My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Familyby Steven V. Roberts
From Steven V. Roberts comes My Fathers' Houses, a memoir of growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, an immigrant community in the shadow of the Statue if Liberty, and the story of how his father and his grandfather's dreams–and their own passion for writing and ideas–influenced Steven's future, and inspired him to seek his fortune in New York City, the… See more details below
From Steven V. Roberts comes My Fathers' Houses, a memoir of growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, an immigrant community in the shadow of the Statue if Liberty, and the story of how his father and his grandfather's dreams–and their own passion for writing and ideas–influenced Steven's future, and inspired him to seek his fortune in New York City, the media capital of the world.
This is a story of a town and a time and a boy who grew up there, a boy who became a New York Times correspondent, TV and radio personality, and best–selling author. The town was Bayonne, New Jersey, a European village so close to New York that Steve could see the Statue of Liberty from his bedroom window. The time was the forties and fifties, when children of immigrants were striving to become American and find a place in a booming post–war world. The core of Steve's world was one block, where he lived in a house his grandfather, Harry Schanbam, had built with his own hands.
But the story starts back in Russia, where the family business of writing and ideas began. Steve's other grandfather, Abraham Rogowsky, stole money to become a Zionist pioneer in Palestine before moving to America. The tale continues through the Depression, when Steve's parents lived one block apart in Bayonne, wrote letters to each other and married in secret.
During the war years, Steve's father wrote children's books and based one of his best sellers on outings he took with his twin sons to the local train station. As his byline, he used his boys' middle names–Jeffrey Victor–so Steve got his first writing credit before he was two. The story concludes with the boy leaving Bayonne, going on to Harvard, meeting the Catholic girl who became his wife, and starting work at the New York Times–across the river, and worlds away, from where he began. Now a grandfather of five, Steve Roberts looks in the mirror and sees his own father and grandfather looking back at him–a family chain that started in 19th century Russia and thrives today in 21st century America.
Read an Excerpt
My Fathers' HousesChapter OneA Bottle in A Bucket
I still dream about Bayonne. Usually I'm back living there, often in the house where I grew up, a two-family frame structure on a crowded block that ends at a low bluff overlooking Newark Bay. All the houses on The Block were the same, about twenty-five of them, separated by alleys so narrow that you always knew what your neighbors were arguing about or having for dinner. The Block was the center of my world for thirteen years, from my birth in 1943 until we moved all of five blocks away in 1956, and it could have been a European village, on the top of a mountain, surrounded by medieval stone walls. All the families knew each other, strangers were sparse, and you could walk to the shops around the corner for most of your daily needs.
That's no accident, I suppose, since most of the families, including mine, were only one generation removed from their Old World origins, and they re-created the patterns of life they had known in Poland and Russia, Ireland and Italy. There were a handful of Catholics on The Block, but most of the families were like us, Jewish people with roots in Eastern Europe Lipkin and Lauton, Moritz and Hoch, Reznick and Levy. Some were manual workers, like my grandfather Harry Schanbam, a carpenter who had built the house we lived in with his own hands. Some in the next generation had gotten an education and become professionals. Yale Greenspoon's father taught at the high school, Artie Schackman's dad was a photographer. Many owned small businesses. The Penners ran a clothing store on Broadway where we bought our Cub Scout uniforms. The parents and grandparents of the girl I tookto the junior prom ran a hardware store. New York was only a short bus ride away, but "the city," as we called it, seldom intruded into our lives. Broadway and Forty-second Street in Bayonne (there really is such an intersection) was light years away from the more famous corner just across the Hudson River. My father commuted daily to "the city," where he ran a small children's book publishing company, but few if any of my friends had parents who did that. Most people lived and worked, met and married, grew old and died, all within the confines of this urban village. Bayonne was not exactly Anatevka, and we didn't have any fiddlers on our roofs, although we did have Mr. Friedberg, who delivered seltzer to the door in blue glass bottles with silver spritzers. But when I saw the movie Avalon, Barry Levinson's ode to the Jewish community of Baltimore, I felt a pang of recognition. In that movie the immigrant generation clings to the old neighborhood and the old ways, and when their kids move to the suburbs, the old folks find the adjustment disorienting. Bayonne, like Baltimore, was actually closer to the Old Country than the suburbs were to the inner city.
Bayonne is a peninsula, about five square miles, surrounded on three sides by water: Newark Bay to the west, the Kill Van Kull on the south, and the Hudson River on the east. In fact, after we left The Block, I could catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from my new bedroom window. But I've never been there and I'm not sure why. I guess you don't play tourist in your hometown. During my childhood, you could enter and leave Bayonne in only two ways-by city street to Jersey City and by bridge to Staten Island-so the word "insular" really did apply. I flew over it recently, heading for Manhattan, and I was struck again by how distinctive Bayonne is. You can pick it out immediately from the air. And since it was such a separate and self-contained place, it had a strong sense of identity. One public high school, one daily newspaper, one downtown shopping district. To this day I meet people all over the country who want to tell me about their connections to Bayonne. My friend Barney Frank, now a congressman from Massachusetts, who grew up there, says people always talk about being from Bayonne because they are "so proud of rising above their humble beginnings." But I don't think that's quite right. I think it's because Bayonne is a real place, with a long history, dating back to its discovery by Dutch explorers in the seventeenth century. It's not a fake city, bordered by arbitrary lines on a suburban map and bearing some insipid variation of the name Parkforestglenwood.
It's also true that Bayonne has become something of a joke, like Secaucus, employed as a punch line by comedians and cartoonists. One of my favorite references is a New Yorker cartoon showing a man sitting at a bar and saying to no one in particular: "I'm a citizen of the world, but I make my base in Bayonne." Jackie Gleason once did stand-up comedy at the Hi-Hat Club in Bayonne, and his TV show The Honeymooners was loaded with local references. If he frequently threatened to send his wife, Alice, "to the moon," he often vowed to dispatch his pal Norton to Bayonne. My brother Marc remembers Gleason portraying a pitchman in a TV comedy skit. If you call in right away, he promises, and order the food chopper or vacuum cleaner he's selling, he'll throw in a free pennant from Bayonne Technical High School. Who could refuse that offer? The New York Times obituary of the comic Rodney Dangerfield noted that he got his start playing "dingy joints" in places like Bayonne. As Dangerfield himself might have said, my hometown "gets no respect." A Navy ship was once named for the city, the USS Bayonne, but in the middle of World War II it was actually given to the Russians, who then scrapped it ...My Fathers' Houses. Copyright (c) by Steven Roberts . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >