I can only begin to imagine the conversations. He was 27. She was 26. Their youngest child, a fifth son, was still a babe in arms, the oldest only nine. Did they discuss it by candlelight at a kitchen table? Or was it so big a dream it could only be whispered about in bed before they fell asleep? Eventually the decision was made. Jacob would go to America. Leah would stay behind in Russia with the children. It was 1887. They were young and strong. Leah was the eldest of 16 children. Her mother had passed after delivering eight children into the world. Her father’s second wife had borne eight more. Leah was a capable woman. Jacob would work hard and send for them as soon as he was able.
The die was cast. Jacob went to Boston. He worked as a presser in a coat factory. He was paid by the piece. Year round he worked with the iron and the steam. Each coat became a coin. Each coin that could be saved above keeping body and soul together brought his wife and children closer. At last there was enough. It took four years. Four years of trusting that it would all work out, that every sacrifice was worth the distance and the time.
In 1891, Leah packed up their belongings and she and the boys traveled by horse and wagon, then by train, to the port of Hamburg, Germany. She had brought oven toasted bread and tea to keep them going. They boarded a steamship to Liverpool, England, then another ship from Liverpool to Boston. The two weeks in steerage meant potatoes and salt herring. But it was only two short weeks after four long years.
Think of the reunion! The relief, the joy and yes, the need to become reacquainted as a family. In this age of e-mails, telephones, digital photographs and truly instant messaging it’s difficult to wrap our minds around the sacrifices Jacob and Leah made as a couple, for their children to have a better life. But it turned out to be the right decision.
Jacob and Leah would have three more children in America, two girls and one last boy. Around 1902 they posed for a family portrait from which I extracted these images. They couldn’t know that Leah had only five more years on this earth. She would die at 46. Jacob would outlive Leah by 14 years. All eight of their children would reach adulthood. Between them there would be 18 grandchildren, then dozens of great-grandchildren, one of whom is my husband Chuck. And still more great-great-grandchildren and so on and so on.
It was the right decision. But just imagine those first conversations as the dream took shape.