Our New Friends and an Old Lower East Side Story
By Nancy Johnson, Museum Archivist
Last Wednesday was a great day for a field trip, as our Program Director, Hanna Griff-Sleven and I took a drive to beautiful Island Park on the south shore of Long Island. We had gotten a handwritten letter from Marion Ash, a 92-year-old woman who had read about the Museum in Jewish Week. She was looking for a good place to donate family pictures and documents. After learning that her family treasures had connections to the Jewish Lower East Side, we decided to visit.
We were welcomed at the front door by Marion’s husband of 70 years, Paul, also 92, tall and spry with the voice of a vibrant young man. He took us upstairs to meet Marion, who sat in a study that was crammed, but tidily so, with books and encyclopedias in many languages, and pictures and certificates covering the walls. We soon learned that both Marion and Paul were retired language teachers – Spanish, French and Italian — with a great sense of history.
Hanna and I spent a wonderful afternoon with the couple as they told us about themselves and their family. Marion’s grandparents, Bezalel and Sarah Gitelson, had come to the United States in the 1880s from Lithuania, during the first great wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, and then settled on the Lower East Side, where her parents were born. Later, like many immigrant families, they moved to the Bronx, and then to Brooklyn, where both Marion and Paul grew up.
The photos and documents that Marion wanted to donate to the Museum hung on the wall in the hall just outside the room where we sat. One by one, they explained what were looking at: photographs of Marion’s maternal and paternal grandparents; her grandfather’s citizenship certificate from 1903; and her parent’s ketubah (wedding certificate). Hanna’s favorite was a wedding invitation written in English on one side and Yiddish on the other that included instructions for where to get off the trolley – right on the invitation, and in both languages!
Mr. and Mrs. Ash were an archivist’s and folklorist’s dream. Everything they gave us was labeled on the back. Many times we get things that are in bad condition or with no information or context. But with the stories that Marion and Paul told us, and the information contained in the documents and their labels, we gained a whole Lower East Side family story that we can share with our visitors.
Midway through our visit there was coffee, delicious mandelbrot and ice cream. Later, when Marion started to tire, we thanked Mr. and Mrs. Ash, packed up the new donations for the Museum and said good-bye. We were halfway down their street when I realized we had forgotten to take a photo of our new friends. “Let’s go back,” Hanna said, and we were so glad we did. Here is the picture we took:
As we drove back to the City, we reflected on the afternoon’s fieldwork/adventure. Not only had we secured some interesting artifacts for the Museum, but we got the context and human-ness of the items in our talk with Marion and Paul, which we audio taped for our archives. Stories like theirs add so much to the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and its immigrant neighborhood. As Hanna would say, “it’s what makes our tours and space so heimish.”