Published on December 8th, 2020 | by Esther Cohen


How Families Change

I grew up in a family that more or less Looked Alike. Grandparents on both sides were immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century they left, because of poverty, because of pogroms, with the idea of being in America.

They traveled first to South Africa, working in factories in Johannesburg, and by the time they had a little money, they made it to America, to Ansonia, a factory town, a working class town precariously situated on small rocky hills, with sidewalks, a good library, and a bunch of public schools in Connecticut, along the Naugatuck River. The town where I was born.

Pale people, all of them. My father’s family, from Lithuania and the Ukraine, were small and round and white and every single one of them looked like human beings who’d never been outside very much. You couldn’t imagine any of them in bathing suits, for instance. Their bodies were soft, their language was Yiddish, and they ate meat and potatoes and meat and potatoes every single day. Their only fish was gefilte: chopped carp that my grandmother made from scratch. Carp in the bathtub until she chopped it up, fish that was only good because of her strong fresh horseradish, the mandatory accompaniment.

My mother’s side was equally pale. They’d gone from a small village in Romania to Canada and then crossed over the border to Grand Forks, North Dakota. They spoke Yiddish too. My mother’s mother, my favorite relative, was a big baker and alongside the meat, she always served dessert: delicious cookies made with many sticks of butter, cookies that came in various shapes. My favorite, called rugelach, required carefully rolled out dough stuffed with raisins and nuts. Eating one rugelach was impossible. She lived in California, but once a year she came to visit Connecticut, where we lived. Ansonia was known for manufacturing ball bearings, and she would spend considerable time baking rugelach. She made enough for us to be able to eat them long after she returned home. 

My grandmother too was a person who did not like to go outside. She would not, for instance, sit in our small backyard. Bugs, she’d say, when I would ask her why. She did not garden, she did not swim, and the only boat she’d even ridden was the boat that brought her to Ellis Island.

Library of Congress

My parents, born in America, were not entirely American either. My father, a Talmudic man who could have been a Lithuanian rabbi, was a small merchant in the town where we lived. He sold men’s clothes and shoes. The store was named for his father, Oscar Cohen’s. Not much of a merchant, he would mostly read in the store until a customer or two would come. My mother was maybe a little more American. But not entirely. She wore large gold hoop earrings that her mother carried from Romania, though pierced ears were not the norm.

My father could swim. My mother could not. Both of them did their best to be what they thought Americans were. They spoke English most of the time, and only used Yiddish when they wanted to say something they didn’t want my brother and me to know.  They wore what they believed were American clothing, although my mother especially never looked much like anyone else.  She looked as if she came from an unfamiliar place – Eastern Europe or Latin America.  She certainly didn’t give the appearance that she was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota. My father, stately and unassuming, could have been from anywhere.

They gave us lessons in music and dance, and wanted us to do well in school. My brother and I looked like combinations of the two of them. And in our ways each of us was more American than they were. My brother played football and was a real athlete. He was never pale. I loved to swim, although I was never especially athletic. And I dreamed, from an early age, of moving to New York City, where I imagined the entire world converged.

My childhood was spent alongside workers who were Irish and Italian and Black, who mostly worked at the big downtown factory, Farrell Birmingham, a place that made ball bearings. The town had small stores like my father’s and my best friend Abby’s father’s appliance store. These, were mostly owned by firs- generation Jews, who were also the town’s dentists and lawyers too. Those were the people we socialized with at the Beth Israel Synagogue in nearby Derby, Connecticut, where we went every single Friday night, every Saturday morning. Although Jews were in the minority, that’s who we saw and that’s who we knew. People who looked pretty much the way we did.  My childhood memory was that we all got along.

I couldn’t wait to go to college to lead a different life. I knew it would be in a city, and I wanted my friends to be unfamiliar and different. Why are some people drawn to what is familiar and others of us the opposite? Maybe my parents, because they were raised with the history of immigration, wanted certainty, stability. They wanted to know what they were going to eat every day, and that every Friday night they’d go to the Beth Israel Synagogue Center for Sabbath  Services.

My college was in Washington DC, a complicated Black and white Southern town where, I heard, the fantastic singer Josephine Baker once performed. I wanted to be just like her, although I couldn’t sing a note. But she went around the world adopting children from everywhere and that’s how I imagined my own path. I wanted to have a family where no one looked alike.

Josephine Baker and her children
Photo by Hugo van Gelderen (ANEFO)

Later, living where I always hoped I’d be, in a small apartment in New York City, the whole world sat side by side on the subway everyday. It was the seventies then, when the universe looked bright orange, and when what was possible seemed infinite. I started working and one day at a party I met an Armenian man named Peter who did not look like me and we married. 

His parents had been children in the horrific Turkish genocide of Armenians, and his father had been raised by a kind Muslim Kurdish family in Beirut. His family, all short with golden skin, lived in a world of relatives. All the men had mustaches, and the women, traditional, rolled grape leaves and made delicious pastries stuffed with meat.

And when it came time for us to talk about children, I told him about Josephine Baker, and we decided we’d find a child in Beirut, where his father had been adopted. Then, Beirut was a war torn city. We tried, but the orphanages in Beirut were not open to us adopting a child. They did not want children, no matter what their circumstances, leaving their country.

All this happened thirty-four years ago, when the adoption world was a little different from now.  In New York at that time, there were several cases of birth mothers who’d placed babies for adoption. A few years later they wanted their babies back.  The courts at the time ruled in favor of the birth mothers, and we were both worried about taking that chance. 

So we went to a lawyer in Hicksville, Long Island, who handled adoptions in over thirty countries. He told us there were many children ready to be adopted in Chile, because it was a Catholic country and abortions were illegal, and because the society looked favorably on adoption. He said that if we didn’t care about race or sex, and we didn’t, we could fairly quickly be parents. We met our baby boy, Noah.

Peter and I both worked hard in our jobs. He worked on movies as an editor and I worked mostly for labor unions and Noah, our only child, went to New York City public schools. Friends were more or less Everything. 

When he went to college he met a colored woman named Chesray from South Africa. South Africa is a country where people’s race was carefully identified, and colored means a mix of Indians and Dutch and other combinations. Chesray’s township is for colored people.  So were all her schools.  

Eventually they married, and after a while they had a child of their own, a girl named Ahava, the Hebrew word for love. She’s named Ahava from the Hebrew Chesray learned in the Evangelical church where her grandfather was a minister. After a while Chesray’s niece came here to live with us too. She’s half Zulu from Soweto and half colored from Capetown. 

All of us try to add our different pieces together, to make a bigger whole. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes Chesray brings the family to a Black church in Harlem. Peter and I don’t go to synagogues or churches much. We are all happy to celebrate whatever we can — Chanukah and Christmas, Passover and Easter.  

So now here we are: a modern blended family, nearly unfathomable in my parents’ generation. None of us look alike, and yet, we all look a little alike too.

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About the Author

Esther Cohen writes, teaches, and is a cultural activist.  She posts a poem everyday at esthercohen.com.

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