First Friends

My Own Family’s Roots

In 1913, my Great Grandpop Sam, his father, his mother, and his brother Yudel came to Philadelphia on a ship from Lithuania. He was a young teenager. When they arrived, his family was sick and quarantined and was going to be sent back to Europe. My Great, Great Grandmother Seina made a hysterical plea for young Sam, who was well, to stay and fulfill their dream. Seina died at sea going back. Yudel never made it back to the states. He fought in both World Wars and died fighting in World War II.

But the story has great relevance today in light of our present refugee crisis for multiple reasons. First, I should explain that all 8 of my grand grandparents were Jewish immigrants from different parts of Europe, I was just particularly close with my Grandpop Sam so I will focus on his story. Next, his story in particular has so much meaning in light of what is happening today.

Grandpop Sam always told us that he “lost” his family. We never could understand how this happened. We know he had gone to Boston in search of his father, and we had heard rumblings that perhaps his father was in Chicago, but Grandpop spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent and he did not like to talk about sad things, so he never described to us that his family was ripped away from him at the port in Philadelphia and we did not understand how they were separated or lost. We had images of the little mouse Fivel from “An American Tail,” but that was it.

Another relevant matter to today’s immigrant crisis is what happened to my grandfather once he came here. He did not have immediate family as they were all sent back. So, he went to live with relatives who were kind enough to take him in. Grandpop was fortunate to have a place to live while he got his feet on the ground. He was a tailor and he worked in a garment factory for his life. A few years after he came he fought in World War I. He earned a Purple Heart and a Silver Star but he would never tell us what they were for. He was in some brutal battles and we imagine it was very difficult for him. He came home and worked again as a tailor. He sewed beautifully actually. He went to night school to learn English and that is where he met my Great-Grandmom Sara. So, even though his life was not easy, he was not living in a prison on a cold cement floor. He came here for opportunity and he became a union member and a home owner and his life flourished.

It actually took us 100 years and the help of to find our family. When families are being torn  apart by the current administration, I am not sure if they realize that it will take a century to overcome this, but that is how long it took us and my grandfather was not tortured when he arrived. In 2012, my kids had to do a family tree project for their school. They had some friends who went on and asked if they could too. They showed to my sister, Julie, and she became very eager to work on our family tree. Julie has actually blogged about this as well:

The abridged version is that when we added our tree, my sister Julie spent a lot of time researching and found a Russian professor who was active on Jewish genealogy sites. This woman knew some of our cousins! She asked if she could ask us some questions. To our shock, this woman was able to connect us with Grandpop Sam’s immediate family now living in Moscow, Russia and Karkiv, Ukraine!

It turns out that my Grandpop has a nephew named Lev, my Grandfather Simon’s first cousin, who is still alive and now in his early 90s, and living in Moscow! Lev has a beautiful family. My Grandpop Sam had another brother named Moisey and his family is alive and living in the Ukraine. They survived the World Wars, the Holocaust, and Stalin, and are somehow alive and still Jewish. It was shocking, just shocking.

Perhaps more remarkable is that while we had absolutely no idea that any of them existed, they knew about us.  Apparently they had been in contact with Grandpop Sam through the 1940s and were aware of his whereabouts until that point. They knew he had a family. They had a dream of looking for us and my second cousin Yuri had been to Philly several times looking for us with no luck.

I could go on and on and tell you about each member of the family, but instead I will tell that in 2013, one hundred years to the day that my great grandfather came to Philadelphia, we returned to Russia to meet our lost family.

How is this Relevant today?

  • First, my Grandpop did not have an easy start here in America but compared to the immigrants in the jails across our country, it was a walk in the park.
  • When families are separated, like mine was, it is not easy to reconnect. Even with modern technology and DNA testing, it can take many years and multiple generations to find each other.
  • Families can get trapped in other countries never to reunite.
  • It takes the kindness of strangers for folks to get a clean start in a new place, even when they are not coming from a crisis situation.
  • Immigrants help build this country. My great-grandfathers barely spoke English when they served for the US army in World War I. For many years, our economy and military have depended on the major contributions of immigrants.
  • The major majority of immigrants coming to the United States are good people coming here with hope for something better than whatever they are escaping. They are risking everything to start over.

What can we, as voiceover actors, do to help?

  • This is an interfaith group to help find a better place to get these people situated. I am in touch with Victor Salama, the head of the group, and in addition to visiting refugees, I have offered pro-bono voiceover services to help as much as they need.
  • If you want to be a part of my voiceover team that I have put together, please email me at