Monday, October 16, 2023

Family Story

As I have mentioned before, I didn't learn that my mother was Jewish until I was in my twenties. For reasons that remain her own, she spun a fantastic tale of Romanian Gypsy parentage that had all of her children fairly well convinced.

I can't attack her for her prevarication, anti semitism was huge when she was growing up and there was a major pressure on first generation Americans to assimilate, whether they be Jewish, German or Italian.

So we kids were baptized and brought up in Christian churches, my parents having divorced when I was very young and my father having no interest in religion whatsoever.

I never met my mother's parents. Her mother, Sobel Roberts (Sternberg) died of a cerebral aneurysm before I was born and her father Martin Roberts (Weinrober) killed himself after she died and his furrier business in Los Angeles had gone south, when I was one years old. Well, perhaps I met him but I have no recollection of doing so.

When I started doing genealogy work I quickly uncovered her actual history and she really flew into a rage. My dad, who knew the full scoop said, "Some Christians, the parents spoke yiddish and read The Forward in their home." Hey, we are all entitled to our fantasies.

Later she fessed up, to some degree, but was never really free and open regarding her family. In fact my searching really pissed her off.

I knew that the Weinrober's made it to Providence in the 1920's and her father had to sign a letter to the King of Romania that he would never return. The family was from a shtetl (a jewish town) named Yednitz or Edinet, depending on the spelling and pronunciation you choose.

Her father may have smuggled horses and wheat and also may have been a lawyer back in the old country too, the history is shrouded. Life was hard for my tribe in those days. My late uncle Norman wrote an autobiography and delves into the family history in some length. My mother would never have anything to do with her family, probably because they would have blown her gentile cover.

So in Providence Mardko Weinrober, now Martin Roberts, joined his two brothers and they all took the name Roberts and started the Roberts Paper Box Company, which was a concern in Rhode Island for many decades. 

I am not quite sure why but my grandfather moved to New York. My uncle said that although he was short he was very strong and a tough guy and acted as a strong arm man for the furriers union. Obviously it is hard to separate fact and fiction in her family but it is certainly plausible.

In this picture you see my mother and her brother sitting in front of her uncle and her father on the right.

In my uncle's writing he eluded to the existence of an older brother that died very young. The poor kid fell out of a window when the family had moved to New York City, before they moved to Los Angeles, where my mom was born. I never knew the older brother's name and I never knew if the information was legit.

I received an email from a distant relative who was back in Yednitz taking pictures of gravestones. He wanted some more information on my mother's family. I confessed that my knowledge was scarce and at a dead end. 

I knew that my mother's grandmother's maiden name was Weinberg and that was it, didn't even know her first name. This gentleman started digging and found some paperwork and information that had eluded me.

Like my grandmother's death certificate.

This gave me my great grandparents full names for the first time, Israel Sternberg and Necha Weinberg. My grandmother died a year and a half before I was born. 

My new correspondent and cousin took pictures of Weinberg graves back in Moldava for me. I will have to do some hunting on these leads.

But the next document he sent me was very interesting. The naturalization papers. I now had a name for the older brother who fell out of the window and died, Irving. I had a new name for the village where my grandfather was born, Etmita. Which I think was a pronunciation corruption of the actual name Edinet

And to my dismay, I found out that they lived in a home in NYC in Gramercy Park, four blocks from where I lived as a young man. 

212 E. 20th St.. I lived at 330 Third Avenue, at 24th St. A rather tony area. My sister's first husband had a fried chicken restaurant on 20th, where I worked as a kid, Chicken America. I probably delivered to my grandparent's brownstone, now an expensive condo project.

I wonder if my mother ever knew how close we really were to her parent's home when we lived there? I will never know.

So strange how things work.


I tried to google the 212 E. 20th address and it is now a condo. But here is a picture a block west in 1938.

The area was one of the worst, poorest and feared neighborhoods in New York. 

It was called the "Gashouse" district. 

It got the name from the four large Con Ed tanks which poisoned the air, by 1930 all but four had been removed. 

Crime in the area was legendary. 

The ruthless Gas House Gang was said to commit thirty holdups a night, on 18th st. alone.

You can see a gas tank in the above picture, towards First Avenue. 

The Second Avenue El can be seen in the distance, it was built in 1877 and torn down in 1942.

In 1945, more than 3,000 families moved out of the 600 or so old tenement buildings (such as these at left) between East 14th and 23rd Streets to create Stuyvesant Town.

Everything, tenements, two schools, three churches, and two theaters—was razed. In 1947, the area from First Avenue to the East River Drive between East 20th and 23rd Streets was cleared for the construction of Peter Cooper Village. The block between First and Second Avenue became the site of Junior High School 104.

I can understand, especially after the death of my young uncle, why the family moved west.


Liz said...

Funny, I always knew we were Jewish and mom never kept it a secret from me. I think that happened because of her sucking up to Don. I wanted to learn Hebrew and grandma pesach wanted to teach it to me but dad refused to let me learn it. He also refused to let me go to Hebrew school. Mom was a heavy duty Zionist when she met dad and was very disappointed with him not wanting anything to do with Israel at the time. These are very strong memories, but I think most of them are from before the divorce. I also remember dad telling me he didn’t want a divorce and blamed it on mom going back to college.

I think they both really changed around 1963 or 64. Barbara might remember some of it, but you were probably too young. Both of our parents were excellent at spinning fables. I also knew about Irving, I just never thought you didn’t.

I know it is weird, but I think Betty is what brought dad to Judaism of any sort. She was determined that her children would be raised in a religion and he was determined that they would not be Christian. I started at San Diego Unitarian church when I was about 6.

Blue Heron said...

She told me her family was Christian Scientist or Quaker, from Whittier. Her brother said they never set foot there.

Linda Roberts Forman said...

When I was much younger, I was told that Uncle Martin (Whom I never met) DID have a child who fell out a window in New York and died. Also, Auntie Hansel (Anna) and Uncle Joe Bernstein had a clothing store on the lower East Side…I was in it once. It is now a boutique hotel. My grandparents also read THE FORWARD every day (in Yiddish). What confounds me is that they were poster children for political schizophrenia (the way I see it); They were avowed socialists and went to a socialist camp/gathering GOLDEN RING for two weeks every summer; Grampa was a staunch Nixon supporter. (I doubt my grandmother ever voted in her lifetime.) For me, a great unanswered question is how all my great grandparents and grandparents ended up in Rhode Island. The problem for all of us is that there is nobody left to ask. I AM quite happy about where they landed and here and there say a silent THANK YOU for giving me the gift of Rhode Island, especially the salt water.

Linda Roberts Forman said...


1. Again, when I was younger, I referred to my Grandfather as THE BROWN EYED HANDSOME MAN (As did my cousin Alan). Looking at the photograph of Incle Martin and having met Uncle Sam once, I now would refer to all the Roberts men as BROWN EYED HANDSOME MEN.

2. True Story (NOT an urban legend): They had another sister, Frieda. By their standards, she was evidently considered to be fairly unattractive. My grandfather worried that she would never find a husband. He offered his cousin, Izzy, $1000.00 to marry Frieda. Frieda and Izzy met and immediately fell in love. The $1000.00 stayed with Isador, and by all accounts, Frieda and Izzy had a happy marriage. (By the way, Isador was originally ASRIEL ( Israel). My grandmother always called him Iz-a-rul.