Back a long time ago, I’m not sure when, I asked my late paternal grandmother, Mal, what her ethnicity was. I don’t know why I asked her this since I knew the answer and had talked to her at length many times about her branch(es) of the family tree . But I remember her that day answering briskly and bluntly: “half Irish, half Jew.” This still makes me smirk.
The Marks or Marx side was the Jewish half of Mal, her father’s side. And up until this year, they were actually the branch of the tree whose history I knew in the most detail, thanks to my grandmother.
These are the things I knew from her: her grandfather was named Leopold. He sold pretzels on a stick (and I add “And boy did it hurt!” Rim shot…) . Later he sold bibles and rosary beads. His wife’s name was Lena. Their big family, which included my great-grandfather William, lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, including for while on Delancey Street.
In a tragic accident, Lena died in a tenament fire (in 1904.) A worker threw a match into a can of paint, causing instant flames. In the chaotic seconds following, Lena was burned badly, as was the baby in her arms. He lived. She didn’t.
Both Lena and Leopold were from Prussia, my grandmother always specified, Germany before it was Germany.(Though they weren’t married there and I don’t know when or where they met later in New York…) Lena’s maiden name was Kahn. Her mother’s maiden name, Weiss. Leopold changed the name Marx to Marks to Americanize and so they wouldnt seem connected to “the communist”. The fact they were Jewish mades the rosary beads and bible selling part pretty funny to my grandmother. My great-grandfather converted when he married a an Irish Catholic. (I think.)
The rest is history. Well, I mean, it’s all history. It’s the history of how I got to be who I am, in part.
Part of my story is that of a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who each left Europe and settled in New York. And the story of Jewish people in New York City around the turn of the century includes a part of my family story. The Hebrew Orphan Asylum where several of my great-aunts and uncles grew up when their mom died, the section of New York once called “Little Germany,” street corner peddler spots, tenaments. These are all places connected to me. As is a man who changed his last named to leave the past behind, and a couple who named one of their American-born sons George Washington Marks. A quintessential American immigrant story, and one specifically European Jewish, too.
And so Judaism is also part of my story. One-eighth of my ethnic or cultural background is Jewish. I joke about this around Chanukkah saying it means somene owes me one gift. I think that’s what I’m thinking about it now and about Leopold and Lena.
I wonder if Leopold and Lena were observant Jews. I wonder if it was a big part of their identity. I wonder if either of them felt persecuted in Prussia, and that’s why they left. I wonder how much they kept inside the Jewish community when they came to the U.S – who knows, what with Leopold selling bibles and rosaries, he obviously knew some Catholics. (My grandmother was right, that is pretty funny…) .
And I wonder if they would feel let down that they came here and their faith got coverted away, at least by one of their kids.( I don’t know if any of my great aunts and uncles kept the faith. ) Or maybe they wouldn’t really care. They seemed to embrace the new pretty enthusiastically in America. But who knows. Crossing religious lines like that was a big deal. To some, it still is.
What parts of being Jewish did Lena and Leopold pass down through the generations? What I have absorbed without knowing it? And what was lost over the more-than century that’s passed since they came here to stay? I don’t know.
But I think what I’ll do is start a new tradition. I’m going to light one candle sometime during Chanukkah. Maybe with my neices and oldest nephew. (This just reminded me of Lexi singing a Hebrew song she learned in school.) And we’ll remember that part of our family past is connected to the Jewish faith. I will think of the Chanukkah story of endurance, courage, miraculous survival, and faith. And I’ll remember the Marx Family on the Lower East Side whose immigrant lives lives exemplified these same things.