Category Archives: Immigration

Floridian Shapiro notes her Tu B’Shevat refuge and credits its creator Edward Bok

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Larry and I in front of the Singing Tower carillon at Bok Tower Gardens.

Jews annually celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the day in which it is believed “trees come of age.” For those of us who live in Central Florida, there is no more fitting a place to honor the Jewish “Earth Day” than at Bok Tower Gardens. The sixty-acre sanctuary in nearby  Lake Wales was the gift of Edward Bok. Bok, the son of impoverished Dutch immigrants became a successful publisher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a humanitarian and an advocate of world peace and the environment.

From Rags to Riches

Edward William Bok was born in Den Helder, Netherlands, in 1863. After a series of bad investments brought his father to financial ruin, the family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1870 to start a new life. Bok senior enrolled the children in school the day after they arrived in Brooklyn although neither of his sons could speak a word of English. 

Financial woes continued, and the family found itself in dire poverty. The two sons worked tirelessly to support their mother, who had lived most of her life with servants, by taking over all the household chores, picking up coal on the streets to light their fire and cook their food, and washing the windows of a bakery shop after school to supplement their father’s income. 

By 13, Edward Bok quit school and became an office boy for Western Union Telegraph Company.The youth used every spare minute in self-study, With his paltry savings, bought encyclopedia and studied to absorb its information.

Bok made an Horatio Alger journey in the publishing world. His rapid ascent included positions at the Henry Holt and Company, Charles Scribner’s Son, The Brooklyn Magazine and as co-founder with his brother, of the Bok Syndicate Press. In 1889, at the age of 26, he was hired as editor of Curtis Publishing Company’s The Ladies Home Journal. In 1896, he married the boss’s daughter, Mary Curtis, and they had two son. 

During his thirty year career, Bok used his position to champion causes, including social and environmental issues.

From Rags to Riches

By 1919, the 56-year-old self-made millionaire had achieved his two goals of education and achievement. He retired from the Journal, and wrote his autobiography The Americanization of Edward Bok, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. It was now time to pursue his third goal: service to his country.

Throughout his life, Edward had been guided by his grandmother’s mantra to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” In the next several years, Bok used his wealth to create several awards, including the American Peace Award.

Edward also to help the world environmentally. During his family’s visits to their winter home in Lake Wales, Florida, he had often wandered up to nearby Iron Mountain,(a notable Florida “peak” at 298 feet above sea level) to view the vistas and the sunsets. Although acreage was initially targeted for development, Edward purchased the land to establish a place that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet.”

Sanctuary

In 1922, Edward commissioned Frederic Law Olmsted, Jr., an American landscape architect whose credits included the National Mall, the Jefferson Monument, and the White House grounds, to carry out the task. Under Olmsted’s direction, a year later, the barren sandhill had been transformed into a subtropical garden filled with trees, flowering bushes, flowers, and a reflecting pond that attracted squirrels and over one hundred varieties of birds. 

Not yet satisfied, Bok wanted to bring the gift of music to his garden. He commissioned architect Milton B. Medary and stone sculptor Lee Lawie to design and construct a 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Tower carillon, one the world’s largest and, according to many carillioners, the most acoustically perfect bell tower in the world.

In December 2015, Larry and I visited Bok Tower Gardens for the first time. Impressed with its beauty, we took out a membership and have returned again and again—by ourselves or with family and friends. Sometimes we just walk through Olmsted’s well-designed garden paths, which offer hidden recesses, contemplative resting spots, picturesque vistas and breathtaking views of the Singing Tower. Each season brings its own beauty, including spectacular displays of azaleas, camellias, and magnolias.

Dutch Tikkun Olam

More often than not, we take a tour given by one of Bok Tower Gardens many volunteer guides. Each visit has brought greater appreciation for this hidden gem—its history, its flora and fauna, its music, its architecture, and more insight into the genius and generosity of Edward Bok. 

On the pathway leading into the gardens is an arch which is inscribed with Edward’s grandmother’s admonition to “make the world a bit more beautiful.” Each time I see those words, I think how closely they reflect tikkun olam, the Jewish concept that suggests humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair, and transform the world.

.Edward’s beautiful garden, stunning carillon, his sixty-five acres of trees and flowers and bushes and vistas, is his legacy, his gift, his way of making the world a better place. 

And in today’s political climate, I also think of how the son of impoverished Dutch immigrant contributed so very much to Central Florida and his chosen country. To Edward Bok and every other immigrant who has come to our country to find a better life and who, through their journey made our country better—I say thank you. 

Sources include The Edward Bok Legacy by Margaret Smith, Bok Tower Gardens website, and Wikipedia.

Originally published in The (Capital District)  Jewish World, January 25, 2018

My Family’s History of Immigrants

The history of the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City is intertwined with my mother’s family and in particular, my smart, generous, resourceful Aunt Lil.

My maternal family story began Ragola, a small shtetl town in the southeast part of Lithuania.  My grandmother’s Ethel’s birth mother Channah married Buck (first name unknown), a radical and a “free thinker.”  Buck’s unorthodox views were too much for the religious Channah and her parents. Soon after the birth of their son Rafael, the marriage was dissolved. A few years later, Channah married Elihu Hirsch Osovitz. Rafael was soon joined by a half-brother Sam.

Five years later, Buck came to their home and took Rafeal with him to America. Channah, heartbroken,died a few weeks later during childbirth. Channah’s parents took Sam into their home. The infant Ethel—my future grandmother— was placed in a home a wet nurse.

Three years later, Elihu fell in love with Faigah “Vichna” Levinson, the daughter of a prosperous couple in the baking and grocery business. At first Vichna’s parents did not approve of their twenty-year-old daughter’s marriage to a thirty-plus widower with two children.  However, their union was a love match, a rarity in those days of arranged marriages.

Ethel adored her new mother, In fact, it was not until she was introduced her maternal grandparents seven years later that Ethel realized that Vichna was her step-mother. During that visit, Ethel  also learned that she had an older brother Sam in America.

Elihu was a pious man and a student of the Torah. Grandma Vichna was the breadwinner, working in her father’s store. They shared a shtetl “duplex” with another family. Each side of the small wood building held one room with a curtain in the corner hiding a bed to provide the parents some privacy. The two families shared an outhouse.

By 1899, the couple had four more children sharing their one room house: Joe, Lil, Paul, and Rose. Fearful of the threat of pogroms, Elihu and Vichna insisted their oldest daughter cross the ocean by herself to “die goldeneh medinah”—the Golden Land— for a better life. At Ellis Island, fifteen-year-old Ethel was met by her brother Sam and her half brother Rafael Buck. It was the first time she had met either sibling. Staying with distance cousins, Ethel got a job in a umbrella factory for three dollars a week.

Back in Ragola, behind that thin curtain, Vichna and Elihu conceived three more children: Bea, Ruth, Morris. As the oldest girl living home, Lil was responsible for her younger siblings until she was sent to America when she was twelve years old to join Ethel.

The two sisters rented a room with a family of six children and four other boarders.Giving her age as fourteen, Lil obtained a job as garment worker in a sweatshop in Greenwich Village.  She viewed the location— the top floors of the crowded, airless Aisch Building—as “a firetrap.” To  prevent workers from taking too many breaks or stealing, the owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits.

Ethel, struggling and unhappy with her job, accepted her brother Sam’s invitation to move in with him and his wife in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Paul, Joe, and Rose followed their older siblings to America.

When Paul encountered health problems working in the sweatshops, Lil relocated him and Joe to Burlington, Vermont. She also gave them  money  to purchase a wheelbarrow and enough second hand items to peddle goods to Vermont farmers and their families. First traveling on foot and then on horse and wagon, the two brothers saved enough money to open a store in Alburgh, Vermont. This was the start of Pearl’s Department Stores, department store chain that grew to twenty-two stores in Vermont and Upstate New York.

Working in the factory on Washington Place, Lil proved to be a  fast and efficient seamstress. When she demanded a raise, she was fired—a blessing in disguise. A week later, on  March 25, 1911, the “firetrap”—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—was the scene of the deadliest industrial fires in New York City history.  A hundred and forty-six garment works died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths.The tragedy led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire)

By that time, Elihu had died. Lil had saved $75  to pay for the remaining family members’ ship passage. On April 11, 1911, an elegantly dressed Lil  greeted Vichna (44), Bea (11), Morris (9), and Ruth (6) at Ellis Island. Lil rented an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for herself, Rose, and the four new immigrants.

Lil continued to be the main breadwinner in the family. She obtained promotions as a seamstress in various factories specializing in blouses and dresses. She often made as much as $20 a week, a greater salary than even most of the married men with whom she worked. Her hard work came with sacrifices. Lil attended night school, but after a hard day’s work in the shop, she fell often asleep in class. As a result, she never spoke or wrote English proficiently, relying heavily on Yiddish her whole life.

Now that the entire Osovitz family was in America, Vichna now focused her efforts on making sure that her oldest daughter in Baltimore was married. She arranged a match between her Ethel and Joseph Cohen, a lonely tailor originally from Ragola who was sleeping on a cot in his sister’s apartment. On January 14, 1912, Ethel and Joe were married in a large banquet hall  filled with family and friends from the old country. Nine months and four days after the wedding, their son Eli—named after Elihu—was born. Five years later, they welcomed Frances—my future mother.

A few years later, with the entire Osovitz family finally settled in The Golden Land,  Lil married Sam Waldman, a butcher. Lil worked alongside her husband in stores in New York State: first in the city, then Long Island, St. Regis Falls, and, finally settling in the Syracuse area. The entire family remained close throughout their lives, as have their many descendants of the original nine siblings from Ragola, Lithuania. And all of us recognize and appreciate the strong role our Aunt Lil played in our history.

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The Osovitz Family: Bottom left to right: Rose, Ruth, Bea, Ethel, and Lil. Top left to Right: Paul, Sam, and Joe. All their names were Americanized once they moved to America.