What are values? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, values are one’s principles or standards; one’s judgment of what is valuable or important in life. In every story that is retold in my family, whether it is about my great-grandparents, grandparents, or parents, a set of values always underlies the narrative. These values make up a major part of who I am, and make me want to become a person who my ancestors would support and be proud of. My family’s and my own values make my family unique and who we are.
Much of my family’s core values are best seen through the their stories of immigration and early life in the United States. During the 1930s my great grandmother, Anna, boarded a ship to America in Warsaw, Poland. She left behind her entire family and all of her friends, never to see them again, so that she could be reunited with her husband Jacob, who had stowed away in the wine cellar of a ship a few years earlier, to pave the way for them to resettle in America. Anna was forced to leave her home because of persecution, anti-Semitism, and the increasing danger to Jews in the years immediately prior to World War II. Her journey was a brave, optimistic and hopeful act, for she did not know what kind of life would meet her in America. Her mother, who cared about her so dearly, had sewn coins into her quilt, which were some of the few objects she could take with her on her journey, leaving their family with less fortune during the rough times in Poland.
When Anna arrived at Ellis Island she did not need to disembark there, because she had enough money to allow her to bypass immigration there. Her husband had already established a home in Brooklyn, and she was met on the shore of Manhattan by Jacob, where she converted the coins she had carried from Poland into dollars. In America, Jacob and she had three children. Terri, my grandmother, to this day still sleeps with this quilt and the memories that Anna brought with her from Warsaw. Sadly, the rest of Anna’s family perished in the war, but through Anna’s fortitude and her experiences, the values of courage (ometz-lev), hope (teek-va), risk taking (Le’kee-khat-see-koo-neem), and love (a-ha-va) are exemplified.
The values of family (meesh-pah-cha), education (chee-nuch), equality (sheev-yon), and determination (hech-leh-tee-yoot) are values that my grandmother, Terri, embraced as she grew up in a conservative Jewish home with Anna and Jacob. There they had close family ties, kept kosher, and spoke Yiddish. Terri became an educator and taught Social Studies at a Hebrew day school in the Bronx, and later in her 40s, with perseverance and determination attended law school and practiced law. She worked as the counsel for the Bronx Borough president, and also as a legal educator in a detention center for troubled juveniles, where she strived to bring equality and knowledge to these children.
On the paternal side of my family there are also many examples of determination and courage exemplified through the immigration experience to the United States. At a time of unrest for Jews, Louis Pomerantz, my paternal great-great grandfather, left a small village in Russia in the 1880s by boat, en route to New York, in order to escape the height of the Russian pogroms. He did not know it at the time, but he was journeying, out of all the places in the world, to rural Galveston, Texas. When the ship he was traveling on from Russia reached the shores of New York, it was determined that the quota for Eastern Europeans had been meet, and his boat was diverted to Galveston. There, he was initially homeless and unemployed but with determination he set off to make a new life for himself, and pushed onward. In Texas, he sought out familiar traditions (ma-sor-et) and found the one village Rabbi who loaned Louis a pushcart from which he could sell merchandise. Unfortunately, Louis became ill and began to grow weak. Meanwhile in Russia, his family, including his new wife and multiple children, had been waiting many years for a letter from him telling them when to travel to America. Louis’s wife began to worry when she had not heard from him, and so she set out independently, something that was unheard of for a woman at the time, to go to America to try to find him. His wife was able to uncover that he had landed in Galveston, Texas and there she met the Rabbi who told her that he had loaned Louis Pomerantz a pushcart. She tried exceptionally hard to locate him but was unsuccessful.
However, one night when she was looking for a place to sleep, she asked a farmer and his wife if they would kindly rent her their barn for the night. They replied that the barn was not vacant and there was a sick man living there, who was probably going to die. However, they let her know that she was welcome to use it for the night. Despite the possible consequences of contracting an illness herself, Louis’s wife walked into the old, rickety barn only to find, against all probabilities, her husband lying there, feeble and sickly. Miraculously, with determination, loyalty, strength, and love she nursed Louis until he was healthy again, and sent for their children in Russia, who were now old enough to travel together, to come to Texas. This story of Louis and his wife embody the values of independence (atz-ma-oot), risk-taking, loyalty (neh-eh-mah-noot), love, compassion (ra-cha-meem), and the strength and bonds of family roots (shar-shey a-va-rey-noo).
The values of hard work (a-vo-dah ka-shey) courage, music (moo-see-ka), and artistic expression (bee-too-ee o-mah-noo-tee) are also a strong part of my family’s core. Louis was the father of Max Pomerantz, my great-grandfather, who would go on to marry Edith Brown, my great-grandmother. Among their children (of whom only two out of four survived) was Melvin, my paternal grandfather. Melvin completed a chemical engineering degree at Texas A & M College, and then bravely served in the Pacific in the navy during World War II, when he was just 18 years old. He also was an adventurous man, who knew how to fly airplanes.
Melvin believed in hard work and was an entrepreneur in the furniture and carpet business, as well as in real estate, in a small rural town in Texas. He, and my father in turn, had a great love and passion for music, theater, and artistic expression. My grandfather, Mel, acted in many plays locally in Texas and later, when his children were older, he acted with them as well, especially with my father Will who embraced the theater. Mel also played several instruments, among them piano, mandolin, ukulele, flute, bass, and drums. When my grandfather met my grandmother, Sara Ann Lasser, his family’s history and values became intertwined with the Lasser family’s values and history, which also winds through Poland, Russia, and Waco Texas.
My grandmother’s father, William Lasser, was born in Riga, Latvia and emigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century, once again to avoid the harsh climate and pogroms that Jews faced there. He was courageous, and full of hope, and determination as he set off to create a new life for himself. He married my great-grandmother, Thelma, who was born in Waco, Texas in the early 1900s, and whose own mother had come from Poland. When Thelma married William, she had already completed two years at Baptist University when he took her out of rural life in Waco and brought her to the big city of Houston. Education was a key value in the Lasser family, and the two daughters of Thelma and William, Sara Ann and Frances, both went on to complete degrees in higher education. My grandmother Ann and her sister Frances both attended college at Rice University, and my great-aunt Frances was one of only two women in her class to graduate with an accounting degree.
Tradition and family were also dominant values in the Lasser family. In Houston, the family made certain to share time together, had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, and also celebrated major Jewish religious holidays. My grandmother, Sara Ann, went on to be a source of strength, love, and generosity (n’dee-voot) as she raised her own four children. She continues to embrace these values as well as the value of community (k’hee-la) in the volunteer work she does in her neighborhood by providing elderly people with meals and running the film program for the Jewish Film Festival at the San Antonio JCC. Finally, she embodies the value of bettering the world through the work she does with Knitting4Peace, a grass-roots organization dedicated to crafting hope, healing, and peace by knitting blankets, scarves, and dolls for children in need in areas affected by war and desperate poverty throughout the world.
As is evident, my parents are from very different immediate backgrounds. My dad grew up in a small rural town in Texas, and my mom in New York City. However, their two families share similar histories and value sets, having faced persecution and having persevered against great odds to survive and thrive in America. Although my mom never faced obvious anti-Semitism growing up in New York City, my dad remembers a personal incident from when he was in high school in the late 1970s when he discovered a swastika spray painted in red on the sidewalk in front of his house and on the family car, along with the graffiti “Hitler was right.”
My dad worked with my grandfather to clean off the car and sidewalk, as they wondered who would have committed such a cowardly act. Although they never found the perpetrator, my dad and his family remained in Seguin, Texas. The fact that they did so and that they continued to practice Judaism, shows the type of perseverance (akh-sha-noot) and courage that many in their family had exhibited before them. It also exemplifies their choice to embrace the values of acceptance (has-ka-mah) and peace (shalom) and to choose to focus on creating beauty and bettering the world instead of being brought down by hatred. My father went on to become an accomplished clarinetist and saxophone player, and now directs and writes plays in New York City. His sense of the world is always a creative one. He also cares deeply about the environment we live in and is always careful about recycling and preserving the world for my generation.
My mom, Elizabeth, also embodies the values of bettering the world and equality. She is an Emergency Medicine physician who works in global and public health, and has worked in many countries where people have limited or no access to health care, in order to help balance some of the inequalities that exist. The values of justice (tzeh-dek) and equality are also exemplified in the work she does in the United States, where she advocates for and examines immigrant patients from other countries who have had to flee their countries, often because of political and social persecution, and who have survived torture and human rights abuses. These values of bettering the world and fighting for social justice are also evident in my aunt, Diana, who is a human rights lawyer and anthropologist. She also works tirelessly with immigrant populations and with those that have no one else to represent them in court. She passionately embraces the values of bettering the world and of humanity.
Although my parents and I are humanistic, secular Jews, my parents interestingly chose to get married at the Eldridge Street synagogue, which is the oldest Eastern European orthodox synagogue in New York for non-German Jews. My parents found the history and the building itself beautiful, and the walls of the synagogue spoke to them with the stories of many that had immigrated to the United States long ago- fleeing persecution and looking for equality, and the freedom to embrace their traditions. They wanted to honor the rich values and roots from which they came and the people who persevered before them: Anna, Jacob, Louis, Max, William, Thelma, Melvin, Ann, and Terri. I hope to be the next link to continue carrying on the stories of this rich history and the values that are embedded in it.