Monday, January 17, 2011

Family Matters: Sam, Jennie and the Kids by Burton Bernstein, 1982

"Family Matters is an endearing and intimate portrait of a close-knit Jewish family..." from an article by Bill Gladstone about memoirs by Jewish writers published in the Canadian Jewish News, October 2010

This engaging memoir written by the younger brother of the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein is the classic story of immigrants making a life in America. The focus is on Sam and Jennie Bernstein, the immigrant parents of Leonard, Shirley and the author, Burton.  Burton Bernstein has divided his story into two halves: the title of Part I is Sam and Jennie. Part II is called The Kids.

Bernstein starts the story back in Ukraine before Sam and Jennie met. Sam’s parents wanted him to become a scholar of the Talmud, but when he saw an opportunity as a teenager, he ran away to America. Jennie’s family was very poor; her parents expected that going to America would improve their living conditions and their prospects.  Sam got right to work cleaning fish in the Fulton Fish Market, but restless and ambitious, he soon found a better job selling beauty and hair products and eventually moved to the Boston, Massachusetts area where he met Jennie.

Bernstein has wonderful descriptions of their wedding and vivid narrations of the early difficult years of their marriage. Sam eventually started his own beauty and hair products business and did very well, but life wasn’t easy for him. He was always worried about money even when he was doing well, and his moods would darken also when he fretted over the direction his children’s lives were taking.

Part II, about Sam and Jennie’s growing family, spends, understandably, the lion’s share of the narration on their gifted son Leonard.  Sam was opinionated, stubborn and upset at his oldest son’s obsession with music. This was not a career option as far as he was concerned; his idea of a musician was a “klezmer,” an itinerant shtetl musician. He didn’t come to America and build up a thriving business to see his child have that kind of a future.

Although Sam never got over the fact that none of his children were interested in the family business, what they called his "fourth child," he eventually was won over by Leonard Bernstein’s growing success and fame. The author describes with animation Leonard Bernstein’s big break: the November 1942 Carnegie Hall concert where on short notice he took over for an ailing Bruno Walter, his family in attendance in the conductor’s box. At Leonard Bernstein’s insistence Sam traveled to Moscow to watch his son conduct and was reunited with a brother and a nephew he hadn’t seen since he’d left Ukraine as a teenager. Bernstein sensitively describes the irreconcilable generational divide in this immigrant family. Although this is a story of a family with a very famous son, its concerns are the concerns of many families of immigrants and their American born children.

To go to a virtual exhibit created by the Library of Congress about Jewish immigration to America, click here.
(Thanks to Bill Gladstone and Avotenu for calling this memoir to my attention.)

Author's family on his father's side
Bazalel Bernstein
        Yehuda (Yudel) Bernstein – Bazelel’s grandson; married Dinah Malamud
            Samuel Joseph (first named Ysroel Yehuda) – son of Yehuda and Dinah; married Jennie Resnick
                Leonard (changed from Louis)  Bernstein – son of Samuel and Jennie; married Felicia Montealegre Cohn
                    Jamie, Alexander, Nina – children of Leonard and Felicia
                Shirley – daughter of Samuel and Jennie
                Burton Bernstein – son of Samuel and Jennnie; married to Ellen (divorced); author
                    Karen and Michael - children of Burton
            Khaye (Clara)  – daughter of Yehuda and Dinah
            Sura-Rivka – daughter of Yehuda and Dinah; married Srulik Zvainboim
                Mikhoel – son of Sura-Rivka and Srulik; married Lena Neishtat
                    Aleksandr – son of Mikhoel and Lena
                Meir, Bezalel, Mendel; sons of Sura-Rivka and Srulik
            Shlomo (Semyon) Bernstein – son of Yehuda and Dinah; married to Fenye
                Aleksandr  Bernstein – son of Shlomo and Fenye

Hilda Malamud
    Dina- daughter of Hilda; married Yehuda Bernstein
    Herschel Malamud (Harry Levy in America) – son of Hilda; married Polly Kleiman
    Shlomo – son of Hilda
        Abraham Malamud (Miller) – Samuel’s first cousin; married Annie
        Blanche Brenner – a cousin
Roy Cohn – father of Felicia Montealegre Cohn

Author’s family on his mother’s side
Eliezer Zorfas – married to Charna
    Perel (Pearl) Zorfas – daughter of Eliezer and Charna; married to Simcha (Samuel) Resnick
        Charna (Jennie) – daughter of Simcha and Perel
        Malka Leah (Elizabeth) – daughter of Simcha and Perel
        Yosef (Joseph) – son of Simcha and Perel
        Louis – son of Samuel and Pearl
        Bertha – daughter of Samuel and Pearl
        Dorothy – daughter of Samuel and Pearl

David Resnick – brother to Simcha

Friends and Acquaintances
Victor Alpert
Moris CitrinIsadore Finkelstein
Morris Finn
Berthold, Max,and Milton Frankel
Elaine Golden
Beatrice Gordon (related to the Finn family)
Adolph Green
George Hochman
Isaac Hochman

I.M. Kaplan
Jean and Thelma Kaplan – twins
Freida and Sarah Karp – sisters
Ben Marcus
    Grace and Sumner Marcus – children of Ben
Samuel Pearlman
Ruth Potash
Sid Ramin
Charles Revson
 H.H. Rubenovitz
Eddie Ryack

Benjamin Sacks
Daniel Salamoff
Dana Schnittkind
Meyer Schwartz
Rose Schwartz
Doris Smith
Rachael Stein
Bessie Zarling
    Harold Zarling – Bessie’s son
Ruthie and Nettie Zion

Beresdiv, Ukraine
Korets, Urkraine
Shepetovka, Ukraine
Sudilkov, Ukraine
Mezhiritsh, Ukraine
Novosibirsk, Siberia
Moscow, Soviet Union
Newton, Massachusetts
Sharon, Massachusetts
Chelsea, Massachusetts
Brookline, Massachusetts
Lawrence, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts
Revere, Massachusetts
Hartford, Connecticut
Mishkan Tefila, Roxbury, Massachusetts
Hebrew Home for the Aged, Dorchester, Massachusetts
Congregation Adath Sharon, Sharon, Massachusetts
Camp Onota, Western Massachusetts
Singer’s Inn, Sharon, Massachusetts
“The Grove,” Sharon, Massachusetts

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