My great-great grandfather Sam came to the United States in 1895, leaving his wife Minnie and four young daughters behind in Russia. I am assuming he took this picture relatively soon after his arrival, maybe taking it on purpose to send it back to his family, though that is just hopeful speculation on my part. It would be a good story, but unless I become an expert on dating men’s ties and collars overnight, there is very little chance that I can determine what the story behind this photograph – taken in a not-very-fancy photograph studio in a nice-looking suit – really is. His family joined him in 1899, and lived first in Brooklyn, then Manhattan (where son William was born in 1903), then the Bronx. Sam owned a series of stationary stores – the breed of store that sold toys and candy and cigarettes and newspapers and cards and other mundane sundries. This was never a particularly successful line of work for Sam, and the family was very poor. According to my grandfather, Sam’s grandson, Minnie was the hard worker in the family and Sam was perhaps either (a) somewhat sickly or (b) a Jewish scholar whose studies took time away from money-earning hours. I think the former option – sickliness – is perhaps the real reason, as Sam died of stomach cancer in 1925, something that probably was the source of lingering illness. Plus he hardly looks like a Talmud scholar in this very American suit and tie and watch-chain. After Sam died, his younger daughters and William (who made a fortune in the artificial flower business, a story that will wait until I can find a picture of him) financially supported their mother Minnie, for of course there were no savings and no money in the store itself.
I always think of him, for some reason, as a relative who died young though in reality he was 70, which is perhaps on the younger side, but certainly not young. Maybe I do this because by contrast he was young – his wife Minnie lived into her 90s and died in 1956; Minnie’s mother died in 1924, in her mid-80s; and his daughter, my great-grandmother Charlotte, lived to be 93. Maybe it’s also because he did not live long enough for my grandfather to actually know him very well, and therefore, he is a very vague personage about whom we don’t have any stories. We have this picture, though, and a handful of records and maybe that is good enough for now.