Monday, August 28, 2023

One-Hundred Years Ago. The First Tannenbaum Arrives.

One-hundred years ago this week, Yankel Tannenbaum or Tennenbaum or Tanenbaum or Tenenbaum (everyone in the family spelled our last name differently, part obstinance, part bad translations) my grandfather--my father's father-- stepped off the Hamburg-American liner, SS Leviathan and became the first, however it's spelled, Tannenbaum, to set foot on Americansche terra firma, soon to be pronounced in the Queen's Bronxian Latin, terrer firmer.

Yankel, just thirteen at the time, had lied about his age, claiming he was eighteen. He boarded n Hamburg, the SS Leviathan alone--though he called it the SS Limburger, being unfamiliar with Roman letters. He quickly found a hammock in the deck two decks below steerage, the decks well-below the waterline on the ship, where every crash and rattled and belch of the mighty engines, every shovel-full of coal, spewed out a Stygian effluvium of magma-heat onto the rotten rope of his swinging, stinking accommodations amid one-thousand farting men.

Yankel lost ten pounds on the three-week voyage, having eaten nothing but water they called soup and the soup they called water. He hadn't yet learned to get soup last--the bottom of the pot is where the potatoes lay--but as recompense, he stole three suits of clothing from other woebegone passengers and stuffed them all into the single rope-secured bundle that he hoisted on his already-bent Sisyphusian-back and he stumbled down the rickety gangplank and onto the beaten schist of Ellis Island.

Official gentiles with officer's hats and clipboards inspected him, looking at various papers, greasy from wear. They poked at his ears, his eyes and his mouth. They scrunched his scrotum. And then they pointed him to line three, gate four, the longest of the lines of wretched refuse on our teeming shores and Yankel, like a soldier in the Bataan Death March shuffled over under the weight of his bundle.

He saw an official eating an apple, about to drop the asymmetric core to the dusty, grass-deprived grounds and Yankel, always on the lookout for an opportunity or an angle, sensed one.

"Schexschuse Schmee, Your Schexcellency," Yankel spat. "Jew want see wut I can do it der apple."

The tall, be-whiskered gentile handed Yankel the masticated core. It was already browning in the humid heat of a New York summer a century ago and tiny gnats had already arrived on the core. The air crackled with heat--it was not much cooler then than today, miserable and cornea-cracking.

"Vatch dis," Yankel said. "Jew see dat schmeegull ovah deah on duh piling?"

Yankel had noticed a fat fowl four-hundred feet away standing on one leg on an algaed post. 

"Your Highness," Yankel mustered, "Vatch me bean him."

Yankel had learned a pidgin of Hanglish listening to American sailors down in waterfront bars in Hamburg.

The official smiled and tucked his clipboard under his arm and nodded to Yankel.

"That's gotta be faw-hunnert feet," he mocked. "Like from centa to home at duh new Yankee Stadium up in duh Bronx."

"Yankee Stadium--I'm Yankel Stadium," my ancestor said. He then twirled his licorice thin right arm like the sidewheel of an old Mississippi River boat, lifting his left leg for power and torque and let the apple core fly.

It ran straight like an old Junker aeroplane and knocked the unsuspecting bird's legs out from under him. The bird tumbled into the viscous water, came up for air and screeched in anger. He spread his wings, drying them in the sunshine then flew high and circled over the people below, looking for someone to shit on in retribution. But by that time Yankel and the custom's official were walking arm-in-arm toward the processing center some one-hundred yards away.

"O'Malley," the official said shaking Yankel's calloused paw. "You've got an arm on you like Lefty Grove. And wit da Yankees not six miles away, I gotta getchu in for a tryout. You sticks with me. What did you say your name wuz?"

"Yankel. Yankel Tannenbaum. Schmere didja say you were takin' me, Yankel Stadium? Whas dat, schomewhere duh Jhoose like me-self schmives?"

"Noya dumbbell. Yankee Stadium. It's where dey play baseball, d' American past time. It's up in d' Bronx. D' house that Ruth built?"

"Like Ruth 'n Esther? That Ruth?"

"No, ya' stoopid Yid. Babe Ruth. The Bambino. The Colossus of Clout, the Behemoth of Bam, the Maharajah of Mash, the Mammoth of Maul, the Wizard of Wallop, the Rajah of Rap, the Vizier of Vector, the Caliph of Crash, the...the...the Sultan of Swat."

"Yer onny cornfusing me," Yankel said with barely a spit. "I have no ideer who this Ruth lady is."

"He's only duh greatest baseball player in the forty-eight states. And he plays up in da Bronx for the Bronx Bombers. I think wiff an arm like yers, I can getcha a tryout for d' Yankees. With an arm like yers, you could be making $5000 per annum, easy."

"$5000? Schmy wiff schmoney like dat, I could bring my twenny-nine bruddahs and sistas and aunts and uncles and muddahs and faddahs over. An all twenny-nine of us could share a room anna quarter with a cold-water bath just seven flights up and four blocks ovah."

"Dat's d' ticket, Yankel me boy. And wiff me taking only 125-percent of yer money for me agent's fee, you'll see that the streets in Amerika really iz paved with pickle juice and cel-ray."

"One-hunnert and twenny-five percent of ev'rything I schmake? So, I makes five thousan' and you takes sixty-two-hunnert and fifty dollars? That izza bargain! As soon as I learns t' schmite me name, I'll schmign on duh dotted line."

"Yer right as rain, Yankel, me boy."

And that my friends was how the Tannenbaums came to be in America.

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