Meet Gussie Dubrin — A Coming to America Story

Gussie Dubrin in 1991

As Columbus Day approaches we are thinking about the immigrants who later made the journey across the ocean to find a better life. Many – probably most – of the early congregants of the Eldridge Street Synagogue were new Americans, including Gussie Dubrin, who was interviewed by Judy Tenney for the Museum (then the Eldridge Street Project) in 1991 for our oral history archive.

Gussie was born somewhere near Minsk, Russia, in 1903. “There were pogroms there,” she said, explaining her parents’ decision to come to the United States. They were afraid for their lives, she recalled. “You would sit in your house and, before you knew it, the coassacks came. They broke in and broke everything in your house.”

Gussie came to the United States in 1906 with her mother and five brothers and sisters. They landed at Ellis Island, where immigration officials placed a big cross on the apron worn by one of Gussie’s sisters. The mark indicated that the girl had poor eyesight and should be sent back. But Gussie’s mother acted quickly, taking off the little girl’s apron and reversing it so that the cross could not be seen. The whole family was admitted.

Gussie’s father, Morris Dubrin, had come in 1904, and another sister had made the journey alone shortly after. She was just 13. “She was lost for a couple of months,” Gussie recalled matter-of-factly. “They didn’t know where she was. They said somebody stole her passport. But finally she got here. It took her about three months, I think.”

Morris found an apartment for the family at 11 Rutgers Street, near East Broadway. “It was a small apartment,” Gussie remembered. “My mother hated it. She was used to the country and fresh air. But we managed.”

Their new home was just a few blocks from the Eldridge Street Synagogue, where Morris had found work as the shammes, or caretaker. “He devoted his whole life to the synagogue,” Gussie said proudly. “As far as I know, he had no other job.”

Gussie described her father. “He was a tall man. We’re all short and he was tall. He had a small beard, no moustache…He was nice looking. When he walked into a room, everybody looked at him. He was outstanding. I thought so anyhow. When he put on his high hat [a top hat worn during services], then he was really something.”

“He was the shammes of the shul, but he conducted all the services of the shul. There was morning service and evening service. He never missed. Twice a day, he went to the shul. He was a ba’al k’riah [Torah reader]. He was the one who conducted all the services. Even on the High Holidays, when they had a rabbi and a cantor and a choir, my father did most of the service because he had a beautiful voice.”

In the women's balcony

Gussie went to services with her mother for the High Holidays. “She had the best seat. My mother had the first seat in the balcony. So she could see all over.”

“I remember the synagogue was always crowded. There were no empty seats. I remember that the women came all dressed up in their best finery. There were a lot of rich people there…They wore fur pieces and hats with feathers or plumes and big diamonds – which my mother didn’t have.”

“The whole balcony was filled. Then the children would stand around in back.”

“The services were very impressive for the holidays. There was a warmth. You knew it was a holiday.”

After Morris Dubrin died in 1933, the family moved to the Bronx, but as an adult, Gussie “started becoming interested in the shul.” She and her cousin would often make the trip downtown to Eldridge Street. “That was the purpose of going down,” she said, “to visit the synagogue and leave some money for them.” Gussie Dubrin died in 1997 at the age of 93, more than nine decades after she made the voyage across the ocean to America.

Categories: Blog, History, Immigration, Jewish History, Lower East Side

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