Row Houses, Cigars and Goldfish
My perspective on an immigrant’s journey is almost wholly defined by my paternal grandparents, Sara and Julius Seidel. I knew them. I knew their accents. I knew that just about everything in their lives grew from leaving their childhood homes and making new lives in America.
I had no such sense of my mother’s side of the family.
To my child’s eye view, my maternal grandparents — Mollie (nee. Engelman) and Sidney A Needle — were Americans through and through. They had been born in America. Their accents were American — well, Baltimore, but that’s still American — and they loved baseball. They were an assimilationist’s dream team. (The “A” in Sidney’s name was essential. There were two Sidney Needles of his generation in Baltimore. To avoid confusion, they flipped a coin, my grandfather won and thereafter was referred to as “Sidney A” and the other was called “Sidney B.”)
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I knew Grandmollie and Grandpa Sidney’s parents were immigrants, but they all died before I was born in 1949. I never heard their voices, and I have no recollection of Mollie or Sidney ever talking about their parents as immigrants. (If they did, I was a little kid and probably wasn’t paying attention.)
My mother, May Ruth, is 90 years old and possesses a formidable and unvarnished memory, which she has shared generously since my friend Robin Lustig and I got started on our project, In the Footsteps of Our Families (www.wanderingscribes.com). Googling has helped, too.
All four of my mother’s grandparents came from Poland, but what that means is squishy. Parsing the political geography of Eastern Europe in the second half of the 19th Century is roughly akin to mapping DNA, both are challenges way beyond my abilities.
The Himelfarb genealogy website lists six Needle siblings of that generation: no place of birth is given for the first three, including my great grandfather, Simon, but the youngest three are listed as having been born, respectively, in Russia, Germany and Poland. My guess is that the borders of those countries moved while the family remained stationary, but it’s just a guess. I wouldn’t bet a shekel on it. (The website could simply be wrong, too, but the confusion is illustrative of the ambiguity of any information from that time.)
Whatever the place of their birth was called, the Needle family — I believe parents and children all together — came to America sometime in the 1880s and settled in Baltimore. Lena (nee. Bear) Needle came, too, having been wed to Simon at age 16 in an arranged marriage.
The particular reason for the Needle Family decision to come to America is also lost, but in the closing decades of the 19th Century, prospects were grim for Eastern European Jews. They were prohibited from owning land, which foreclosed their ability to grow much of anything, the primary means of survival. Instead, many got into various commercial enterprises and trades — Shumaker, Schneider (Yiddish for tailor); you get the idea — but layers of government restrictions and rampant anti-semitism made life pretty miserable.
Global communication was improving, the industrial revolution created demand for workers in America. Word spread and millions of Jews made their way across Europe and sailed for America, which was rapidly becoming the Land of the Ashkenazi. The Needles joined the throngs.
Simon somehow got the money together to buy some row houses in a section of West Baltimore that would, back then, have been called a “slum,” long before the more sanitized “inner city” came into vogue as reference for an urban place with deplorable housing. (If you’ve watched The Wire, you’ve got a good idea of the sort of houses Simon owned.)
Simon and Lena lived comfortably. A whitewashed stucco house was built overlooking a reservoir in Baltimore’s Liberty Heights neighborhood. The front door, flanked by columns supporting a portico, opened on two three-bedroom, two bath apartments, with formal living rooms and dining rooms, side porches, a breakfast room and poolroom in the basement. The upstairs apartment, where my grandparents lived, had a goldfish pool in the foyer, many years later providing my brothers and me with endless opportunity for mischief.
Lena was driven each week to the butcher by a chauffeur, where she would buy three chickens instead of one. The others would quietly be given to poor families, and Lena would report to Simon triple the actual cost of one chicken when accounting for her spending. He certainly didn’t know what a chicken cost and, from everything I’ve ever heard about Simon, telling him the truth would have been foolhardy.
Simon and Lena’s offspring lived close and worked close. My grandparents and Great Uncle Philip and his family, along with my Great Uncle Lester, the family’s youngest brother, who had Down Syndrome, moved into the big white house, living upstairs and downstairs in the apartments. Until his death in 1979, Lester was, for all generations, the most universally loving and loved, unifying member of the family.
The houses in West Baltimore were also handed down to my grandfather and Philip. By then, Sidney was an attorney and spent his weekdays practicing law, but after going to schul on Saturdays he tended to the “real estate” business. The Needles were practicing Orthodox Jews — among the founders of a local synagogue — but some things, such as business, took priority over strictly keeping faith.
Many cousins were always around, especially close ones from the hyper-nuclear Engelman branch of the family. In the 1930s, the cousins would often gather for Saturday evening dinner at Mollie and Sidney’s home. My mother remembers that Sidney would, on occasion, pile her and her two oldest cousins in the car after dinner as he went door-to-door in West Baltimore to collect rent. A pistol was kept in the glove compartment, just in case.
Sarah Goodman and Meyer Engelman, my mother’s maternal grandparents, also came from Poland — or whatever that region was called at the time — in the 1880s. They met in America and married. Meyer imported tobacco from Cuba and made cigars in a factory in Baltimore, until a fire destroyed the factory and he, along with two of his sons, had to build anew.
The Engelmen siblings, my great aunts and uncles, in turn, knitted integrated lives. Through The Great Depression and World War Two, they raised their families within blocks of one another, doing what nuclear families do: sharing care-taking, meals and vacations. Their children, all first cousins, most now in their 80s and 90s, still hold family reunions every five years or so, which draw up to 80 people from around the country.
Only with the passage of considerable time for retrospect, roughly 130 years after the Needles and Engelmans made their way to Baltimore, do I realize that their stories are simply, one generation following on the next, quite typical of so many common American immigrant stories. They were just one generation along and had lost the tongues of the Old Country. Little did I know way back when I tried to catch goldfish in my grandparent's foyer.