Exactly ten years ago, I came to New York planning to find an apartment for my new life here. Instead, I spent the better part of two weeks in Long Island helping my mom and my aunt clean out my grandparents’ house. By that time, their health had declined and they had permanently settled in Boca like…well, like a lot of Jews of their time and place in this world. And I joined my mom and Aunt Linda as we sorted through some 40 years of memories and personal history.
I was 22 at the time, somewhat lacking the maturity to appreciate the gravity of the situation and probably too focused on my own transition out of college to process what was happening around me. Then again, maybe it was a coping mechanism. My mother and aunt felt the pain of having to sift through their respective childhoods and their parents lives, having to decide over and over what could or should be saved, and what must be sold through a cousin’s business. Meanwhile, I found myself shopping in a hybrid between a thrift shop and the world’s coolest museum.
There’s no blame to be laid, but as a kid I didn’t ask the right questions, and I suppose that my grandparents weren’t always the world’s biggest storytellers. Humble to a fault, my grandfather would only ever tell me that he was an architect. In truth, he was a Jewish communal professional, helping U.S. servicemen get kosher meals on holidays with the Jewish Welfare Board. At some point, he helped to design the interiors of JCC’s across the country. I didn’t know any of this until I went into the basement with mom and Linda, and by then it was too late to ask him about it.
My grandfather was also one hell of a natty dresser, and I ended up taking more than a few items of clothing with me from that house. There’s a linen shirt that I still wear every Passover that I’m convinced is infused with magic; I’ve spilled everything from red wine to apple cobbler on it and it still comes out clean every time. More than any standard Jewish ritual object, that shirt holds a spiritual importance for me that I still can’t quite define. When I wear it, I think of my grandfather praying on his own in my parents’ living room every morning as the sunlight washed over him, of sitting next to him at the synagogue as he passionately crooned the prayers with his almost comically deep voice. He was the Jewish role model to our family, and he remains so to this day. Every year as my father presides over high holiday services at his synagogue, he proudly wears the same tallit that my grandfather wore when he was a chaplain in WWII.
My grandfather never got to discover that I’d committed my career to serving in the Jewish community. While I wonder just what he’d make of this thing that I do called Limmud NY, I suspect that he would have enjoyed it quite a bit.
Out of everything that I found and saved, this is by far my favorite item. It’s an ashtray:
Here’s the back of the thing:
Just so we’re clear, this is an ashtray from a Bar Mitzvah party. Not quite the party favors that you find these days.
Now before we get to the next part of this story, you should know that I found this ashtray in the top drawer of the first piece of furniture that I encountered upon entering the house. So this ashtray could have hypothetically been sitting in the front hall of my grandparents’ home for just over forty years. No one knows for sure.
But here’s the thing: my grandparents were Anne and Murray Rosenberg. I have no idea who Roslyn and Irving Hershkopf were. (As an aside, my grandmother’s nickname for Murray was “Rosie”. She always told me it was because he had rosy cheeks, and for some reason, I always believed her. I’m pretty sure it’s because his last name was Rosenberg.)
No one will ever know the story behind that ashtray, but it does give us some clues about the broader Jewish cultural context of the time, at the very least in terms of the role of smoking and its accessories in Jewish lifecycle events 50 years ago. But in the ten years since I found that ashtray, I’ve developed a fascination with what we choose to save and what we discard, and the stories that are held within the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, Jewish or otherwise.
If I had saved the swag from every Jewish conference I’ve attended in my career and left it in the basement for my own grandchildren to find, what would they conclude about my life? That I loved totebags, t-shirts and water bottles? Or that I loved communal gathering spaces? Would it make any sense to them? I have no idea.
What I know is this: we all have little items like the ashtray that I’ve kept. Sometimes we find them after our loved ones have passed, and sometimes they’re passed onto us. Maybe your grandparents wanted to get rid of that tablecloth because it meant nothing to them, but then it came to mean everything to you. Maybe there’s a story attached to it that you never got to hear, or maybe it’s your favorite story of all.
Everyone’s got something that they found in Rosie’s basement, and I’m really interested in hearing about yours. A few weeks back, I developed a little proposal based on this idea, that someday something like this could have it’s own home. But for now, I just want to see if people have items and stories that they might be willing to share with me, and I’ll host them here.
If you want to play show and tell, you can contact me here.
UPDATE: I have no idea why I waited ten years to do this, but I finally decided to look up Allan Abravanel on google not long after posting this. As it happens, he’s currently a lawyer in D.C., and we’ve been emailing ever since. He may even send me a scan of his Bar Mitzvah picture. Since then, I’ve learned the following:
- Roslyn was apparently his mother’s first cousin.
- We continue to have no idea how or why the ashtray ended up with my grandparents.
- Allan Abravanvel happens to come from a really, really interesting family. In fact, there used to be an Abravanel family newsletter that gathered and shared the many stories of Abravanels throughout history.
- To those of my friends who read comics, the Abravanels appear to be the real-life equivalent to the Crogans.
There was the famous Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel, whose Biblical commentary I studied in high school
Moshe ben Raphael Abravanel, born in 17th Century Salonika. He moved to Istanbul, converted to Islam, and became Hayatizade Mustafa Efendi, a famous physician who is credited with introducing modern Western medical practices to the Ottoman Empire. One source notes that he was appointed hekimbashi, or chief physician, to the Sultan. One of his sons became a professor in a medrese, and two of his grandsons followed him as chief physicians to the Sultan, one of them rising to the position of sheyhulislam, head of the Islamic religious hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire. To say nothing of his encounter with Sabbatai Sevi, the famous Jewish false messiah. (This was quoted directly from an email with Allan)
Allan also shared from this book:
A pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel), joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South American coast. He used the nom de guerre “Captain Davis” and commanded his own pirate vessel named The Jerusalem. According to at least one report, he was the person who discovered what is now called Easter Island.
So I’ve learned about Jewish pirates, famous rabbis and Muslim doctors in the space of a couple of days or so, simply by googling a name I found on an old ashtray from my grandparents’ house. For me, this has been an incredibly powerful lesson in the infinite connections to be found between people, stories to be told and learned, and the objects that connect us, unexpectedly or otherwise.
In terms of this project, I’ve had a few people already reach out to me to share some items and stories and so I’m collecting them until I can launch this as a tumblr site that I’ve already reserved. Again, if you have something to share, please do be in touch at the contact link earlier in the post.
UPDATE #2: So Allan did some digging and we’ve pretty much figured out that there never was a “Roslyn and Irving Hershkopf” in the way that the ashtray listed. Our best guess is that my grandmother had the item produced for through a business that she was running back then and as an erroneous item, she ended up holding onto it…for a really long time.
That said, the unexpected connections continue. In researching the names on the ashtray, Allan ended up tracking down his second cousins in here in New York, who he hasn’t seen in 50 years. He also told me that the next time he comes to New York, he’s going to bring along his Bar Mitzvah album and show it to me. A quote from him that I think is quite beautiful:
My daughter Karen thinks the album harkens back to another era. I think the album is full of ghosts — protective, not threatening — who continue to hover in my consciousness.
Now here’s the real kicker of this whole thing. His daughter Karen? She was at Limmud NY in 2011, the year I was the Programming Co-Chair!
I’m pretty sure that I officially win Jewish Geography.