As I have written before, one of the fascinating aspects of doing this research is what I’ve learned about the experience of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is remarkable to me how children who arrived without speaking English and living in poverty were able to assimilate successfully into American society and make a good life for themselves and their children in this country.
Leah Strolowitz Adler is a good example of this remarkable transformation from a poor Romanian immigrant to an American success story. Thanks to her granddaughter Jean, I’ve been able to learn a fair amount about Leah and to obtain several pictures of her. Leah was born on May 25, 1900, in Iasi, Romania, the seventh and youngest child of Jankel Srulovici and Tillie Rosenzweig. She was only seven years old when she immigrated with her parents and siblings to New York City, where soon afterwards her father either died or disappeared. She lived with her mother and siblings and her two cousins, Isadore and Betty Goldschlager, in a tenement in East Harlem. While her older siblings went to work in sweatshops to support the family, Leah went to Public School 101 in Harlem on 109th Street, where she completed eighth grade in 1915. Jean recalled that Leah told her that although she was happy to leave Romania, she found the transition to America difficult. Leah remembered standing on line at the public school in NYC and being teased for speaking Yiddish. Obviously, however, Leah soon learned English and even went on to Julia Richmond High School.
After she finished school, Leah lived with her mother and sisters, working in a millinery shop, until she married Ben Schwartz on June 26, 1921. Jean shared with me the story of how Leah met Ben. Leah had been friendly with or briefly dated Ben’s brother Emmanuel. While Emmanuel was overseas during World War I, Leah dropped by his optometry office for an eye exam and met Ben. Ben asked Leah out for a cup of coffee. The family story is that when Leah finished her piece of cake, Ben offered to buy her a second piece, and she knew right then that “he was a keeper.” Ben was American born and also an optometrist, according to his draft registration and various census reports.
Here are some photos of Leah, taken by Ben, during their courtship around 1920. She looks like a genuine American woman of the 1920s. She certainly seems to have left her poor immigrant beginnings behind her.
This is Leah and Ben around 1920:
Here is a photograph of Leah around 1921, reading a Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Morning Journal.
Leah and Ben moved to the Bronx and had a son Ira (named for Isidor, Leah’s oldest brother), born in 1923, and a daughter Theodora (“Teddy”)(named for Tillie, Leah’s mother) born in 1927. Here is a photograph of Leah, wearing a fur coat and holding Teddy in February, 1929, when Teddy was two years old. Notice the price of the baby clothes in the window of the shop behind them: 79 cents.
Sometime in the 1930s, Leah’s divorced sister Bertha came to live with the Schwartz family for a number of years (at least until 1940, according to the US census of that year). Teddy still remembers her mother Leah commenting that it was a good thing that her father Jankel could not see them all working on Shabbos, suggesting that Jankel must have been an observant Jew.
According to Jean, Bertha taught Teddy to sew, but Leah was upset because she wanted her daughter to do more with her life than the sewing work that Leah and her sisters had done. I found this remarkable, given that women had so few choices back in the 1930s, but Leah clearly had a progressive vision and did not want her daughter to limit herself in anyway.
Teddy did grow up to be independent. After graduating from Taft high school in 1944, she attended NYU and became an occupational therapist, a professional woman long before that was common. Because she hated the cold, she moved by herself to Atlanta, Georgia, after seeing an advertisement for a job there. She soon met the man who would become her husband, Abner Cohen, whose family had deep roots in Atlanta. Teddy and Abner stayed in Atlanta where they raised their three children.
Jean recalled that Leah was scared to death to fly and so she and Ben would take the seventeen hour trip by train from NYC to Atlanta once or twice a year. Jean remembered, “At the station, while we waited for the train to arrive, we placed copper pennies on the track and after she disembarked and her train left, we would collect the flattened Abe. Grandma baked wonderful rugelach and some round brown sugar cookies. We made such a to do about her cookies that she would arrive toting the dough already mixed and formed ready to bake.”
Eventually Teddy’s parents Leah and Ben moved to Atlanta, where they lived the rest of their lives.
So Leah Strolowitz Adler, who was born in Iasi and moved to America at age 7, not speaking English and living in a Harlem tenement, grew up and lived a comfortable life in New York, raised a daughter who became a health care professional, and retired with Ben to Atlanta, where she was able to get to know her grandchildren, including Jean, my fellow family historian. To me, it is a remarkable story, another example of the amazing resilience and persistence of the immigrant generation who made life possible for all of us today.