Monday, February 14, 2011

Yesterday: A Memoir of a Russian Jewish Family by Miriam Shomer Zunser, published in 1939, reissued in 1978, edited by her granddaughter Emily Wortis Leider

"Miriam Shomer Zunser, journalist, playwright, and artist, was an important promoter of Jewish culture in America during the period before World War II." from the entry by Eric Goldstein in the Jewish Women's Archive

Written in New York when Europe was in turmoil and its Jewish communities were being decimated, Miriam Shomer Zunser, a successful Yiddish playwright, takes her readers back to an earlier time. She begins her memoir with stories about her grandparents Michel and Yentel Bercinsky who married in 1834 and who raised their family in Pinsk which was then part of the Russian Empire.  Yentel Bercinsky had 24 babies, but only eleven lived to adulthood.

The author tells highly polished stories about this large Bercinsky family, stories that had been circulating in her family, many of whose members were obviously gifted raconteurs. (A number of family members, including the author, had careers in the literary arts and in theater.) The early chapters in particular have a fairy tale, once-upon-a-time quality to them, complete with young brides and grooms and elaborate wedding celebrations and Purim feasts.

Zunser’s grandfather was an accomplished self-taught legal scholar who argued the law on behalf of his community. He was religiously observant and a prominent member of the community where he owned a large home and felt a moral obligation to feed the poor. But he was also a patriarch who expected to be obeyed.  Zunser relates how her grandfather sought out what he deemed an advantageous match for each child. The author then writes chapters in animated prose focusing on the various children and their fates. The chapters have dramatic story lines that are full of intrigue worthy of fiction. She tells about her grandfather negotiating dowries and staging huge weddings. But some of his children were married against their will, and some marriages ended in separation and divorce. As the stories unfold we learn a great deal about what life was like for this family in nineteenth- century  Russia and in the early 20th century when most of the Bercinsky children immigrated to America and had to reinvent themselves as Americans.

Zunser digresses in order to spend some time telling us about her father who had married into the Bercinsky family with the approval, of course, of her grandfather. Nochim- Mayer Shaikevitch, a prolific writer of pulp fiction, escapist novels written in Yiddish in Russia, took a pen name (Shomer) he said because he used family stories as fodder for his fiction and was concerned about embarrassing them. The author writes that her father’s popular novels encouraged a generation of Yiddish speakers to learn to read; that he had paved the way for the next generation of more literary story tellers like Sholom Aleichem who had disdained Shomer’s fiction. But her father’s life in America mirrored that of so many immigrants, especially the men. His fiction had fallen out of favor; he never really gained a footing in the United States and died a broken man.

In 1978 Zunser’s memoir, which was out of print, was republished with a Postscript written by her granddaughter, Emily Wortis Leider. In this Postscript we learn more about the remarkable author, Miriam Shomer Zunser, who was active in many endeavors. Besides writing Yiddish plays with her sister Rose, she created projects focusing on Jewish music. And well aware that many women did not have fulfilling opportunities outside the home, she became active in the women’s suffrage movement.

The memoir includes many family photos.

To read a lengthy article by Arthur Arye Gordon which in its first third highlights the funeral for Miriam Shomer Zunser's father, the novelist Shomer in 1905, click here. It uses a discussion of the funeral as a way of characterizing aspects of Jewish life in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century.

People
Tzodek-Mayshe Bercinsky- married Shayndel
    Laybush Bercinsky - son of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel
    Michel Bercinsky - son of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel; married Yentel
        Rochel-Leah Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel
        Mayshe Bercinsky– son of Michel and Yentel; married to Henye
            Alter – son of Mayshe and Henye
        Dinneh  Bercinsky – daughter of Michel and Yentel; married Nochim –Mayer Shaikevitsch (Shomer)
            Shayndele Shaikevitsch - daughter of Dinneh and Nochim-Mayer
            Avrom (Abe) Shaikevitsch - son of Dinneh and Nochim-Mayer
            Manye (Miriam, Minnie) Shaikevitsch – daughter of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer; married Charles Zunser; author
                Helen Zunser Wortis - daughter of Miriam and Charles
                    Emily Wortis Leider (author of memoir’s postscript)
                Florence (Flossie) Zunser Saltz - daughter of Miriam and Charles
                Shomer Zunser - son of Miriam and Charles
            Anna Shaikevitsch - daughter of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer
            Rose Shaikevitsch - daughter of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer
            Mayshe Shaikevitsch - son of Dinneh and Nochim - Mayer
        Haiye Bercinsky – daughter of married Avrom Chaim Rosenberg
            Shayne-Channe – Avrom’s daughter from first marriage
            Uziel – Avrom’s son from first marriage
            Mayshe Rosenberg – son of Haiye and Avrom
        Faygle Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel
        Avrom Bercinsky - son of Michel and Yentel
        Dvayreh Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel
        Fraydel Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel; married Avrom Gruenberg
        Menye Bercinsky - daughter of Michel and Yentel; married Boruch Rubenstein
        David Bercinsky - son of Michel and Yentel; married Nancy Davidson
        Joshua Bercinsky (Behring) - son of Michel an Yentel
    Berel Bercinsky – son of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel; married Gittle
    Sarah Bercinsky - daughter of Tzodek-Mayshe and Shayndel

    Zlate – Yentel’s sister
    Berel Fialkow – Yentel’s brother-in-law; married to one of Yentel’s sisters
    Uziel Rosenberg – father of Avrom Chaim Rosenberg
    Jo Davidson – Nancy Davidson’s brother
    Elyakum Zunser – father of Charles

Author’s grandfather’s family
Sorke – married Gavriel Goldberg
    Hodes –daughter of Sorke;  married Isaak  Shaikevitsch
        Nochim-Mayer Shakevitsch – their son; married Dinneh Bercinsky (see above)
    Ronye Vigodsky– daughter of Sorke

Family friends and acquaintances
Jacob P. and Sara Adler
Bertha Kalich
Molly Picon
Ludwig Satz
Getzel Tsichovsky
Elia Baillin
Zimel Blucher
Abraham Goldfaden
Joseph Lerner
Sigmund Mogulesco
Uziel Rosenberg
    Avrom Chaim Rosenberg – Uziel’s son; marries
Abbe Rosenthal
Dov-Baer Debzevitch
Zwi-Hirsch Masliansky
Samuel Joseph Fuenn

Places
Yaneve (Jonava), Lithuania
Pinsk, currently in Belarus
Nesvizh, currently in Belarus
Yeshivah of Volozhin, was in what is now Belarus
Odessa, Russia
Nikolayiev, Ukraine
Homel, currently in Belarus



(Yesterday by Miriam Shomer Zunser is, unfortunately, currently out of print, but used copies are available for purchase through internet sources.)

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