Every old country European family picture from the late 1800s looks like this, and my father’s genetic origin was not particularly sui generis. But it always lends substance to a person’s life to understand one’s roots. My father’s mother, Sara Ettel Rappaport, is pictured here with her parents, Bracha (blessing) and Ovadiah (servant of G-d). The family resided in the Russian town of Malin, an outskirt of Kiev or more properly Kiev Gubernia – a district or county of Kiev which served as the capital of Ukraine. She had two siblings, a brother Reuven BenTzion, and a sister Maitya.
Sara Ettel married Joseph Press, who hailed from Korestjon, on the Russia/Poland border. Joseph was one of four sons, his siblings being Isadore Press who resided in Philadelphia; the midwesterner Louis Press in St.Louis; and the San Diegan Charles Press who was the most financially secure of the brothers.
As was common in those immigrant times, Joseph came to the United States first in the early 1900s before arranging for Sara Ettel to join him. Joseph was sponsored by Reuven Rappaport, Sara Ettel’s brother who lived in Philadelphia. After working to gain a foothold in the City of Brotherly Love, Joseph was able to arrange transportation for Sara Ettel to join him. Unfortunately their three children died on the boat, and we have no record of their names. Within a six year span they parented four children in Philadelphia, Sylvia, Goldie, Israel Edward, and Edward Benjamin.
The newly minted Philadelphia Press family originally lived at 40th Street and Girard Avenue in West Philadelphia above an ice cream store they operated, a short walk from the popular Philadelphia Zoo at 34th and Girard. In 1920, the year my father was born, they traded the store for larger living quarters at 439 Jackson Street in South Philadelphia. Fast forward to 1926 while Sara Etel was at the hospital visiting Joseph. There were no phones in the houses. Dad dropped a coin behind a chest of drawers, and lit a candle to look for it which unfortunately started a fire that would burn the family out of house and home.
Sara Ettel’s nephew, Abe Dudkin, came to the rescue. Dudkin was used to handling adversity, having served as a lieutenant to Joseph Trumpeldor, an early Zionist icon who helped Jews immigrate to Palestine. In 1927 he was able to find the Press family a home with a little store at the corner of 23rd & Wallace in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. Dad’s, father, Joseph, passed away later that year leaving him fatherless short of his 8th birthday. He learned to read Hebrew that year from Rabbi Miller, a widower who lived a block away, and who had designs on Sara Ettel. Though she wasn’t interested in re-marrying, Rabbi Miller took young Struel Berl (the name on Dad’s birth certificate) under his wing. This chapter of Dad’s life is mentioned on pages 142-143 of Hindy Krohn’s ArtScroll Book, The Way It Was: Touching vignettes about growing up Jewish in the Philadelphia of long ago.