Journeys: An American Story

by Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas

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Brief Essays from:

Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Wes Moore, Marlo Thomas, Andrew Tisch, Hooman Yaghoobzadeh, and John Zaccaro

Michael R. Bloomberg

Michael R. Bloomberg is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who served as Mayor of New York City for three terms. Since leaving city hall in 2014, he has resumed leadership of Bloomberg LP and become a UN Special Envoy for Climate Action, and the World Health Organization’s Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases.

One reason I ran for mayor of New York was to improve the city’s failing public school system. When I visited classrooms, I saw bright, eager students—many of them immigrants and children of immigrants—whose ambitions and aspirations personified the American dream. Yet for too long, the city’s public schools did not give them the tools and skills they needed to fulfill their potential. I was determined to change that, and my own family’s history gave me a sense of just how important the work was.*

Three of my grandparents and six of my great-grandparents were immigrants. All placed education and reverence for the United States at the core of our family values. Their stories are quintessentially American, and they made my story possible.

My maternal grandparents were Ettie and Max Rubens. Ettie was born on Mott Street in 1881. She grew up on the Lower East Side, a haven for immigrants. Ettie’s parents, Louis and Ida Cohen, had come from the Kovno region of present-day Lithuania. Louis Cohen arrived in New York City in 1869. He was so proud to become an American citizen that he hung his naturalization certificate on the wall. Great-Grandmother Ida lived in New York City until she died in 1917 at 64 East 105th Street, between Madison and Park in East Harlem, a house her son Henry owned. Her death notice listed her membership in more than a dozen Jewish and community organizations.

Ettie was educated in a Lower East Side public school, where students wrote on slates because paper was too precious. I don’t know the school’s name or how long she attended; I do know that throughout her life she was a voracious reader, and she completed the daily and Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles until she was ninety!

In 1903, she married my grandfather, Max Rubens, for whom my sister and I are named. They went to Washington, DC, on their honeymoon and brought back a souvenir that we still have—a plaque of the Capitol made from old currency that had been destroyed by the United States Mint. It’s a touching reminder of the stock that immigrant families placed in American institutions.

Grandpa Max arrived in America as a child. He and his parents, Grace and Cappell, had quite a pathway to America. From a small town near Grodno in present-day Belarus, they made their way to Liverpool, where they settled for several years. A photo of 6 Mela Street, where they lived in the 1880s, is as bleak as a Dickens story. My sister even found records showing that Max and his brother Charlie received clothes from a charity “for the poor boys of the Liverpool Hebrew School.” (Their sister Polly, as a girl, did not qualify, though she attended the same school.) They left for America in 1886 on the ship City of Hope and settled in Salem, Massachusetts. A few years later, they went back to Liverpool, but left for good in 1891, settling in Jersey City, New Jersey.

   Max earned his living in the wholesale grocery business, carrying around heavy grocery samples in a Gladstone bag. He was able to buy a row of five brick three-family houses on Summit Avenue in West Hoboken, a German neighborhood where our mother spent her childhood. From my mother, we know that Max was a great music lover and had a very good ear. At about age twenty, he learned to play the violin. Grandma Ettie also loved music; she played the piano, and they often played duets. They listened to classical records on their Victrola, a lot of opera, especially Caruso, Max’s favorite, and they went into New York City for live opera and theater.

Grandma Ettie passed on high expectations for learning to all her children, whom she raised alone after Max died in 1922. It was expected that my then sixteen-year-old uncle Louis would leave school after Max’s death to go to work, but Ettie insisted that he finish high school before joining Hudson Wholesale Grocery, where he thrived for the rest of his life. My mother, Charlotte, graduated from Dickinson High School in 1925 and from New York University in 1929, in an era when relatively few women attended college. Grandma encouraged Aunt Florrie to train as a teacher and my aunt Gertie to attend a business secretarial school.

Grandma Ettie’s emphasis on education helped make her successful as a mother. The city’s public schools shaped her and reinforced her sense of what her children and grandchildren could achieve. My mother held her parents up as models of what America offered “if you applied yourself”—with the key word being if.

My father, Bill Bloomberg, was born just outside Boston, in Chelsea, in 1906, to parents who both came from Vilna, Lithuania. His mother, Rose Bernstein, arrived in 1891 as a twelve-year-old with her mother and four siblings; four more were born in America. Rose’s father, Gedalia, had arrived two years earlier, following some of his own siblings who braved the way. Some of them are listed in an 1881 Boston city directory as living on Nashua Street, not far from the current Museum of Science, an institution that gave me my love of science and learning and taught me how to think.

In 1900, Rose married Elick Bloomberg, who arrived in America in 1896 as a twenty-year-old. Two years later he filed his intention to become an American citizen, “renouncing allegiance to foreign sovereigns, especially and particularly to Nicholas II Czar of Russia.” Elickvery good ear. At about age twenty, he learned to play the violin. Grandma Ettie also loved music; she played the piano, and they often played duets. They listened to classical records on their Victrola, a lot of opera, especially Caruso, Max’s favorite, and they went into New York City for live opera and theater.

Grandma Ettie passed on high expectations for learning to all her children, whom she raised alone after Max died in 1922. It was expected that my then sixteen-year-old uncle Louis would leave school after Max’s death to go to work, but Ettie insisted that he finish high school before joining Hudson Wholesale Grocery, where he thrived for the rest of his life. My mother, Charlotte, graduated from Dickinson High School in 1925 and from New York University in 1929, in an era when relatively few women attended college. Grandma encouraged Aunt Florrie to train as a teacher and my aunt Gertie to attend a business secretarial school.

Grandma Ettie’s emphasis on education helped make her successful as a mother. The city’s public schools shaped her and reinforced her sense of what her children and grandchildren could achieve. My mother held her parents up as models of what America offered “if you applied yourself”—with the key word being if.

My father, Bill Bloomberg, was born just outside Boston, in Chelsea, in 1906, to parents who both came from Vilna, Lithuania. His mother, Rose Bernstein, arrived in 1891 as a twelve-year-old with her mother and four siblings; four more were born in America. Rose’s father, Gedalia, had arrived two years earlier, following some of his own siblings who braved the way. Some of them are listed in an 1881 Boston city directory as living on Nashua Street, not far from the current Museum of Science, an institution that gave me my love of science and learning and taught me how to think.

In 1900, Rose married Elick Bloomberg, who arrived in America in 1896 as a twenty-year-old. Two years later he filed his intention to become an American citizen, “renouncing allegiance to foreign sovereigns, especially and particularly to Nicholas II Czar of Russia.” Elick and Rose also took their honeymoon in Washington, DC. We still have the porcelain bowl with a color image of the White House they brought back to grace their home. Together, they raised six children.

Grandpa Elick was learned in the Old Testament, Jewish history, and liturgy. For decades, he was the Torah reader at Chelsea’s Walnut Street shul. Though he served variously as a peddler, justice of the peace, notary public, and insurance salesman, my sister, Marjorie, and I knew him as a teacher, strongly committed to Jewish learning. While we were growing up, he earned his living preparing boys for bar mitzvah. Students often came and went when we visited. Sometimes we heard their lessons from another room.

Rose’s father, Gedalia Bernstein, was one of the first Jewish residents of Chelsea and a founder of the first local yeshiva. Rose’s sister Sarah was also a pioneer, an advocate for the legalization of birth control and a supporter of Margaret Sanger, a leader in the movement. When Sanger was standing trial in federal district court in 1916 for circulating birth control information, she wrote and signed a letter to Aunt Sarah thanking her for her “interest and financial help” and imploring her to do what she could to “keep up the agitation” by writing to the district attorney, the president, and the judge. It’s fair to say that our family’s commitment to women’s rights and the responsibility to participate in public life dates back at least one hundred years.

Our family story is very much an American one. Our ancestors were courageous in uprooting themselves from everything they knew, risking ocean crossings and making new homes in a strange new land. They and their families came from shtetls in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the area to which Jews were restricted. Their towns in Kovno, Vilna, and Grodno are listed in the Valley of Lost Communities at Yad Vashem, remembered because the Jews living there perished in the Holocaust.

   No matter how challenging or dangerous their lives were elsewhere, it was not easy to start over. My parents didn’t talk about the struggles their parents and grandparents faced as immigrants, or the persecution they may have faced in their home country. But they did teach us that we had a responsibility to give back to the country that embraced our ancestors and that made our lives possible. I remember asking my father why he was writing a $25 or $50 check—which was a lot of money for us—to the NAACP, and I’ve always remembered what he told me: discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone. I have tried to live up to his example, and the values my grandparents and great-grandparents exemplified, through my work in public service, philanthropy, and advocacy for a just and humane world.

My ancestors came to America at a time when immigration—to my great good fortune—was virtually unrestricted. Those days are long gone, and national security demands that we control our borders, but that does not preclude a reasonable and generous immigration policy. I’ve worked my entire public career to promote legislation that will allow current and future generations of immigrants to contribute to this wonderful nation into which I was born.

   I was privileged to serve as mayor of the world’s immigrant capital for twelve years. I doubt that my grandparents and great-grandparents could ever have imagined that one day a member of our family would hold that position. I hope that I am repaying some of the debt I owe them by working to keep America’s opportunities open to all people, of all colors, faiths, orientations, and backgrounds. We owe a similar debt to our shared American future. There is no way to tell which New York City schoolchild or, eventually, which of their children or grandchildren, will lead this city and country in her or his own time—but I know we are all made greater because one of them will.

* I would like to thank my sister, Marjorie Bloomberg Tiven, whose archival research and commitment to our family history made it possible to write this piece.

 

Cory Booker

The Honorable Cory Booker is a United States senator from New Jersey. Previously he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

My country ’tis of thee

Sweet land of liberty

Of thee I sing

Land where our fathers died,

Land of the Pilgrims’ Pride,

From every mountain side.

Let freedom ring!

As a small child, I loved this song. It spoke to my idealism and hopeful notions of our nation, and singing it in chorus with other boys and girls made me feel a sense of belonging. I felt pride and a love of country that, reflecting now, I believe was embedded in me by my fiercely patriotic family.

Yet, in singing that song, I also felt like I was reaching a bit. As a boy I came to know that my family’s journey to this land, now the United States, wasn’t in any way similar to the Pilgrims’. Ellis Island, too, gave me pride (and even a sense of ownership, as it is in New Jersey). I loved the stories of the hopeful, triumphant entrances of the ancestors of my classmates whose Irish, Italian, and other European ancestors entered through that portal of promise. But these tales were different than the ones that filled my own family stories.

Even my family’s entrance into the town I grew up in was different than those of my peers. In 1969, just to move in, my parents had to work with the Fair Housing Council—lawyers, activists, and tremendous leaders—to construct a sting operation to expose and overcome the housing discrimination that threatened to deny my parents entrance into the town.

My parents would show up to look at homes in white neighborhoods, and real estate agents would lie to them. They would be told the house had been sold or pulled off the market. The Fair Housing Council would send white test couples to the homes after my parents, and they would inevitably find that the house was still for sale. A white test couple eventually bid on a house my parents loved. The bid was accepted, and on the day of the closing, the white couple didn’t show up: instead, my dad did, along with a volunteer lawyer. The real estate agent didn’t capitulate when caught, and his illegal housing discrimination was exposed. He stood and punched the Fair Housing Council lawyer, and my dad had to wrestle with the agent’s Doberman as the two men fought. Ultimately, after this fight and legal threats, my parents moved into my childhood home, and we became the first black family to live in the town.

In my family’s stories, and the history from my elders, I knew of no courageous explorers, no Pilgrims seeking religious freedom, no escape from persecution or famine, no Lady Liberty opening her golden door beside Ellis Island. My American ancestry came up from slavery. Millions were killed—upwards of a fifth of the humans stolen from Western Africa died during the passage from that continent to this one. Those who made it faced inhuman brutality. Generations endured horrors in a system of chattel slavery marked by vicious beatings, rape, oppressive labor, and unimaginable anguish. African history, the cultural roots, the religious beliefs, the very memories linking families to their countries of origin were stolen along with the bodies of my ancestors. These historical possessions were robbed by a villainy that sought to eviscerate humanity, dignity, connection, and independence, an evil that sought to render human beings as property, obedient and enslaved.

My great-grandmother had memories of our family lasting back into slavery. My grandparents discussed these roots and remembered some circumstances, but going more than a generation into our past was difficult for my family. What followed the end of slavery was what I knew better from family stories. Like so many families of all different backgrounds, there were humble stories of poverty and struggle. And because of my ancestors’ race, these difficult paths were cruelly compounded with stories of discrimination, of citizenship rights violently denied, and too often of opportunities rendered unattainable. This reality resided in many family stories in one way or another. Simple stories of family trips would often involve mentions of the inability to use basic facilities like bathrooms, restaurants, or hotels. From accessing the ballot to going to a hospital to obtaining a job, the struggle against discrimination and for full citizenship, equality, and opportunity was a part of the culture in our American experience.

“America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

—Langston Hughes

As a child I learned the source of my parents’ and grandparents’ love of this country. Their faith and hope for America were intertwined with their larger view of the forward march of our American tradition. They saw connections between their struggles and aspirations and the heroic hopes of those early colonists in Jamestown, the religious freedom dreams of Pilgrims, the defiant demands of our original revolutionaries, the humble ambitions of refugees or immigrants, the equality struggles of the suffragettes, the freedom fights of the abolitionists, the justice dreams of the union organizers and so many others who brought America—marching, stumbling, striding, jumping—forward.

This was what my family heralded about this nation and our presence in it. In fact, our very survival, our very presence spoke to America’s struggle for itself, the struggle to make a more perfect union, the ongoing mission to make this a land of liberty and justice for all. My childhood was filled with the elders in my family showing a devotion to this determined destiny: to have America achieve herself, not stories about how we got here, but what seemed paramount was the ongoing struggle to have America finally and fully arrive.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2012, Henry Louis Gates Jr. had me on his show, Finding Your Roots. A year before my father would die, he and the rest of my family got an incredible view into our history. Gates discovered astonishing facts. Not only was he able to enter a generation or two into slavery and reveal to me many of my before unknown black American ancestors and the circumstances of their lives, but he also was able to discover and illuminate many of my white ancestors as well, and, through DNA analysis, he revealed that I am also a descendant of Native Americans. From Gates’s experience, he let me know that we in this country share far more DNA than we realize.

What had once been an inscrutable history now lay out before me in a host of documents and charts. I am the descendant of slaves and slave owners. I am the descendant of white Alabama militiamen who fought in the Creek Wars against Native Americans and I am descended from Native Americans who were forced from their land. I am the direct descendant of a Confederate soldier who was captured by Union officers and then escaped capture. And then Henry Louis Gates did something I’d never imagined. Along one branch of my family tree, starting with my grandfather, he marched backward and backward— thirteen generations into American history, to 1640, 136 years before the founding of our nation, thirty-four years after the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, and roughly two decades after Jamestown, when my direct forebears came to what is now Virginia to settle.

Settlers and slave ships; Native Americans and strangers in a strange land. It seems my ancestors got here and were here in a multitude of manners. But the lessons of my family still hold: we are all—from the latest new citizen in our nation to those, like me, who can trace their history to 1776 and beyond—bound together in this nation, bound by blood and spirit more than we know. We belong to each other; we need each other. I have some understanding of who my ancestors were, and I am appreciative. And even more so, I have great hopes for who my descendants will be. I honestly have no great desire that they know me or my name, or that they know how our family came to live in this country, but I do have abiding hope that this great nation that they inherit will have come fully to fruition and that they can join with their countrymen and women and sing with full-throated, prideful force these words:

My country ’tis of thee

Sweet land of liberty

Of thee I sing

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the Pilgrims’ Pride,

From every mountain side.

Let freedom ring!

 

Wes Moore

Wes Moore is an author and founder of BridgeEdu, a college support program for at-risk students. He was recently named chief executive officer of the Robin Hood Foundation.

My grandfather: the immigrant, the American.

My grandfather’s American story began with fleeing persecution— not to America, but from it. My great-grandparents had moved from Lowe River, Jamaica, to South Carolina in search of that elusive American dream. My grandfather, James Thomas, the son of a minister, was born there—a natural-born citizen of the United States.

South Carolina, my grandfather’s birthplace, has a long and tortured history. Once the place that held the highest number of slaves per capita, and the first state to secede in the Civil War, it also has an incredibly rich African American history, including in the ministry, where the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the South was founded in 1816. During reconstruction, many of our nation’s first African American political leaders came from South Carolina, bolstered by the network and history of the black church in the state.

South Carolina should have been a welcoming place for a family of Jamaican immigrants involved in the ministry, but unfortunately, South Carolina in the early 1900s did not represent the America my grandfather and his parents sought. Before long, my great-grandparents gave up on their American dream and moved back to Jamaica, chased away by an emergent Ku Klux Klan.

My great-grandparents were done with their American experiment and completely uninterested in giving the racism they experienced a second chance. For my grandfather, though, something was different.

His taste of America never went away, and as he grew into a young man, he vowed to make it back. Like many immigrant stories, my grandfather’s relation to America was one of inexplicable magnetism. He longed to be here.

My grandfather grew up in Mount Horeb Church in St. James Parish in Jamaica. He dreamed of following his father into the ministry, dreamed of one day leading his own congregation. The church meant everything to my grandfather, and it was there that he met my grandmother, whose family had just immigrated to Jamaica from Cuba for work.

But still, my grandfather felt the pull of the United States, and shortly after he married my grandmother he returned to America for his studies. He enrolled at Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Pennsylvania, and arrived for his studies in the middle of November. Now, bear in mind, this is a yardie from Jamaica. Of course he arrives in Pennsylvania in the winter wearing shorts and open-toed sandals.

The first person he met on campus called him over and took him under his wing.

“Where are you from?” the man asked him.

When my grandfather answered, the man said, “I knew you were not from here. We need to get you some appropriate clothes. Don’t worry. When I first came here, I did the same thing.”

The man came to be a mentor, friend, and teacher to my grandfather. His name was Kwame Nkrumah, and he would go on to become president of his home country, Ghana, one of the first black presidents of an independent African nation.

This was a very different United States than the one my grandfather had fled as a young boy. This was a place where people from around the world came to pursue their dreams, and where their dreams were collaborated upon and shared.

My grandfather resisted his mentor’s calls to get into politics and chased his dream to be a minister. By 1952, he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, just like his father.

With my grandmother joining him, they settled in the Bronx. My grandmother was a public-school teacher, and my grandfather made history by becoming the first black minister ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church. Their first priority was to save enough money to buy a small three-bedroom house on Paulding Avenue in the Bronx. The house was modest, but to my family, it would prove to be a castle. At various points, it was home to between five and nine people. It always seemed to be as big as it needed to be to keep my family safe and warm. When my mother moved me and my sisters there from Baltimore in 1984 after my father died, it was a life-changing safe space for us to learn, grow, and be loved.

Over the span of a half century in the Bronx, my grandparents watched their neighborhood transform from a Jewish community to one home to African Americans and Latino immigrants. Their community was as complex as their immigration story. My grandparents saw their neighborhood shift from a tightly knit community to one that was chronically neglected, where poverty and crime levels sought to define a diverse and proud community in the 1980s and ’90s. But my grandfather, the Reverend Dr. James Thomas, a leader in his community, a man of the cloth, a pioneer, never gave up on his community, his home.

So much of my grandfather’s life, from his very presence in the United States to his groundbreaking career in the ministry, has an element of fate and determination to it that is so uniquely American. From his birth to his death, he saw the best and the worst of what this country has to offer.

No more than five feet, six inches, my grandfather was a giant to me. He had a presence that commanded every room he ever entered and was a sight to see at the lectern. He was my family’s patriarch, my father figure when I needed one the most. When my father died and my family had to move in with my grandparents in the Bronx, they were both recently retired. They had spoken of returning to Jamaica, but ultimately the Bronx, and America, were home. They couldn’t give it up.

My grandfather passed away while I was in Afghanistan. Despite    a herculean effort from my command to get me home in time to say goodbye, I didn’t make it in time. I know today he’d be proud of the man I’ve become—the husband, the father, and the American.

 

Marlo Thomas

Marlo Thomas is an actor, producer, and social activist. She is outreach director for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, which was founded by her father, entertainer Danny Thomas.

As my Lebanese grandfather lay in his bed during his final days, he took my father’s hand.

“Never forget your heritage,” he whispered into Dad’s ear. “He who denies his heritage has no heritage.”

Those words have resonated in our family for all of our lives. When I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, Lebanon was not much in the news. So, when I told the kids at school that I was Lebanese, they asked, “Is that like Chinese?”

I reported this to my grandfather. “You go back and tell them that your people gave the world navigation as we know it today,” he said sternly. I did as he commanded, saying those very words into the quizzical faces of a group of third graders. Still, I felt proud of my little-known heritage, because my grandpa had taught me to be.

His name was Charles Yakhoob, but as he came through Ellis Island, the registrar recorded his surname as Jacob. With him was his sixteen- year-old bride of an arranged marriage, Margaret Taouk, who would also now have this new name of Jacob.

Like millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, Charles and Margaret carried all of their possessions in cloth bags. They had fled a land of poverty and hunger to come to America, a place of dreams and abundance, to begin a new life.

My grandfather settled his family in the farmlands of northern Ohio, where he sold dry goods on consignment from a horse-drawn wagon. He and my grandmother had ten children, nine boys and a girl. My dad was number five. They all proudly spoke the language of their heritage, Arabic, as well as the language of their new country. They were very poor, but at Sunday Mass they always left something in the collection basket for the less fortunate.

They loved America. And they believed in its promise. But one thing fell short of their hopes: health care. They couldn’t receive any. After food, clothing, and a roof over their many heads, there simply wasn’t any money left over for doctors. My grandmother had all ten of her babies with just the help of her sister and a lot of hot water. Kids of other immigrant families in their neighborhood died of influenza and appendicitis.

Thankfully, the Jacob family survived, and each of the children embarked on their own lives. My father came a long way from those farms in Ohio to creating a career in show business and raising his family in Beverly Hills, always carrying with him the richness of the Lebanese culture. Indeed, among my most vivid memories of my childhood were the annual Lebanese festivals we’d go to as a family—mahrajans, they were called. Men, women, and children from Lebanese communities all across Los Angeles would gather for a day of celebration.

It was like a grand picnic. Music and cigar smoke would fill the air, and the women and girls would serve plate after plate of traditional Lebanese cuisine—tabbouleh, hummus, and my favorites, kibbe and fatayer. There was always lots of singing and laughter and especially storytelling. My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller—her timing was impeccable. My father always said it was Grandma who taught him the art of holding an audience.

But along with these colorful touchstones of his heritage, my father also held fast to indelible memories of his family never having the care of a doctor, no matter how sick they got—and the faces of the boys and girls in his neighborhood who died because of it. And he never forgot his promise to his father to remember his heritage.

So, after many years of success, he founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a place of hope for the world’s sickest children, where no family would ever have to pay a doctor for their child’s treatment—or for travel or housing or food. And in 1958, when Dad broke ground for the hospital, he did so in the name of the Lebanese and Syrian people, with gratitude to America for opening her arms and embracing them in this great land.

When I think of how I got here, this is how: with pride in my heritage, with a deep love of this country, and with the understanding that we bear a responsibility to ease the suffering of those less fortunate.

In 2014, I was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor that was profoundly humbling. As President Barack Obama clasped the medal around my neck and the honor guard read aloud the proclamation, I thought about my immigrant grandparents, Charles and Margaret Yakhoob, carrying their cloth bags and taking their first step onto this new land of hope. How would they feel today, seeing their granddaughter, just two generations later, at the White House receiving this honor from the president of the United States? What would they think?

I know what I thought. I thought of my heritage. And I thought of the promise of America for people of all heritages. And, like my grand- father, I was very proud.

 

Andrew Tisch

Andrew Tisch is cochairman of the board of Loews Corporation. He is widely engaged in the business, political, and philanthropic communities.

More than one hundred years ago, my grandfather Avraham Titenskaya stood as a young child in the big room at the new immigrant arrivals hall on Ellis Island. He took the same oath virtually every American immigrant has taken. Avraham and his family had come from Dniepro-Petrovsk in Ukraine sometime around 1904, through Odessa on the Crimean Peninsula. Half the family turned left and went to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and the other half, including my great-grandparents Shlomo (Solomon) and Dinah, my grandfather, and his sisters Shirley and Jean came here. We think distant parts of the family had already come to America. None of us knows what became of the Uzbek family. That’s the family lore, but research by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation shows my great-grandfather Shlomo arriving from Hamburg on February 12, 1904 and the rest of the family arriving on September 30, 1904. Presuming the ships’ records are more accurate, it would make no sense for them to go to Odessa to get to Hamburg, so the family lore is probably somewhat faulty!

Although I’m not sure why the family left Ukraine or why they decided to come to the United States, I can surmise that part of it had to do with the fact that they were Jewish and felt vulnerable living in what was then part of czarist Russia. One story has it that the Russians were drafting young Jewish men for the Czar’s army, which was equivalent to a death sentence.

I imagine they came for the same reason that so many others came to these shores: for the opportunity to live a better life than they could in their place of birth for themselves, for their children, and for their future generations.

My grandfather’s given name was Avraham Titenskaya when he arrived at Ellis Island. The old family lore was that our name was Tischinsky and we were table makers, because Tisch means “table” in Yiddish. However, that seems too simple an explanation. But the ship manifest showed Titenskaya. Whatever our family name was when my great-grandfather left Dniepro-Petrovsk, it became Tichinsky on Ellis Island.

I believe my great-grandfather was a tailor specializing in fur. The family first moved to the Bronx to be near American relatives. Shlomo, now Solomon, set up his tailor business in his home. Dinah was a founder of the Ladies’ Day Nursery which, in some incarnation, is still in existence and provided early daycare services for working women in the borough. Then they moved to Brooklyn, before Brooklyn was fashionable again, and my grandfather and his two sisters went to public school, where they learned English.

My grandfather went to the City College of New York, where he did well academically and was captain of the school’s basketball team in 1917–1918. Avraham Tichinsky’s nickname was Al, but Tisch was the nickname used for basketball cheers, because no one could pronounce his other names. The cheer “Go Tisch” was certainly catchier than “Go Tichinsky.” The nicknames stuck, and he carried that name for the rest of his life. Al Tisch married Sayde Brenner, whose family was from Poland. They had two sons, and he worked hard in the garment business, making boy’s corduroy knickers in partnership with a man named Handelsman whom he later bought out.

Al Tisch never loved the garment business, so he took advantage of a great American right—the right to change your mind. He and my grandmother tried their hand at the real estate business by buying a pair of summer camps in Blairstown, New Jersey, which they operated for ten years. Their two sons, Larry and Bob, spent their teenage summers working at the camp.

They bought the camp with a five-thousand-dollar loan from Al’s father, Solomon. It was successful and provided a nice income for the family.

Among the campers was one of their Brooklyn neighbors, Belle “Bubbles” Silverman, who went on to change her name to Beverly Sills; she became a great opera star and stayed a close friend of theirs for her whole life.

Al and Sayde’s sons, my father, Larry, and uncle Bob, fought in the army in World War II. Larry grew up doing the cryptograms in the newspapers and became a cryptographer in the OSS. He was due to be sent over to Myanmar (Burma in those days) but developed hepatitis and finished the war in a hospital in Washington, DC.

The boys took advantage of another opportunity afforded them in the United States—a good education. Before World War II, my father went to New York University’s School of Commerce and graduated at age nineteen. After the war, he used the GI Bill to get a business degree from Wharton and began his studies at Harvard Law School. However, Larry dropped out of Harvard to join the rest of the family in the hotel business. In 1946, Larry and Bob, along with their parents, leased a hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, called Laurel-in-the-Pines, which they ultimately bought and parlayed into a chain of hotels in New Jersey, New York, and Florida. Together, the family took advantage of the opportunities allowed them by the American dream and capitalism.

Through good sense, excellent timing, and a positive vision of what can happen in America, they created a business that, today, is listed  on the New York Stock Exchange and employs nearly twenty thousand people in hotels, insurance, oil exploration, natural gas pipelines, and packaging.

My father met my mother, Billie, on a blind date in June 1948 while he was just getting into the hotel business. They dated for a couple of months before getting engaged and then married on October 31, 1948. Mercifully, I was born nine months and two weeks after they were married. Billie and Larry went on to have three more sons, my brothers, who are my closest friends and business associates to this day.

I grew up as a hotel brat, moving every year or so to wherever the newest hotel was located and finally to New York at age ten. I have four children, a boy and three girls. My wife, Ann, is a journalist and educator who is working to make the world better by reintroducing single-gender education as a choice into the public education arena. Her efforts have helped thousands of young girls attend college and achieve their own American dreams. My children are all more-than-productive citizens making their own marks in society.

Throughout my life, community and philanthropy were key elements reinforced by my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my grandparents. I don’t know where this spirit came from, but I know it was a key element in the way our family lived. The family was always most important, but we never lost sight of the needs of the community. We were taught to be generous, to be participants, and, no matter what the consequences, to do the right thing.

In all, we came from many different places. My father’s family was from Ukraine and Poland, my mother’s family from Lithuania and Germany. My wife Ann’s family came from France, the United Kingdom, and Hungary. Their countries of origin are just reference points, because we are all Americans.

Two of the great attributes of this country are the rewards it offers for taking advantage of opportunity and risk. Throughout our family’s experience in America, we have had opportunities presented to us. None of them came without risk, but at many important junctures, my forefathers and foremothers were able to assess the risks involved in taking advantage of the opportunities. When doors were opened, we were in the fortunate position of choosing many of the right doors to walk through. No one predetermined what we could or could not do or be. Instead, we had the opportunity to make our own luck.

My grandfather Avraham Tichinsky can count not only his two sons, but seven grandchildren, twenty-three great-grandchildren, and seventeen great-great-grandchildren and growing. All American and all committed to the American dream of peace and opportunity in a better world.

America is filled with Al Tisches—boys and girls of every ethnic origin from every corner of the world. I know how hard families worked to become citizens of this great country. And to each of you, I want only to say, “Welcome to the United States.”

 

Hooman Yaghoobzadeh

Hooman Yaghoobzadeh, MD, is an internist affiliated with WeillCornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, writing on behalf of his father.

As told by his son, Hooman Yaghoobzadeh

It was time to spray for roaches. I opened the two windows in the Classon Avenue studio in Brooklyn that belonged to my brother-in-law Suleiman. My sons, seven and five years old, were sleeping on blankets on the floor of the fifth-floor walk-up. My wife, Mehri, twenty-seven, and I—Nasser—thirty-eight, had arrived that day from Copenhagen with our two sons, Hooman and Hootan. Outside, you could hear sporadic rattling of empty alcohol bottles in the street. Now and then the orange flicker of a fire in the corner trash can would illuminate the ceiling. That’s when we would see them: hundreds of roaches crawling on the ceiling. While the kids were sleeping next to their mom, Suleiman and I covered them with yesterday’s New York Post. Then we sprayed the ceiling. The night’s din of whiskey bottles and too frequent yet distant police sirens was interrupted randomly by roaches dropping from the ceiling and crackling on the newspaper. It was August 28, 1979.

Only two months prior, on a warm night, Mehri, Hooman, Hootan, and I had been sleeping underneath the stars in our backyard, a regular summer ritual in Shiraz. The babble of water in the blue-tiled fountain and the ever-present smell of orange blossoms in the perfect crisp air framed the quintessential Persian night at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. As a civil engineer at an American company building irrigation systems and dams, my family and I enjoyed the good life in Iran, complete with maid and chauffeur, in a modern and very chic marble-paneled home. Probably related to the Persian Jews of Purim in Esther’s megillah, we could trace back our ancestors in Iran for many generations. Unfortunately, the faint crack of insecurity among Jews in Iran during the shah’s regime was becoming a widening fault line in the midst of the Islamic Revolution. Demonstrations and civil resistance, both secular and religious, against the shah in late 1977 created a very alarming and tense atmosphere. Within a short time, strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country. Iran was not the same place  it had been, nor was it safe any longer. Others ridiculed our decision to leave our birthplace with young kids in tow. They reminded me of Mosaddeq’s “revolution” of two years ending in 1953, when the CIA and British MI-6 overthrew the democratically elected leader in a staged coup and assured me that this too would pass.

I felt this time was different. Within one month of deciding to leave, we had sold everything and quietly said goodbye to family and friends. The last couple of weeks we would all sleep fully dressed in case we had to escape the ever-present Khomeini-sanctioned mobs. By this time the American Embassy had stopped issuing visas to Iranians. The Italian and Turkish Embassies had wait lists more than two months long. We knew that some were going to Copenhagen as tourists to await visas to the US. The day before our flight, the kind Muslim man who bought our house gave us an English translation of the deed. “Keep this, you will need it were you are going,” he said.

The plan was to stay in Copenhagen as tourists until we could get a visa to the US. Though they did not turn us back, the Danish had other plans. Winds of revolution in Iran had started to swirl, and we were ordered to leave the country within twenty-four hours or we would be arrested. The next morning at the American Embassy in Copenhagen, we endured hours of questioning. You see, we were asking for a tourist visa. I was finally asked if I could offer proof that we were not planning to immigrate permanently to the United States. I presented the deed to our home as proof that we were returning to Iran, which they surprisingly accepted. The emigration officer obviously knew what was going on, he just needed some evidence to allow us to visit the US. We were on the SAS flight to JFK that same day.

As the roaches hit the newspaper, it was hard not to think that we had made a life-changing error. That nauseating feeling would get worse. We watched as Iran was drowning in loud demonstrations broadcasting “Death to shah, death to America, death to Israel.” The loneliness of knowing there was nothing to go back to was profound. Our oldest son, Hooman, had night terrors for weeks. Covered in sweat, he would suddenly sit up in bed with eyes wide-open and see swarms of the “enemy” running down the hallway to kill his grandparents still in Shiraz. The biting cold of our first winter in New York was unexpectedly harsh (Shiraz was known for its year-round spring weather). Our youngest, Hootan, was incessantly getting sick.

Slowly, though, some things started to get better. We moved to a safer neighborhood at the corner of Church Avenue and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn so our kids could walk to the Bialik Hebrew Academy. The principal there was an angel and lit the way when all else seemed dark. Mehri started selling Avon products, babysitting, working as a teacher’s aide, and selling World Book encyclopedias door to door. I remember our sons beaming with pride when one day she walked in with a deluxe set that she had earned. Twenty-two volumes of maroon pleather-bound bliss signifying better days to come.

Unemployment was a brutal kind of torture for me. After months of searching, traveling to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia looking for a job, it seemed hopeless. Then one day, the super at our Brooklyn apartment told my wife about a consulting firm on Staten Island that might need an inspector. The next morning, multiple trains and a ferry ride later, I showed up at their door with my (overqualified) résumé. The man asked when I could start and what salary I would require. I replied that as long as they would help me get a work permit and green card, I would be happy working for free. I was hired as a sewer inspector in Staten Island that day. Even in the midst of all that uncertainty, I remember it as the happiest day of my life.

Rough times seemed lurking around every corner, though. On November 4, 1979, the same day Iranian students suddenly overtook the American Embassy in Tehran, my wife was flying back to Iran to sell our second house. We spent two months in agony awaiting her return. With the hostage crisis, we felt the stinging prejudice of national identity politics. We took our names off the mailbox. There were those that made it more difficult, like the driving evaluator who denied me a license four consecutive times, despite perfect scores and road tests.

However, hard work, perseverance, and the occasional kindness of others were a perfect recipe. Soon, my employer helped me to become a general contractor, and I started building residential homes in Staten Island. We watched every dollar and eventually were able to invest in larger projects, including designing and building our own home in Eltingville. Our sons graduated from public high school with honor degrees and were accepted to Ivy League universities. Hooman went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Hootan earned an MBA from Harvard. They are now married with children close to the ages they were when we emigrated.

There were so many forks along the road that could have lead to a different ending. At some of these points, kind human beings led us down a better path. When my wife, Mehri, and I landed in JFK from Copenhagen, each holding a young child’s hand, we made our way to customs. The customs agent had no intention of being fooled by the house deed. It seemed like our journey was over before it had begun. But then he looked again at our passports. He pronounced our last name “Yaghoob-zadeh.” He asked for our marriage license. He glanced at the Hebrew letters a couple of minutes extra. “I know why you are here, Mr. Jacob-son,” he said. He stamped our passports and gave us his name and badge number. “Let me know if anyone gives you a problem,” he said. In that terribly anxious state, I did not make it a point to write his name down. I wish I had. We are now ten Yaghoobzadehs in total who owe that customs agent a life’s debt of gratitude.

 

John Zaccaro Jr.

John Zaccaro Jr. is a real estate developer and owner of P. Zaccaro & Company.

My mother, Geraldine Anne Ferraro, was a first-generation Italian American, and my father, John Anthony Zaccaro, was a second-gener- ation Italian American. Their family history is a somewhat typical one of Italians, Italian Americans, and Americans. If you go back two gen- erations you’ll find many similar circumstances involving those who immigrated in search of a better life.

My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was John Vacca, born on May 29, 1890. He came to the United States from Naples, Italy, in 1894. At the time, crossing the Atlantic by boat was an ordeal that took over a month. After arriving in this country, he worked as a wholesale fruit dealer. John married Josephine Guerra, and they had five children. The second eldest of their brood was my grandmother Rose Vacca. Mema, as we called her, was born February 29, 1906.

Rose’s future husband and my grandfather, Philip Zaccaro, was born on November 5, 1895. Philip was the second of seven children of Fran- cis and Anna Zaccaro, both of whom had been born in this country. In 1912, at the age of seventeen, Philip entered the real estate business in lower Manhattan. He formed P. Zaccaro Co. Inc. five years later in 1917, and became the exclusive representative for the real estate depart- ments of the Bowery Savings Bank, Dry Dock Savings Bank, Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company, Central Savings Bank, East River Savings Bank, and Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, as well as other entities. P. Zaccaro Co. Inc. also was the appointed agent for the City of New York assembling and managing properties that became Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, Knickerbocker Village, and the Water Street widening.

My father, John Anthony Zaccaro, joined P. Zaccaro Co. Inc., by that time a privately held real estate investment, development, and manage- ment firm, in 1956 after graduating from Iona College. He had a career of more than sixty years in real estate and was a principal of P. Zaccaro Co. Inc. My father was a member of the NYC Housing Council, trustee of the bankruptcy court, and served on many private and public boards. My maternal great-grandmother, Maria Guissepe Caputo, left her one-room home on a cobblestone street in Terranova, Italy, at the age of sixteen. Generations of her family worked in the fields tending grapes in the mountain region. She also came in steerage on the SS Italian in 1890, and made the trip with her aunt Maria Antonia Caputo.

Maria Antonia was 47 at the time of their crossing, and was part of an era of women who arrived in the new world to put their skills to work in textile mills, agriculture and the domestic industries. At that time only 10% of the immigrants from Italy were women. The aunt and niece arrived in New York Harbor on June 27, 1890, and settled at 250 Mott Street in Little Italy. Tragically, nine months after her arrival in Amer- ica, Maria Antonia died of malaria, leaving her niece, my great grand- mother, Maria Guissepe, alone to fend for herself in her new homeland. As a result, at a very young age, my great-grandmother married Dome- nico Corrieri of 250 Elizabeth Street, who worked as a New York City street cleaner. He was also an Italian immigrant, and a widower whose wife had died during childbirth. He had arrived on the SS Rhynland on Christmas Eve 1881. The couple was married at Old St. Patrick’s Cathe- dral on Mulberry Street in May 1891. Eventually they moved uptown to an area known as Italian Harlem, on East Ninety-Seventh Street.

My grandmother Antoinetta, Nana, as we called her, was born in 1905 and was one of ten children. The family lived in a three-room apartment with a bathroom located in the hallway. Nana attended pub- lic school until she was twelve years old, at which time she was forced to leave school to help support her family because her father had suffered a stroke. She worked as a crochet beader in a factory, what would now be called a sweatshop, on New York’s Lower East Side. At the age of twenty-two, Antoinetta married Dominic Ferraro, who had emigrated from Italy in 1920. Dominic’s father was an engineer, and his family were landowners in Italy.

My mother, Geraldine, was born on August 26, 1935. She was the fourth child of Antoinetta and Dominic. Two of their children passed away earlier in life, one shortly after birth and the second in a car accident at the age of three. The family lived in a three-story house on Dubois Street in Newburgh, New York. Dominic owned and ran a bar and restaurant called the Roxy. Antoinetta ran the five and dime store that they also owned. At age forty-four, Dominic died of a heart attack; my mother was eight years old. Nana lost the family businesses and was forced to move to a small apartment in the South Bronx, where she resumed working as a crochet beader.

My great-grandmothers and grandmothers were raised in an era when education and independence were not considered necessary or even important for women. Yet they sacrificed so their children could have more. My grandmother Maria Guissepe never learned to write her name, and Nana, although not able to pursue her own education, understood its value. She would say, “If you educate a boy, you educate a boy alone. If you educate a girl, you educate a family.” Nana’s under- standing of the importance of education led to her insistence that my mother attend not just college, but also law school, where she was one of only three women in her class. It was Nana and the nuns of Mary- mount whom my mother always credited with instilling in her a sense of responsibility to others and the importance of giving back to her community.

My mother began her career as a public-school teacher in Astoria, Queens, while attending law school at night. She practiced family law and then was an assistant district attorney. In that position, she created and ran the first special victims’ bureau set up to prosecute crimes com- mitted against seniors and children. She first ran for and was elected to Congress in 1978; she served three terms. In 1984, she was nominated to be the Democratic vice presidential candidate, thereby making histo- ry as the first woman on a major party ticket. Subsequently, she served as ambassador to the United Nations for Human Rights and was an author, columnist, and a political commentator. She believed she had a duty to make the world she lived in a better place for her friends, family, and fellow citizens. She understood that the promise of America was about opening the doors of opportunity for everyone.

My mother also put a premium on her children’s education, as her mother had done. The first in her family to go to college, my mother is survived by her three children, all of whom have graduate degrees and are successful in their respective fields as a doctor, a lawyer, and a documentary filmmaker. Each of us also have our own families now, teaching our children the lessons and values of the generations that preceded them and made America their home.

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