I notice with some chagrin that I have only posted once (a paean to the late, great Walter Becker of Steely Dan) since August 26, 2017, which I regret, despite my assertion when I launched this blog that I would only post when I had something to say.
There are two reasons (but not, as my wife would correctly observe, excuses) for this prolonged (by blog standards) absence.
One reason is simply that I had been working closely with the Film Noir Foundation over the last few months to bring a satellite NOIR CITY festival to the Boston area. The reward for this hard work is that I am incredibly excited to announce that the Brattle Theatre will be hosting the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston over the weekend of June 8-10, 2018!
Please share this post with anyone you think would be interested in attending this festival; feel free to reach out to me for more information using the Contact information posted on the main page of this blog.
The more profound reason for this month-long dearth of new posts, however, is that I have been hip deep in researching my book (working title: Interrogating Memory: How a Love of Film Noir Led Me to Investigate My Identity). What started as the “simple” expansion of this post, about how I became such an ardent film noir fan, into a full-length book has somehow morphed into a deep-dive exploration of previously unknown family history.
Conducting this research has meant spending many joyful hours playing genealogy detective on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, supplemented by Google maps and books like Allen Meyers’ 2001 labor-of-love contribution to the “Images of America” series, The Jewish Community of West Philadelphia. I have also been examining old photographs and reaching out to family members, some I have known my entire life and others I am only just discovering.
When you step back to look at the larger context, meanwhile, this is how the morphing occurred.
I first hypothesized that my devotion to film noir stemmed primarily from four pre-adult roots (leaving aside the still-unfolding “noir” story of my conception and adoption, which I plan to discuss further in a later post):
- Discovering, and instantly loving, detective fiction at the age of seven or eight,
- Discovering, and instantly loving, the Fox Charlie Chan films of the 1930s and early 1940s,
- Exposure to a wide variety of classic and modern films through the six film societies operating at Yale when I was a student there (1984-88), and
- Growing up a night owl in the Philadelphia suburbs means that the nocturnal city was—and is—innately alluring and fascinating to me.
The first and third “roots” are endogenous, solely a product of my actions.
I soon realized, though, that the second and, to a lesser extent, fourth “roots” are inextricably tied to my relationship with my father and the circumstances of our life in the summer of 1976, when I watched my first Charlie Chan film. That summer, my father was on the brink of losing the carpet business passed down to him by his father and uncle when he was 23, just before he married my mother in January 1960. The John Rhoads Co. (founded 1886 in West Philadelphia) had been taken over by his father and uncle in the mid-1920s and built into an even greater success. Running that business allowed my parents to move to the leafy, middle class suburb of Havertown in 1963. I can only imagine how much it pained and haunted my father that he was the one who ultimately bankrupted it, acting upon his own demons (gambling, primarily).
The point being (and thank you for continuing to “just bear with me”) that understanding my love of film noir means, in part, understanding my love of Fox Charlie Chan films and my suburban upbringing, which requires understanding the backstory of my father and mother. And understanding THAT history is what led me to become a “family archaeologist.”
One unexpectedly pleasant side benefit of this research has been opening the “black box” that is my knowledge of my father’s side of the family. My father was estranged from his own family (due to their disapproval, I had always thought, though now I suspect a kind of self-estrangement), and he rarely spoke about them, invaluable surviving school genealogy projects notwithstanding.
For example, while tracking down one particularly fascinating and deeply noir story about the death of my great-grandfather David Louis Berger in October 1919 (yes, this is a “teaser”), I came across the first photograph of him I have ever seen:
All of which brings me to an example of how difficult it can be to pin down biographical information even when using seemingly unimpeachable sources.
In an early chapter of my book, after discussing the Pale of Settlement and the thriving Jewish community that dominated West Philadelphia in the middle decades of the 20th century, I begin to tell four stories (one for each grandparent) of immigration from the Pale of Settlement to West Philadelphia between 1893 and 1912. For it is a curious fact that a) both of my grandfathers were born in the Pale of Settlement (one in what is now eastern Poland and one in what is now Ukraine), as were the parents of both of my grandmothers (Lithuania, Ukraine) AND b) all four families ultimately settled in one of the neighborhoods which comprised (or adjoined) West Philadelphia.
Now, in order to discuss, say, my father’s father Morris’s birth and emigration (as a ~ five year old) from the Pale of Settlement, it would help to start with his date of birth.
And here is where things get interesting (by which I mean “make a meticulous researcher want to pull her/his hair out, strand by strand”).
Since my father died in June 1982, I have visited his grave at least once every year. He is buried in a two lot, eight grave section, along with his parents, his father’s brother Jules and his father’s sister Anna.
Since Jules was born in the United States, and the salient details were recorded in an official Birth Certificate issued by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we can set him aside for the rest of this post.
Clearly marked on Morris Berger’s grave is a date of birth: August 5, 1893. This is also the date listed on his death certificate.
I do not have Anna Berger Halbert’s death certificate, but her gravestone lists her date of birth as February 15, 1900. As a side note, she died on December 19, 1999, meaning that the span of her life was nearly perfectly contiguous with the 20th century.
Morris was the eldest of five children. The two we have not yet met are Rose (born June 15, 1895 according to a 1963 Social Security application) and Mary, aka Mae (born sometime between late July/early August 1898 and late July/early 1899, per an obituary in the August 5, 1994 edition of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent). I am oddly proud of the fact that all three of my paternal grandfather’s sisters lived well into their 90s (although neither brother lived past 62).
To recap, I had legitimate reason to believe that Morris was born in August 1893, Rose was born in June 1895, Mae was born sometime between late July 1898 and early August 1899, and Anna was born in February 1900.
Then, to my delight, I came across my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 1906 Petition for Naturalization; reading it actually gave me goosebumps.
In this application, “Louis” Berger records his birth in the town of Przasnysz (in what is now eastern Poland), his April/May 1898 journey to Philadelphia (by way of Quebec) on the S. S. Tungorahra (if I read my great-grandfather’s elegant handwriting correctly), his absolute renunciation of Czar Nicholas II (listed as “Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia”), and his October 1906 residence in Philadelphia (2241 Callowhill Street, razed 100 years ago to allow for the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway).
He also carefully records the dates of birth of his four eldest children as follows:
Morris: October 3, 1892
Rosa June 14, 1894
Mary: July 5, 1896
Annie: February 15, 1898
These dates of birth are anywhere from 10 months (Morris) to two years (Mae, Anna) earlier than what other public records claim.
Oh, but wait, it gets better.
A particularly invaluable resource for my research has been the detailed, house-by-house United States Censuses conducted in 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940. I have found records of all four siblings in each Census, excepting Mae in the 1940 Census.
Based on the listed ages and Census enumeration date, here are the possible age ranges of the four Berger siblings:
Morris: April 16, 1891 to April 26, 1894, a gap of three years, 10 days
Rose: January 4, 1893 to April 28, 1895, a gap of two years, 114 days
Mae: April 16, 1896 to April 8, 1898 a gap of one year, 357 days
Anna: April 16, 1898 to April 16, 1902, a gap of four years, 0 days
That is quite a range of possible dates of birth (average=2 years, 343 days) which could have resulted from simple transcription errors, poor arithmetic and/or faulty memory. It is also possible that there was genuine uncertainty on the part of David Louis Berger and his wife Ida (neé Rugowitz) as to the exact dates on which their first four children were born as they attempted to translate those dates from the Hebrew calendar to the Gregorian calendar.
But that begs the question of why Morris, Rose, Mae and Anna all adopted, for the purposes of American records, later dates of birth.
One possible clue is the fact that the Census-recorded date of arrival in the United States shifts from 1898 (the official date on the Petition is May 5, 1898) on the 1910 Census to 1900 on all subsequent Censuses. A related clue is that Mae and Anna are listed on the 1910 and 1920 Censuses as having been born in “Russia,” which then becomes “Pennsylvania” as of the 1930 Census.
If I were a conspiratorial type, I would suspect that the birth dates on the Petition were reverse-engineered, for some unknown reason, to conform to the stated arrival in Philadelphia on May 5, 1898 of a family of six born in Przasnysz. However, the fact that the Petition (dated October 26, 1906) clearly states that the petitioner need only have lived in the United States continuously for five years (not, say, eight) throws cold water on this notion.
Ultimately, I will never know the exact dates on which my paternal grandfather and his three younger sisters were born. The precise dates do not REALLY matter to my larger narrative, though the lack of precision nags at me, and I will almost certainly use the later “American” dates in my book, despite what my great-grandfather wrote on his Petition for Naturalization.
All that really matters is that these six brave souls, a married Yiddish-speaking couple of modest means in their late 20s and their four (or three or two) Yiddish-speaking children, the eldest only about five years old, braved an Atlantic crossing to build new lives in the welcoming city of Philadelphia (albeit, where some siblings and cousins were already residing).
Had they not done so, my life would have turned out just a bit differently.
Until next time…
 Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.