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Exploring family history through the objects that connect generations

6 min

What if Marcel Proust, instead of growing up in sophisticated, cosmopolitan Paris, had been the son of immigrant parents who raised him — and themselves — up from the poverty of a New York City tenement slum to middle-class respectability in Brooklyn? Could the flood of memories that for Proust became “Remembrance of Things Past been stirred not by the taste of a tea-soaked petite madeleine — but instead, as in historian Richard Rabinowitz’s deeply moving family memoir, “Objects of Love and Regret: A Brooklyn Story,” by the accidental discovery of a nearly century-old wooden-handled bottle opener?

Rabinowitz had stumbled across the well-worn object in 2015 while emptying his mother’s Florida apartment after her death at age 100. “It felt familiar, as if I was shaking hands with an old friend,” he writes. Simply holding it released a rush of family memories, starting with his mother’s tearful recollection of how, as an 18-year-old garment-factory worker in 1934 she had bought it for 20 cents — after bargaining the pushcart salesman down from 25 cents — as a present for her frugal, practical-minded mother.

Why did this ordinary kitchen gadget carry as much meaning and emotion for his mother, and in turn for him, as, say, a treasured heirloom jewel, passed down through the generations? In his career as a historian and curator at the New-York Historical Society and other museums, Rabinowitz had learned, as he puts it, that “Stories attach themselves to objects.” And the tales that accompany them can reveal the owner’s intimate relationships, aspirations and more — if only we allow them to.

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That is what Rabinowitz has done, chapter by chapter, presenting the generational journey of his family from Eastern Europe to America through the lens of a curated miscellany of objects ranging from a World War I artillery shell to a cigar box filled with odds and ends to a mid-century Magnavox television-phonograph console. These tangible items illustrate his family’s progression over the decades and across continents, acting as stage props to ground each character in a particular time and place. In focusing on these objects, he’s able to lead us through the daily routines, economic struggles and moments of sadness and celebration that have fastened onto them. It’s a technique that genealogists seeking to reconstruct the lives of their own ancestors will find particularly instructive.

Rabinowitz begins with the bottle opener. He frames the gift from his nearly adult mother Sarah to his grandmother Shenka within the context of immigrant life, its purchase symbolic of the family’s immigrant aspiration to become modern, gadget-loving Americans, even if the tight financial vise of the Depression made it necessary to haggle over every last penny. The fact that it’s a kitchen utensil also captures for Rabinowitz the unbreakable bond between his mother and grandmother, who would typically be found together helping each other in the kitchen. It’s therefore also symbolic of their mutual devotion, their shared practicality and frugality, and of their shifting roles within the family. “No longer the dependent daughter, at eighteen,” Rabinowitz writes, “she was taking the guiding hand for her mother’s progress in America, as well as her own.”

In contrast, Rabinowitz uses a treacherous unspent 50-pound German artillery shell to dramatize the — literally — explosive mix of political turmoil and antisemitism that propelled his Jewish ancestors from Poland to America. This chapter of family history took place in 1920, in the Polish village of Wysokie Mazowieckie, where half of the inhabitants were Jews. Rabinowitz recounts his great-grandfather Isaac coming across a stray explosive, left over from the war. He hopes to use the brass covering in his metal salvage shop. But it explodes as he lifts it, the blast crushing him to the ground, where he lays dying as his 4-year old granddaughter Sarah holds his hand, trying to comfort him.

The tragic scene was Sarah’s first memory, but only one among many calamities that befell the family. During and after World War I, a multitude of troops and partisans from neighboring territories had marched through the village, looting and terrorizing as they went. Worst of all, in August 1920 Russian Cossacks charged through, instigating a brutal pogrom and seizing 230 Jewish men as hostages, one of whom was Shenka’s husband and Sarah’s father, Dovid.

These were what Sarah called the “hard times” of her childhood. Without Dovid in the picture — shortly after he returned from captivity, he left for America by himself, not bringing over the rest of the family until 1928 — she effectively became Shenka’s partner, as the two together endured famine and scarcity while also taking care of each other and Sarah’s two younger brothers.

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Little wonder, then, that when they were all finally reunited in a Lower East Side New York tenement, Dovid the breadwinner found himself relegated to the role of family outsider in his own home. Rabinowitz comically captures his clueless presence in a chapter centering on the fact that, as Sarah put it, her Papa didn’t “know from ice cream” — or from his children’s increasingly assimilated tastes for American life.

And so the decades of family life progress, object by object. Sarah’s future husband, David Rabinowitz, courts her with an expensive bottle of perfume, symbolic of their hopes for greater financial security as they start their family life in a new apartment in Brooklyn. During World War II, mothers throughout the apartment building shudder at the sound of the postman’s whistle, fearing the arrival of news of the death of a husband, brother or son. The ’50s and ’60s bring more material comforts, including that Magnavox — which signifies the growing generational separation between Rabinowitz’s parents, who spend their leisure time watching the television screen, while Rabinowitz himself, a budding intellectual, plays and listens to his classical LPs in solitary introspection.

At times, Rabinowitz’s prose can become a bit wordy in his aspiration to eloquence. But his tenderly detailed evocation of times that are no more remind us that we, too, have the tools to pry open the past and revive what we thought we had forgotten.

Objects of Love and Regret

A Brooklyn Story

By Richard Rabinowitz

Belknap. 325 pp. $29.95

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