where the writers are
From Whitechapel to California in only four generations

 

My grandparents Anna & Jacob were married July 21, 1914 in New York City. My grandmother had recently arrived from London, where she grew up in terrible Whitechapel poverty and malnutrition. There were long periods when they ate nothing but boiled potatoes. She had only two years in school, and after a couple more years of helping her mother at home she was put to work in a cigar factory.

 

My grandfather was just finishing army service and wanted to reenlist to fight in WWI, he loved the army, but my grandmother had other plans for him. His parents had a stall in the Maxwell Street market on the near west side of Chicago. My grandfather was one of the slum children cared for by Jane Addams at Hull House, so I can proudly say that my family goes way back in American social work. My own first job after college was as a welfare case worker for 300 black families living in high rise housing projects and surrounding semi-abandoned buildings. 

 

My grandparents owned ten different restaurants, in Illinois, Indiana and California. They were sometimes properous, but they had three bankruptcies. In 1950 they had a tremendous fight, which went on for about a year, and they were divorced. I know it was tremendous because I was living with them, along with a lot of other family, in my great-grandparent’s two-flat, where downstairs you heard Yiddish, upstairs my mom’s Hungarian. I can’t think of anything more typically American than being a family of immigrants, assimilating, if there is such a thing, over two or three generations.