poor, untutored
cobbler who spoke no English on his ar-
rival and subsequently learned but little.
None of his children went to college, but
all five of his grandchildren did. When I
was young, this to me was the essence of
the Jewish experience in the United States,
a unique experience, perhaps as extraor-
dinary an experience as the Jewish people
haVe enjoyed in their long, rich, and
burdened history. Only when I was older
did I come to realize that for many Jews
the hop from somewhere else to the United
States would land them in college in a
single generational jump and not, as with
me, in two. Recently, I began to collect in-
formation about America's Jews — anec-
dotes, impressions, anthropological shards,
what a colleague remembered about his or
her family. Nothing formal, never organ-
ized, certainly not planned or systematic.
Just scraps stuffed in the crannies of the

Excerpted from the book, JEWISH TIMES:
Voices of the American Jewish Experience, by
Howard Simons, published by Houghton
Mifflin Company (A Marc Jaffe Book).
Copyright © 1988 by Howard Simons.
Reprinted by permission.



mind. I wondered how I could distill the
essence of all this information. I did not
want to write a formal history; that had
been done more than once. In its place I
decided to collect bubbe mayses, grand-
mother's tales. I would tape-record a wide
sample of American Jews, asking each in
turn to recall and to recount his or her per-
sonal and family history.
I set out to trap memory, however imper-
fect, in electronic amber. Over a four-year
period, I carried my tape recorder across
the United States, targeting some places,
falling into others. I called on friends —
Jews and non-Jews — asking for help, set-
ting forth the kinds of people I was look-
ing for who would consent to be inter-
viewed and share their memories with me
for publication. In some cases I knew what
I was after — pre-Revolutionary War
families, German Jews, merchants, kosher
innkeepers, persons raised on the Lower
East Side of New York City. In other cases,
friends old and new led me to people and
places that had been strange to me but
turned out to be rich in Jewish heritage.
The interviews that follow, with my com-
ments, have been culled from all the inter-
views I conducted, sometimes because
they make a particular point, sometimes
because they are inherently interesting,
sometimes because they express a series of

folkloric memories a tad better than inter-
views with others.
I came away from this experiential
journey more, not less, convinced that the
Jewish experience in the United States is
indeed unique. Unique in the sense that,
more than any other immigrant group,
Jews have found their way into almost
every interstice of American life, have
taken just about every opportunity this
nation has to offer, and have given back to
America in enriching ways that are won-
drous. I think the Jewish immigrants from
the very beginning of their time and
America's time, have come closer to realiz-
ing the American Dream than have any
other group. The Jewish premium on fami-
ly and religion, hard work and education,
charity and public service, is the American
How Jews did it and why they did it is
their story.


hen I questioned people about
the derivation of their names, at
least a half dozen asked me
whether I knew about the Jew-
ish man named Shane Ferguson. Well, they
would say, the Jewish immigrant would ar-
rive at Ellis Island, and when the immi-
gration officers there asked him his name,
he would shrug his shoulders and say
"Shoyn fargesn," which in Yiddish means
"Already I've forgotten."


Alan Finberg
56, lawyer, New York, New York
There is a wonderful old story in our
family. It goes back to when my father's
father, as a boy, came to this country from
Poland with his father and three brothers,
all of them about the same age. They were
perhaps in their very early or middle teens.
They all came from the same shtetl in
Poland. All came in the same boat,
steerage, probably holding hands. They
came to Boston because some of the fami-
ly had come to Boston earlier, so you
always go where there is already family.
The four boys got off the boat. There was
this great crowd at the immigration sta-
tion, and somehow they got separated.
Each of the four went through a different
immigration gate. I should tell you now
that when they left Poland their name was
When they came through these four sep-
arate immigration gates, having been
interviewed by four separate immigration
inspectors, my grandfather's name was
Finberg, which was the name of the mayor
of the shtetl. One of his brother's was
Friedman. One of his brother's was Red-
dinov. And one was Rubinstein.
That's the story of the four branches of
the family in Boston. None of them went
back to Mikiloshansky.

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