Jewish Geography by Shari Moraga

an embraceable life Jul 01, 2018

Tonight I went to see a show with traditional Irish dance and song. There was storytelling in between: hardships, love of country, war, leaving home and settling in a new place. It got me thinking about my ancestors. No matter where you are from the common thread we all share is the varied history of race, religion, love, and persecution.

I am not Irish, not one drop, much to my dismay, but I was able to identify with the stories because they reminded me of stories I heard from my elder family members. The dance was more in line with Russian folk dancing and the Hora. The language, instead of Gaelic was Yiddish. The stories of persecution were the same, hate based on religion.

I come from a long line of proud Jews, although my grandfather on my father’s side did change his name at the young age of 13, so he made not have been so proud of flaunting his Jewish identity or perhaps just felt the need to hide it. I don’t think he really wanted to hide it though because it was still a Jewish name! He went from Moses Rogovin (way Jewish) to William Rogoff (kinda but definitely Jewish). Like going from Orthodox to Conservative. He was born on the lower east side of NY, 13 Essex Street. His dad, Jacob, emigrated from Russia.  My dad loved to tell us stories about going into the city for pickles, knishes, books, and yarmulkes. When I got married he felt it was really important to go to Essex Street to the guy that has been making yarmulkes forever rather than order them in New Jersey

My grandfather on my mother’s side was an immigrant. He came from Poland. At the age of 13 he was sent off to Prague to go to yeshiva, he was to study to become a rabbi. Little did his parents know that he was skipping school to find odd jobs to save a little money to get a boat to America.  He and a friend traveled across Europe trading bread and sugar to get to Spain. He was 16. They found a boat that was going to South America so they took it. He ended up living in Argentina for 3 years and Brazil for 3 years, saving money so he could get to North America. He learned Spanish and Portuguese; he already spoke Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Slovak. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 with 6 languages under his belt, but not English. He was very learned for a guy that didn’t finish his schooling and had no issue with learning another or two. He lived in New York, where quite a few years later met his wife, Lillian Rand- who turned out to be his first cousin, that he had never met before. Makes for an interesting family tree: my mother is my cousin, my brother is my cousin, mutation in cells makes cancer an easy target. Of course, the good totally outweighs the bad, they were the best grandparents in the world.

My grandfather, Leo, was driven, as one could gather from his plight from Europe after WWI. He and Lilly married and moved to New Jersey. Newark. The Weequahic section.  The Jewish section. He ended up opening a dry goods store in the Italian section of Newark. You guessed it- he picked up Italian (already fluent in English) and was fluent with the neighborhood, especially all the old widows that came in to buy their black dressed that they had to wear every day. His store carried all sorts of dry goods -sheets, towels, clothing.  The store was eponymously named Leo’s Dry Goods and was so incredibly cool. Dark worn wood, an old cash register with fancy keys and piles as high as the tall ceiling, stacked with work pants, floral sheets, housecoats (remember those?). Everything was made from natural materials because there wasn’t anything but natural materials.

His incredible story is what inspired me to name my business in honor of him. Handmade goods constructed with attention to detail, of natural materials. Leo’s Dry Goods, there isn’t a green awning with white letters hanging over a window anymore, but there still is the passion and drive for quality and success. Inspired by my heritage, proud to represent a part of my family’s history.


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