August, 16, 2013

StoryKeep: Family Stories from Herring to Chutney

Originally posted on the NYC Tenement Museum Blog:
Co-authored by Jamie Yuenger and David Anderson of StoryKeep

No one living on the Lower East Side needs an introduction to Russ and Daughters Appetizing Store on Houston Street. Scratch that – no one in and around New York City needs an introduction. Several months after I moved to Brooklyn, a friend gave me a book and sent me on a mission to visit the store.

Mark Russ Federman, the third generation owner/operator of the family business at Orchard and Houston, recently wrote his memoir, The House that Herring Built. It tells the history of his family, the LES, immigration, fish, and Jewish food culture. The store, which has barely changed since its founding, was opened by Joel Russ, who emigrated from Poland in the early 1900’s. Russ and Daughters embodies the story of the first generation immigrants’ struggle, not just to survive, but to make a better life for the succeeding generations.

I recently had the privilege to hear one such incredible story, this time the struggling immigrants were Indian and no fish was involved. Our company StoryKeep was hired to record the stories of a couple named Rusi and Gover Sanjana, who immigrated to New York City from Bombay in the 1970?s to “start life from zero.”

Sitting in the generous living room of their daughter’s beautiful home, it was hard to imagine the family running out of money before the end of each month or eating the cheapest meat available at the grocery store. But we listened as Rusi and Gover recounted their lives from childhood to the present.

Rusi & Gover Sanjana, 1977

Soon after arriving to the US, Rusi suffered a slipped disc. While laid up, his wife, Gover, found a job as a secretary at a bank. As the family likes to remember, she didn’t even know how to use a hole-punch when she started, but by observing others around her, she rose in the ranks. As she put it, “I worked so hard I barely had time to breathe.” When she retired, she was the VP of Investments at a very prominent bank.

Rusi started selling watches and clocks and would take his children on weekend car rides to places like Sands Point on Long Island to look at the mansions. He would say to his kids, “These people are no different than you. They worked hard and took risks. You can live in houses like these if you want.” He even recorded his children reciting affirmations, which he played on special flat speakers he slipped under their pillows at night.

Throughout multiple interview sessions (see a video excerpt here) we heard stories of setbacks and sacrifices, but behind every story was the love and hope the parents had for their children.

Circa 1905 Standing: Kayomarz & Goolbanu Hakimian (Gover’s Mother) Sitting: Pir (Masi) and Gover Hakimian (Gover’s Grandmother)

“Thank God my children have done superbly. I always said this was the land of opportunity,” Rusi said. All three children have done very well for themselves. One son recently purchased a mansion much like the ones he saw in Sands Point.

For Rusi and Gover, their family’s success blossomed after one generation. The Russ’ took about three. But for both families, the younger generation was moved to honor and record their families’ histories.

In his book, Federman writes about a day in the 1980s when Ruth Abram told him her idea of starting a tenement museum in the LES. Talking over coffee, he told her that, frankly, he thought it was a terrible idea. He not only underestimated other peoples’ interest in knowing where they came from, but his own as well. The children who hire StoryKeep know how hard their parents worked and that the telling and sharing of those stories of struggle would further their family’s bond and upward mobility.

These days, identity is becoming less andless tied to religion, place, or class. Materialism and advertising try to sculpt our sense of self, but eventually it’s our stories that tell us who we are. Our parents’ and grandparents’ stories are unique to each of us, to which we have an irrefutable attachment. In our work, we see how much people want to know the stories of their forbearers. Insofar as we can tell, they want to share those stories with their children.

StoryKeep Cofounder Jamie Yuenger interviews Rusi & Gover Sanjana in New York, 2013

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