Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thursday Afternoon in Maspeth: Charles Fine on "The Road to New York from Eastern Europe" at the Queens Library Maspeth Branch

We often are the oldest person at an event we go to, but today we attended an event geared toward seniors where we were pretty much the youngest: a talk and video on "The Road to New York from Eastern Europe" at the Maspeth branch of the Queens Library (we still like the old formal title we grew up with: Queens Borough Public Library).

It's a pretty easy trip from Williamsburg on the Q59 bus straight across Grand Street, which becomes Grand Avenue once you cross the bridge over Newtown Creek from Brooklyn to Queens. Just a few blocks from the LIE/BQE entrance/exit perpetual traffic tie-up, the library's in the section of Maspeth that looks more like the center of towns in Nassau County.

The library, like most branches in Queens, was filled to the rafters with people of all ages and all ethnic backgrounds. The meeting room, which was eventually filled, had an audience of old white people, as you'd expect given the subject matter and the description: "Historian of the Lower East Side Charles Fine traces the journey of immigrants from Poland, Russia and Lithuania to New York through video, discussion and artifacts."

Actually, the title of the lecture, "The Road to New York from Eastern Europe," was somewhat misleading, since it was entirely focused on Jewish immigration from the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement. As another gentleman with BPH said to us as we waited for restroom access afterwards, "I expected to be more ecumenical. I'm Jewish, but this is Maspeth, after all."

Well, we guess they were looking to educate people who might not know about the massive Jewish immigration from what's now Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, etc. But since we'd passed a branch of the Polish and Slavic Credit Union nearby on the bus ride down Grand Avenue, you might think the presentation would cover the many non-Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

No matter. Charles Fine was, as he'd probably say, a hamishe guy, someone obviously caught up in the lure of the Lower East Side of World of Our Fathers, and he showed a nice 17-minute video on the mass immigration featuring the classic Roman Vishniac photos of shtetl life and scenes from the Lower East Side, the mostly densely populated place on earth at the turn of the 20th century - when his parents (and our grandparents) were brought to the U.S. from Europe as little kids. (No one in our family lived on the Lower East Side. Our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents headed straight for Brooklyn: mostly Brownsville and then East Flatbush, Boro Park and Flatbush.) Who doesn't enjoy seeing old pics of a talis factory?

The talk hit all the highlights and was probably not news even to the most secular and un-Jewish (namely us) of Jewish Americans over thirty. Still, it was interesting to see someone who's a link to the past. (Our dad, it turns out, is just a year younger than Mr. Fine but seems like two decades younger; he doesn't care much for any of this - Dad grew up in Brownsville but the last book he read about the place was Nelson George's City Kid, not exactly his grandparents' era - nor did our mom before Alzheimer's struck. A junior high school friend, after coming to our house for the first time, said, "You are the most Christian Jewish people I've ever met.")

Still, we enjoyed hearing for the first time in over thirty years about the feud between the Litvaks and the Galitzianos, which we first learned about from a girlfriend at Brooklyn College. And Mr. Fine's reading from the 1903 constitution of the Eldridge Street Synagogue was priceless (the president has the power to grant charities monies five times quarterly, but not to exceed the sum of two dollars; the sexton must be able to prove he can read and write).

Mr. Fine - assisted by his friend Gertie - was fun, charming, and likeable, and the crowd (overwhelmingly goyim, some of his friends might say) seemed interested and appreciative. He showed his mom's naturalization certificate and unfurled a family tree created by his daughter, a Northewestern University genetic counseling expert - that was almost as long as a Torah scroll (and probably a lot more interesting).

He talked more generally about the highlights of Jewish-American history from Peter Stuyvesant's day through the Civil War, the Galveston Plan, etc. His only nod to recent immigration was mentioning that the burial societies (like our Grandpa Nat's family's Lenyin and Lachver Benevolent Association, whose name we love - though Grandpa Nat, when he died at 90 in 1988, ended up next not with a headstone in New York but under a metal footstone plaque in a cemetery in Hialeah) are today mostly active for indigent recent Russian emigres.

Mr. Fine did repeatedly stress that while his talk was about Jewish immigration, the listener might just strike out the word Jewish and substitute the nationality of his or her own ancestors, because he said the experience of all American immigrants is different mostly in the details and specific history.

When we walked out of the library, we held the door open for an entering woman in a stylish jilbab. We're grateful to the Queens Library for its existence - once we got our driver's license 40 years ago, we were at the central library on Merrick Boulevard about once a month and went more often to branches in Rockaway near our house

- and we're grateful for events like Charles Fine's talk today.

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