When my uncle asked his parents one summer to send him to a yeshiva instead of public school that coming fall my grandparent brought him to a psychiatrist. They lived in Pelham Parkway in the Bronx which at the time had a large Orthodox community with what still remains the largest Young Israel in the country, though not in numbers anymore.
My uncle had befriended some local orthodox kids who introduced him to a local Hasidic Rebbe called Kosson. These friendships and his association with this Rebbe brought him to Orthodoxy and after consultation with the psychiatrist my grandparents sent him to that yeshiva.
My grandfather had grown up on a farm in Kingston, NY. Aside from speaking Yiddish in the house there wasn't anything Jewish about his childhood life. His father was essentially an atheist and all of his four sisters intermarried.
My grandmother grew up in the East Bronx, then a heavily Jewish neighborhood, in a very traditionally Jewish family. Her grandfather (pictured at right) emigrated to New York from Warsaw in 1892 with his wife and five children. Both he and his wife were dead by 1895 leaving the children, ages 5-20, orphans. His son Isaiah, my great grandfather (pictured below with my grandmother), was 16 when they arrived and likely spent some years in a Cheder or at least had a formal Orthodox childhood.
His two youngest brothers were taken into the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society of New York, an orphanage located on 1st Avenue and 57th Street. The older children lived together at 220 Delancey Street in a building that is no longer standing.
Following my uncles first year in yeshiva my grandparents decided to send their younger son to yeshiva as well. Subsequently, my grandmother became kosher and shabbos observant. Her husband remained an atheist the rest of his life although allowed his family to turn his life upside down. By the time my mother was born the the house was completely kosher and religious.
|my grandfather and two uncles|
I remember one Sunday morning, I must have been in first grade, showing my grandfather an alpeh beis chart and asking my mother afterwords to write me a "mitzva note" that I taught my grandfather how to read Hebrew. Of course that idea didn't go over well and that mitzva went unannounced.
|my uncle at his sheva brachos with kosson rebbe (l)|
and unknown rabbi (r)
I grew up with very little family. I never met a relative of my father's or at least none that I can remember and my mother's family was small since my grandmother slowly cut off ties with her cousins and relatives, afraid of their influence on her children. It is certainly very upsetting to me in hindsight that she did that. I've managed to connect with relatives all over the country who have lots of details about my grandmother's brothers, uncles, aunts, etc... but nobody really knows much about my branch. Everyone has vague memories of my uncles from childhood, but the connection ended there. Despite the difficulty I have been able to amass a family tree of over 1,200 people (not all blood related) and the most enjoyable and rewarding part is always connecting with people, Jews, Secular Jews, Non Jews, who share a common ancestor with me.
I'm not sure what made my grandparent agree to my uncle's request. That single decision though they may not have realized completely changed the course of their lives and the lives of their descendants.