“Go back where you came from”! I did

West 29th Street. Or West 30th Street: the building runs from block to block.

It once was French Hospital, the maternity unit of which practiced the Lamaze Method of childbirth.

It may have been the first Lamaze hospital in the U.S. but Google has let me down and refuses to fully inform me on its first search page and I’ve got a few other things to do today so will not be penetrating further.

Google notwithstanding, I was born in French Hospital, via my mom, a sort of earth-mother with hair down to her waist. I do not remember the event. I do remember my brother’s and sister’s births, also at French Hospital. Virtually all my same-age cousins were also born at French Hospital, thanks to my Uncle Saul, a doctor, who had hooked all the family’s incipient mothers onto a Lamaze-method obstetrician he had studied with.

One of my cousins had been investigating (but from D.C.) where the old hospital was, so one day I went down there on a re-discovery trip. It’s been converted to a rental building. I had a nice chat with a couple of women who were at the concierge desk. I learned that people do occasionally wander in to visit their birthplace, as I had just done.

One set of my grandparents came from Bialystok, a town that toggles between being Polish and Russian, depending on the usual. I’m almost positive “we” did not live in any of the pretty majestic buildings illustrating the linked tourist guide, which somehow manages not to mention the once-substantial Jewish population, including my family.

I’ve never visited Bialystok. Nor have I visited Odessa, a more impressive city that itself has been toggled among various units of Russia, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and now Russia again, depending on the usual. My paternal grandparents — who I’m absolutely sure never lived in any of the glorious buildings portrayed in the linked tourist guide — left Odessa in 1905, more or less with Lev Bronstein, whose political philosophy they supported.

The Odessa tourist guide (which spells the city as “Odesa”) also does not refer to the once-substantial Jewish population of the place. Quite a number of great Jewish musicians came from Odessa.

To be sure, not every Russian Jew was a musical genius…But the Jewish presence in Russian classical music ran as wide as it did deep.

It peaked in particularly dramatic fashion just before the Russian Revolution. Less than 5 percent of the total Russian population at that time, Jews numbered over 50 percent of the students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a demographic feat that produced its own commentary. Students joked that it was the only school in the Russian Empire with a quota for non-Jewish students. In Odessa the situation reached a point of absurdity. With over 80 percent of the student body Jewish, in 1916 the Conservatory officials reacted by launching a novel affirmative action scholarship program for ethnic Russians. Of course, Jewish visibility in a bitterly antisemitic regime had an obvious downside. Charges of Jewish opportunism were common…the music critic Emil Medtner, a leading member of the Russian symbolist movement, spoke darkly of a plague of ‘little Jew boys from Lodz’ ruining Russian and European music with their ‘Asiatic’ and ‘barbarous’ ways. 

So, lots of Jewish musicians came from, and left, Odessa.

As did clowns. This I know because, Mikhail, a contractor who was renovating an office I worked in, came from Odessa and when I said, “Amazing how many great musicians came from Odessa,” he said, “Yes. It’s famous for producing musicians and clowns.”

I’m glad my grandparents left Odessa. I’m also glad my grandfather Jacob left Paris, where he grew up in a rigorously Orthodox home.

I have visited Paris a number of times, flying back over the Atlantic which Grandpa traversed in the other direction via a boat. Thus I did go back there, but — after an extended “discussion” among a couple of us in my family — I have had to accept that Grandpa Jacob was not born in Paris. He, too, was born in Russia. Which I have never gone back to.

But I did go back to French Hospital and I have visited 840 Grand Concourse where newborn me was first taken and where I grew up until I was 8. I came from the Bronx, as well.

I came from a number of places, as did almost all of us Americans.

So let me make a declaration: I did go back to where I came from. And then I came home again.




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1 Response to “Go back where you came from”! I did

  1. Jeanne Chinarf says:

    Just wonderful and beautifully written.

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