Thursday, December 27, 2007

ABOUT ME: A mini bio

I am the first generation of my family born in the U.S. If my Yiddish-speaking grandparents had not been wise enough--or lucky enough--to have brought their children here from the former Czarist Russian Empire shortly after the start of the 20th Century, I could have been among the 6-million Jews slaughtered by Germany and its Ukrainian, Slovak, Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, Polish, and Romanian supporters during the late 1930s and early 1940s. But because of the immigration of my grandparents, I was privileged to become an American and to escape the religious and ethnic persecution my ancestors suffered for so many centuries in Europe.

I was born in 1924 at 17 East 107th Street, an apartment house located between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood. I didn't live there long enough to have any distinct memories of the place. But our apartment must have been a very crowded home. It housed not only my parents but my maternal grandmother, my mother's two unmarried sisters and, I believe, a rent-paying boarder. Arriving in the U.S. during World War I, my grandmother's widowed father also lived in the apartment, where he died shortly before my birth.

I was delivered by a midwife in my parents' bedroom. The world-famous Mt. Sinai Hospital was--and still is--located only a few blocks away. But my family apparently had more confidence in the birthing skills of a midwife, who was my grandmother's sister-in-law.

To the uninitiated, the idea of living off New York's Fifth Ave. might sound exalted. But our apartment was on the wrong end of that fabled thoroughfare. Fifth Ave.'s opulent, more desirable blocks are nearly a mile south of 107th Street. Our modest and heavily crowded neighborhood was inhabited largely by working-class Jews only a decade or two removed from the ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe.

Several blocks to the east of us was a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian. During my childhood, New York City neighborhoods were primarily defined by ethnic group, religion, or race. With the rise in immigration since World War II, this neighborhood cultural pattern has been reinforced.

When I was born, East Harlem was represented in Congress by Fiorello H. LaGuardia, who was later to become the city's world-famed mayor. With a Jewish mother and an Italian father, he was exceptionally qualified to be the neighborhood's Congressman. Although it probably had no political influence, LaGuardia was also an Episcopalian. His Catholic-born father was a band master in the U.S. Army, and presumably converted in order to foster his military career.

My mother claimed that movie star Lauren Bacall was born on our street a few months before me, and that she pushed baby carriages in nearby Central Park with Lauren's mother. I can't confirm my mother's claim because no where in the actress' own autobiography is there any mention of me.

Still another celebrity reportedly born on East 107th Street--many years before me--was the late Moss Hart, the renowned playwright. A couple of blocks away is the birthplace of another great playwright, Arthur Miller. Sad to say, my life has never been influenced by all this enormous theatrical talent.

By the end of the 1920s, many of the neighborhood's Jewish inhabitants had become sufficiently prosperous to move to more attractive surroundings--to the Bronx in my family's case and to Brooklyn in Lauren Bacall's and Arthur Miller's. As the Jews departed from the area they were replaced by Puerto Ricans, transforming the neighborhood into what became known as "Spanish Harlem."

What had essentially been a Jewish "ghetto" had become a Hispanic "barrio." Curiously, the same kind of ethnic transformation was to occur many years later in the Bronx neighborhood to which my family moved when I was about three years old.

(To be continued)

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Blogger Peggy said...

God Bless your grandparents' bravery and Happy New Year to you, Sybil and the whole family!

Monday, December 31, 2007 7:12:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Interesting account of your family history and NYC. Here's a New Year's Day wish for happiness, good health and joy in 2008 for you and family.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am looking forward to more episodes and wish you and your family a happy 2008.
Claude from Blogging in Paris

Tuesday, January 01, 2008 3:49:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Happy New Year to you and Sybil. May her health continue to improve during '08.

aka Chancy

Tuesday, January 01, 2008 7:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Ronni Bennett said...

This is a wonderful beginning, Mort, and I'm eager for future installments.

Saturday, January 12, 2008 6:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Coralie said...

This is great info to know.

Monday, November 10, 2008 9:49:00 AM  

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