Growing up in a diverse neighborhood with strong family ties
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
At the beginning of the 20th century, millions of European Jews left their homes and villages and journeyed to the “Golden Land,” America. They didn’t find gold, and they weren’t greeted with open arms, but they learned that if they stayed together and worked hard they could overcome the challenges of their new country and make a better life for their children.
Feinzig: I was born in the United States, in New York City, but my parents were both immigrants. My father emigrated from Poland when he was 5 years old, and my mother emigrated from Poland in my grandmother’s stomach. My grandmother was seven months pregnant with my mother when she arrived at Ellis Island. My mother was born in the United States, but she was as much an immigrant as anybody was.
I am Polish American, but I have never thought of myself that way. I have only thought of myself as being an American. But being the child of immigrants has had a great influence on my life. I have never forgotten the fact that my parents came here because they thought “the streets were paved with gold.” They realized there was opportunity for them in the United States that they didn’t have in Europe.
My father came with my grandfather in 1901. He was the first child in his family to come. His brothers and sisters followed with his mother. We can’t find record of him coming through Ellis Island, so we think they may have come through Boston or one of the other Eastern ports.
My father’s family settled in Manhattan, and that is where he eventually met my mother. Her family had settled there as well. When they got married they moved to Brooklyn where I was born. My brother was born 13 months later and shortly after that we moved into an apartment building that my father’s family owned.
Each of the floors of the house was filled with relatives. The third floor had my aunt and uncle and their six children. The second floor had my aunt and uncle and their two children. One of their kids was my babysitter for as long as I can remember. We lived on the first floor, so I grew up surrounded by my father’s family. I have always had a strong sense of family as a result of that experience.
Brooklyn was a very well-integrated neighborhood. We had people who were black, people who were Christian, people who were Jewish. We all lived on the same street and got along very well. That, too, has played an important role in my life. I have never felt prejudices toward different religions or different races. As kids we were all of different religions and different races, and we all ran around together. That experience has stayed with me.
Gallacher: How did your parents influence your perspective?
Feinzig: My mother had friends from different races and religions. My father did, as well, but not like my mother. My mother was involved in politics. She was the Democratic committeewoman for our block. She knew everybody by name and everybody knew her. People would come to our house to talk to her about political issues and ask her for help. She welcomed everybody.
My uncle, who lived on the second floor, was a union president. He was close to Walter Reuther* and people like him because he was a high-ranking member of the AFL-CIO**. So my mother and my uncle played key roles in shaping my political perspective.
I am grateful to my parents for my childhood experience. My father was a tailor who never finished the sixth grade. My mother finished high school, so she ended up learning bookkeeping. She and her sister were bookkeepers who worked for the same company.
I grew up the child of immigrants in a working class neighborhood, but I was able to go to Brooklyn College because the city underwrote the college. I registered for $16 a semester. The years that I went there, Brooklyn College had the highest rate in the nation for students going on to advanced degrees. I was able to get a master’s degree in business.
Gallacher: Did your parents encourage you to go to college?
Feinzig: There was never any doubt that I would go to college. I swear I was born with a college degree in my hand because of my parents’ encouragement. It was the same for all the children in the family. “Work hard, stay focused, get good grades, and go on to college” was what we were told. The expectation for our generation, the sons and daughters of all these immigrant parents, was that we would get the very best education possible.
My parents told me that I was going to college and I could pick any college I wanted. I ended up going to Brooklyn College because that’s what my parents could afford. They would have sent me anywhere I chose, but I didn’t want to burden them with the debt.
I have been very fortunate in lots of ways. I ended up working for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline. I eventually retired as a vice-president. The company was very diverse. They didn’t care about my background they just wanted competent people who could do the job.
My childhood experience and my work experience really shaped who I am. But without education I would have been a blue-collar guy like my dad was. You see, when you give somebody an education, you not only change their life but you change their children’s lives as well.
That’s why my wife and I endow two full-ride scholarships to Colorado Mountain College every year. One is for an older student returning to school after several years away, and the other is for a recent high school graduate.
My parents always said, “Remember, you are not here to have cream cheese and lox every day. You are here to do good in the world.” And I am doing my best to do that. In Judaism there is a concept of being a “mench,” being a man of the community. What stayed with me from all the religious training that I got was not the religion. It was the concept of being responsible for and giving back to the community. I am giving back because people and circumstances have been good to me. I have been very lucky.
I believe that the American Dream is to make the life of your children better than your own. You know that you have had a good life if you can see your kids off on a life that is better than yours.
*Walter Philip Reuther (Sept. 1, 1907 – May 9, 1970) was an American labor union leader, who made the United Automobile Workers a major force not only in the auto industry but also in the Democratic Party in the mid 20th century. He was a socialist in the early 1930s; he became a leading liberal and supporter of the New Deal coalition.
**The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, commonly AFL-CIO, is a national trade union center, the largest federation of unions in the United States, made up of 56 national and international unions, together representing more than 11 million workers.
Immigrant Stories runs on Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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