I was looking forward to the Jennifer Grey episode, not only because I know who she is but because I enjoy seeing what they do with Jewish research. The teaser told us that Grey would shatter the darkness surrounding the grandfather she never understood. She would find a family that endured a heartbreaking tragedy and learn about an extraordinary, mysterious ancestor whose remarkable story would turn everything she believed about her grandfather on its head.
Jennifer Grey is shown in Manhattan, and we see her in seems to be her apartment (although her Wikipedia page says she lives in Venice, California, at least as of 2008). She mentions that she just finished wrapping the second season of Red Oaks for Amazon. The only other acting credit mentioned is Dirty Dancing, which not only launched her to fame but also defined her as a dancer in the public eye, to the point that she became self-conscious about dancing and stopped doing it for twenty years. She was asked to participate in Dancing with the Stars but didn't consider it until her daughter convinced her to do it, saying that she wanted her to have the experience. She won the competition, and after coming back to dance after twenty years without it, she wondered what else she had been missing out on. She became curious about her life and family history.
Grey was born in 1960 to Jo Wilder (the stage name of Joanne Carrie Brower) and Joel Grey, who was just beginning his Broadway career at the time. She knows little about her family beyond her parents and jokes about being a bad Jew, saying she wasn't curious enough. She knows more about her father's side of the family; they were entertainers and "show people" and were more involved in her family's life. Her mother's parents, Clara and Izzie Brower, were the antithesis of her father's parents. She doesn't remember much about them, almost as if they were ghosts.
Grey remembers that Izzie was a pharmacist in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood. She did know him but remembers only a few things. When he came to visit he seemed depressed to her. He wore heavy coats that smelled of mothballs and he always brought a box of pastry tied with a string. She felt aloof around him. He looked beaten down and as if he were from another world and time. Now she wonders why he looked so sad.
She wants to learn about Izzie on the journey she's going to take. She wonders how old he was when he came to the United States. What was his life like? What kind of adversity did he face?
One story Grey remembers hearing is that Izzie was a little boy when he was made to leave Russia in a hurry and came to America. He had to wear a heavy coat lined with the family silverware. She figures he must have had a rough life but doesn't know why or where he left from, just that the family were Russian Jews.
Grey asked her mother for what information she knew about the family, and in response her mother sent a packet. She sits down to open it with her daughter, Stella Gregg, whom she tells that she didn't want to open it by herself. The first thing she takes out of the envelope is a letter, and she puts on her glasses to read it. The editing has her reading bits and pieces out of order (as usual on these programs), but this is almost the entire letter:
When I heard you were taking this journey I was so pleased. Sitting down to write this letter has really [——] memories. I am including some information here that should get you started. I've also sent along a few [photos?] that you may or may not have seen.
My dad, Israel or "Izzie" as he was called, came to New York from the Ukraine (though I don't know [where?] specifically) with his father, your great grandfather, Solomon, a tall stately fellow. I believe I've heard [——] mill back in the old country. My father's job on the journey over was to wear a black coat fitted with [pockets in?] which he carried family silverware. The picture of this young boy, laden with this weight he was responsible [for? —] comical and a little Chaplin-esque.
Our lives were lived on one block: Bristol St between Pitkin and Sutter in Brownsville, Brooklyn. We [the rest of this paragraph was not shown]
At my father's pharmacy, they called him "doctor." It was on the corner of Sutter and Bristol and a lot of my young life was spent there. In the summer, I'd be swinging from the [—] bars and sitting in a sling chair out front on the street, or running to call people to one of the payphones, in the store, because people didn't have their own phones at the time - I don't know if you know this, but your grandmother, Clara, also graduated from pharmacy school, though she never practiced.
It's sad that you didn't have more of a relationship with your grandpa Izzie, but I understand why you didn't. You were a kid, and he didn't quite understand the world we were living in, our lifestyle at the time. I fault myself now for having not been more inclusive. I guess we were very selfishly into our own world and building our family. I don't know if you remember, but when you were a kid, I drove you to my old neighborhood to look for Izzie's pharmacy. It was all pretty grim. His store, what was left of it, was literally charred. I think you were too startled and young at the time to really know what you were looking at.
I hope that this experience will offer you a greater understanding of where your relatives came from and how strong they were to come to a frightening new land where they didn't speak the language and didn't know the mores of this place. I'm more impressed after writing this than I was before. I mean, we look back and feel sad that we didn't appreciate things more. I feel like my dad was an emotional person but I didn't give him enough credit for that, nor did you get to see that side of him. Perhaps you'll get to know him on this journey and find a new appreciation for him. I know he'd appreciate who you have become...
P.S. I never knew your great grandmother, Izzie's mother (Solomon's wife.) I don't even know her name! Clearly she died, but I don't know where or when. Maybe you'll find out?
Grey becomes emotional at a couple of points, particularly where her mother wrote that she regretted not making more of an effort to include Izzie in the family. She moves from the letter to the photographs that her mother sent. The first shown is of Izzie and Clara with their children, Grey's Uncle Mitchell and her mother as a baby in Izzie's arms. The latter gets Grey and Stella joking about "Bubbie as a baby" and "Baby Bubbie." (Bubbie is Yiddish for grandmother and is what I called my maternal grandmother.)
The second photo is of two boys in front of Izzie's pharmacy. Grey proudly reads "Israel Brower, Pharmacist, Chemist." (There was handwriting in the lower right corner of the photo. I think it said "Mitchell Brower", who was probably one of the boys, but it wasn't shown on screen long.)
The last photo shown looks like a big family reunion. A title at the top reads "BROWER FAMILY 1937", and Grey's mother has given some information and labeled some of the people in the photo:
This photo was taken in 1937 at 107 Bristol Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (I wonder [the rest of this sentence was not shown on screen]
I numbered the immediate family.*
1. Israel 'Izzie' Brower, your grandfather
2. William, your great uncle, Izzie's older brother
3. Tillie, your great aunt, Izzie's younger sister
4. Mitchell, your uncle (my brother)
5. Me, your mom.
6. Sylvia, your great aunt
*Not in the photo: Rose, Israel's older sister, and Charlie, his younger brother. (Both died quite young.)
Grey really likes this last photo and is surprised that her mother has never shared it before. (It's a great photo to have!) She's curious why there's so little information about the family before they came to the United States. Even her mother doesn't know. Stella suggests that maybe Izzie and Clara didn't share the information, and Grey says she hopes that doesn't happen with Stella.
We don't get a cue from the scene with Stella saying where Grey would go next. We simply see her in the next segment walking, and she tells us that "she has contacted a historian" (after being told to do so by the producers, of course) who specializes in American Jews. They are going to meet at the Brooklyn Public Library in Brownsville (the Stone Avenue branch, to be specific), the neighborhood where her grandparents lived, and maybe even where her mother went to the library.
Inside the library is Dr. Annie Polland, credited as an American Jewish historian with the Tenement Museum. (She's the Senior Vice President of Education and Programs at the museum.) The first thing Grey asks is why her family knows so little about what happened prior to the United States. Polland explains that it is common for children and grandchildren not to know much. She quotes a saying — "What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember" (known as Hansen's law) — and adds that sometimes people wait too too late to find the information. Undeterred, Grey says that she doesn't know when Izzie arrived in the United States. Polland has a laptop handy and tells Grey to search on Ancestry.com (12 minutes in, the longest so far this season). She has Grey go to the Immigration & Travel collection and then to the New York Passenger Lists database. All Grey enters is Israel Brower. Although Grey knows nothing other than Izzie's name, conveniently Polland knows more and points her to the second result on the list, even though the name is spelled "Braver." Polland says that the spelling is the "Russian version of Brower", which is a somewhat questionable explanation.
So Grey clicks on the link, and up pops a passenger list from January 16, 1907 for the Pretoria, which departed from Hamburg. Grey finds Israel Braver on the list, and he is traveling with three other people: Rose, Cheskel, and Taube. (They're on the last four lines of the image below.)
Israel was 16 years old, and Grey does the math to determine he was born in 1891 (which Polland does not tell her is approximate, unfortunately). His occupation is listed as compositor, which Polland explains was someone who set type for printing; it was a skilled position. He probably served an apprenticeship to gain his training.
Looking over the names of the individuals traveling with her (unproven) grandfather, Grey recognizes Rose as her grandfather's older sister, but she is confused by Cheskel and Taube. Polland explains that Jews coming to the United States generally had their Yiddish names on the passenger lists but once they arrived they often "Americanized" their old-country names. So it appears that Cheskel became Charles, while Taube chose to call herself Tillie.
As she reads the information in the other columns on the passenger list, Grey sees that the siblings' last residence is listed as Yampol and that they said they were going to join their father Solomon (called Schulem, which generated more discussion about Jewish names) at an address in Brooklyn. Grey realizes someone is missing and asks where their mother was. She recalls that in her letter, her own mother had said she did not know the name of Solomon's wife.
Grey is now visibly distressed (or is putting on a good act, because she is, after all, an actress). The four siblings, the youngest of whom is only 9, would have traveled at least two weeks on the ship, with no parent beside them. Grey starts asking one question after another: Why didn't their mother come with them? Did she not want to come? Was she already in the U.S.? Illegally? Had she died in childbirth? Was there some other way to find her?
Polland says that they can look at the censuses for other family members, which could possibly tell if the mother had joined the family later. The first census after the siblings' 1907 arrival was in 1910. Instead of going to Ancestry again, Grey asks if the census pages can be printed, because she likes to hold paper in her hands. (I'm not sure if this was bad editing and Grey made her request after they had found census entries online, or if Grey was simply jumping the gun, assumed that Polland already knew about census pages, and was trying to avoid working on the computer again. Either way, it came off as a non sequitur.) Polland says it won't be a problem and disappears momentarily, reappearing with papers in hand. The only page discussed or shown on air is the 1910 census.
|United States 1910 Federal Population Census, 26th Ward, Borough of Brooklyn, Kings County, New York,|
April 22–23, 1910, Enumeration District 72-9, page 20A, lines 26–31
In the 1910 census they find Solomon Brower (46 years old), an older son named William, and the four siblings seen on the passenger list. Grey notes that there is still no mother. When she checks the box for marital status for Solomon, she finds "Wd", for widowed. So that's why Grey's mother didn't know her name and why she didn't come — she was dead. (That, of course, is an assumption on her part. She could have come with Solomon and died in New York.) Then she goes back to fretting about the four siblings coming over on the ship all alone with no mother.
Polland points out that the census is like a little novel, because it tells you what people were doing at a given time, such as jobs or school. When Grey looks for Izzie's occupation, she finds that it says he could speak English and that he was working as a compositor for a printing company. Now that she has seen this for a second time, she decides she's a little confused. Everything she knows about Izzie is when he had the pharmacy. So how and why did he change from working in printing to being a pharmacist?
For how he became a pharmacist, Polland says there was one school, the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, so that's where he probably went. Grey makes a comment about whether it still exists, and Polland tells her it is now part of Long Island University. So that's where Grey is going next.
(This really caught my attention, because I've done research on someone who graduated from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, and I had already learned that it's now part of LIU. So I was particularly looking forward to seeing what documents the show had found relating to Izzie.)
As she leaves the library, Grey is thinking about Izzie and his sad-sack face. If she had known that his mother had died, she would have acted differently. She wants to tell her daughter so that she'll have some compassion for Izzie also. The children lost their mother, but the family forged on and made a new life. (And, of course, she's assuming that mom was someone whom the children missed. We'll never know if she was a shrew or a harridan and everyone silently was thankful that she was gone. But everyone becomes a saint when she dies, right?)
And so onward, to Long Island University (which has a prominent link to the School of Pharmacy right there on the home page). Exactly where at LIU they are is not stated, but she meets with Mimi Pezzuto, a pharmacy historian at LIU Brooklyn, so they might be there. Pezzuto tells Grey that she has found some material about Izzie in the archives and hands her a small booklet (this particular copy was digitized from the University of Michigan's collection).
|The Brooklyn College of Pharmacy Twenty-fifth Annual Announcement: Session of 1915=1916|
Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn College of Pharmacy (n.d.).
Grey thinks it looks kind of like a yearbook, and Pezzuto agrees that's pretty accurate. On page 29 is a list of students who graduated on May 13, 1915:
|The Brooklyn College of Pharmacy Twenty-fifth Annual Announcement, page 29.|
And there's Izzie! Now that she knows he officially graduated (when he was 24 years old), Grey wonders exactly what it took to do so. Pezzuto points her to another page with information about the system of instruction, and Grey reads the paragraph about the Junior Course:
|The Brooklyn College of Pharmacy Twenty-fifth Annual Announcement, page 8.|
The booklet also has several photographs, which the women do not discuss (at least not on air). I wonder if Izzie is one of the people in the graduating class shown on the page between 28 and 29:
|The Brooklyn College of Pharmacy Twenty-fifth Annual Announcement, between pages 28 and 29|
Grey is impressed. Izzie was very young and didn't speak English before he arrived in the U.S. Here he had to learn English as a second language (or likely third or fourth language, since he already spoke Yiddish, probably some Russian, and maybe some Hebrew also), and then learn Latin for his pharmacy classes. He was taking hard science classes. Obviously he had drive and wanted a better life, and clearly he was very smart.
Grey asks how much tuition cost, and Pezzuto says it was $100/year (although page 13 in the booklet indicates it was $105 for a senior, and I'm guessing Izzie was a senior since he graduated). To be admitted he would have needed a letter verifying he had "good moral rectitude" from a rabbi or possibly a drugstore owner, if he were working for someone. A pharmacist deals with poisons and narcotics so has to be someone who can be trusted with those materials. Grey wonders how being a pharmacist now compares to what it was like then. Pezzuto says that in the early 1900's about 95% of pharmacists owned their own stores and there was a store on almost every corner.
The narrator interrupts at this point to tell us that in the early 1900's, the pharmacist was at the center of the immigrant community. He was an educated health professional and could dispense medical advice and medications. Many pharmacists were community leaders and mentors.
Going back to Grey and Pezzuto, the latter adds that becoming a pharmacist was a move a professional occupation, which would be an honor for Izzie and for his family. It was prestigious and a move up from working as a printer. But why would Izzie have made such a move? In the early 1900's, Jews were not hired for many jobs. Some advertisements would actually say "Jews need not apply." Many immigrants chose to go into professions and work for themselves, where they would be less affected by anti-Semitism and could rely on themselves. (And suddenly I understood why so many of my cousins became pharmacists.)
Grey asks what happened to Izzie after his graduation. Pezzuto admits she has one more document and brings out a copy of Izzie's World War I draft registration (which has nothing to do with the history of pharmacy or the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, but I guess they needed some way to segue to the next talking head).
Pezzuto explains that registration for the draft was mandatory for men between 21 and 31 years old. Izzie's card shows that he lived at 107 Bristol Street (the same address as the 1937 photograph) and was employed by himself, and his store store was at 207 Sutter. Oh, and he claimed exemption from the draft as "support conscientious objector" (which is incredibly difficult to read, and Grey had to ask Pezzuto what it said). Grey's reaction? "Oh, my left roots."
After Grey asks, Pezzuto says it would be very unusual to be a conscientious objector in 1917. She doesn't know more about the subject but can send Grey to a Jewish historian, who will be able to give her more information.
Leaving Pezzuto, Grey is surprised by how different Izzie seems now from what she had seen. She never saw him in his element (wasn't the pharmacy his element?) or his best light. She is impressed at his ability to make a better life. He was ambitious, smart, and a self-made person. And she is almost blown away by the fact that Izzie rejected the draft and was a conscientious objector.
I could not identify Grey's next stop, but she meets Tony Michels, an American Jewish historian from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and asks him what being a conscientious objector encompasses. In response he hands her a copy of the List of Enrolled Voters for the 23rd Administrative District of the Borough of Brooklyn for the period ending December 31, 1917. She pages through to the 16th Election District and finds Israel Brower listed as a Socialist. (Unfortunately, only 1919 is available online for Brooklyn, and I can't find Izzie's name in it.) The Socialist Party was opposed to World War I because it believed it to be instigated by capitalists and imperialist countries that considered the everyday man to be dispensible cannon fodder. So Izzie, as a good Socialist, would be opposed to the war and therefore registered as a conscientious objector.
Being a conscientious objector would have definitely been a minority position at the time. It could be risky because it was not a popular stance. Someone could possibly have been arrested or fired. Perhaps worse, you might be perceived as unamerican, not good for an immigrant fairly recently arrived in the country. As newcomers, immigrants were particularly vulnerable to accusations. Grey makes the obvious association with today's news. So to put yourself out there as a conscientious objector definitely took courage. You were making a statement.
But where would Izzie have learned about these Socialist ideas? Michels says he probably would have had some strong leanings already and likely was exposed to the ideas in Podolia, where there was already a burgeoning workers union movement among Jews and others. (Hey, my great-grandfather was from Podolia, and he was a Socialist, too!)
The narrator pops in for another short commentary. From 1791 on most Jews in the Russian Empire were confined to living in the Pale of Settlement and were barred from many jobs and educational opportunities. During the 1905 Russian Revolution, some groups, many Jews among them, fought for working class equality. Afterward, Jews suffered from increased anti-Semitism. To escape these unpleasant circumstances, many Jews took the risk and left Russia for the new World.
Health and Hygiene, the medical magazine of the American Community Party. (Michels does not mention that it is actually the very first issue of the magazine.) Grey looks at him rather askance — seriously, Izzie was a sympathizer of the Community Party? Michels points out that in 1935 the Community Party was not what she thinks; it even supported FDR. He tells her to "browse around" the issue.
Grey flips through some pages. There are articles on children's diseases and the dangers of drugs and beauty aids. Overall, it seems to be pretty progressive in its views and not out of line with some of today's perspectives. But what does it have to do with Izzie?
Michels points her to the inside back cover, which has a list of official IWO drugstores in Brooklyn. Michel says that the idea of the magazine was that health care was a right. IWO stands for International Workers Order, which was a self-help cooperative. Members paid dues for insurance and discounted rates. And when Grey looks down the page (oh, of course she didn't do that already), she finds a listing for Izzie's pharmacy. (And none of us was expecting that either, right?)
|Health and Hygiene, April 1935, inside back cover|
By signing up as an official IWO drugstore, Izzie showed an interest in serving his community. He also committed to adhering to the IWO standards. Therefore they were recommending him and saying that he could be trusted. Grey sees how Izzie's belief in Socialism meant that he believed in social justice and giving back.
But there's something else that Grey still wants to find out. She tells Michels that she's learned a lot about Izzie but that there are still a few holes in the journey. Izzie's mother never came to this country (which she doesn't actually know, at least based on what we've seen during the program). Michels says he has a research document that "just arrived yesterday" from the state archive in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. That archive has documents relating to Yampol, Podolia, where the Brower family came from.
The document is, of course, in Russian, but Michels gives Grey a translation. She begins to read it and says sadly, "I thought that might have happened." (And we all know what's coming.)
No 8 Shayndl, a wife of Shulim Browerman from Dzygovka, died 27th of August 1897 in Yampol at the age of 35 from childbirth
Grey is in tears. Izzie was 6 years old when his mother died. The children came to the U.S. in 1907. Who took care of them in between? Michels admits there is no information about that. (But since we weren't shown when Solomon arrived, there may not have been a big gap of years.)
Grey is still devastated. Her mother didn't know Shayndl's name. How could she not know the name of her own father's mother? Michels gently explains that the immigration experience caused a rupture in continuity, and family information was often lost or not passed down. If memories of the old country were not pleasant, immigrants had no desire to reminisce about them.
Grey looks at this as an explanation of Izzie's desire to go into medicine and helping people. He grew up in insecure circumstances (which we don't actually know), political unrest, and anti-Semitism and therefore wanted something more stable.
Before leaving, Grey thanks Michels and tells him how much she appreciates his patience and that he explained things so well.
When Grey saw her great-grandmother's name, which she had never heard before, she was surprised at how sad it made her. She is devastated to think of a child without a mother. At 9 years old she couldn't appreciate Izzie while he was alive. She hopes to do better with her own daughter and doesn't want her to miss family information and connections.
The wrap-up scene is back at the apartment with Stella. Grey and Stella are eating bierocki, which Grey says is a native food of Ukraine (which would actually make it Ukrainian and not Jewish, but let's not get too picky). Grey tells Stella some of the things she learned on her WDYTYA journey of discovery, particularly about Izzie's mother. Now that she has learned Izzie's mother died when he was so young, she can empathize with him more, because he must have felt alone in the world.
Grey feels her experience of Izzie is different now. People looked up to him and respected him. She calls him a shtarker, Yiddish for survivor. Not everyone would have been able to go on and succeed as he did. Izzie had and she has fight; they come from people who were strong enough to come to a new world and survive. She tells Stella that she hopes she tells her own children this story about the family, so they know where they came from. (But at no time does she say she's going to tell her own mother!)
While I enjoyed this episode, I do wonder about some things, like finding Shayndl's name. From that big family photo we saw, it looked like all five of the Brower siblings married. While it's big and dramatic to get the death record from Ukraine, I would have been looking first for the marriage licenses for those four siblings. I'm thinking at least one of the kids would have remembered mom's name and put it on the license. For example, here's the date of Izzie and Clara's marriage and the Family History Library film on which the marriage record appears:
Something that immediately struck me about the year of Shayndl's death is that it seems that she died giving birth to Taube/Tillie, or soon after. Taube was 9 years old when the siblings arrived in 1907, which is an approximation, indicating a birth year of about 1898. Perhaps this subject was discussed with Grey but not shown on air. I wonder if Tillie knew this herself.
I'm confused by the translated date for Shayndl's death. The translation clearly said August, Grey read August, but the Russian clearly has a 9, which should indicate September. The change shouldn't have been due to correcting the date from the Julian calendar (which the Russian Empire was still using and which did not change until after the October Revolution) to the Gregorian calendar. If anything, the date would be later, not earlier. So I don't know what's going on with that.
I was surprised nothing was said about the town named in Shayndl's death record. Dzygovka could be the town the family actually came from; Yampol may have been the province. It's often difficult to find the actual town of origin of immigrants from Russia, so this is an important piece of information. But it probably simply became subsumed into the emotions surrounding the discovery of Shayndl's name.
Another subject not discussed was the name being Browerman in Shayndl's death record versus the four siblings traveling under the name Brower. It's possible that after Solomon and William arrived they shortened the name to Brower, but that normally would not have affected the names of relatives still in Russia. They had to provide some sort of identification to purchase their tickets for the ship. I'm confused as to how they would have been using the name Brower. Perhaps both names were actually used in Russia?
While I don't mean to suggest that Shayndl's death would have had no effect on her children, Grey's reaction is a very modern one and may not have been what happened in 1897. Presentism is often difficult to overcome when researching history, and particularly hard if someone has an emotional connection to the subject. And we still don't know what Shayndl was like—if she was not a pleasant person by some chance, then maybe Izzie's reticence was due to that and not to her death. But seeing that all of Shayndl's children are deceased, that is a question we will probably never be able to answer.