Andrew Tisch’s family’s journey from Ukraine

More than one hundred years ago, my grandfather Avraham Titenskaya stood as a young child in the big room at the new immigrant arrivals hall on Ellis Island. He took the same oath virtually every American immigrant has taken. Avraham and his family had come from Dniepro-Petrovsk in Ukraine sometime around 1904, through Odessa on the Crimean Peninsula. Half the family turned left and went to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and the other half, including my great-grandparents Shlo­mo (Solomon) and Dinah, my grandfather, and his sisters Shirley and Jean came here. We think distant parts of the family had already come to America. None of us knows what became of the Uzbek family.

That’s the family lore, but research by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation shows my great-grandfather Shlomo arriving from Hamburg on February 12, 1904, and the rest of the family arriving on September 30, 1904. Presuming the ships’ records are more accurate, it would make no sense for them to go to Odessa to get to Hamburg, so the family lore is probably somewhat faulty!

Although I’m not sure why the family left Ukraine or why they decid­ed to come to the United States, I can surmise that part of it had to do with the fact that they were Jewish and felt vulnerable living in what was then part of czarist Russia. One story has it that the Russians were drafting young Jewish men for the Czar’s army, which was equivalent to a death sentence.

I imagine they came for the same reason that so many others came to these shores: for the opportunity to live a better life than they could in their place of birth for themselves, for their children, and for their future generations.

My grandfather’s given name was Avraham Titenskaya when he arrived at Ellis Island. The old family lore was that our name was Tischinsky and we were table makers, because Tisch means “table” in Yiddish. However, that seems too simple an explanation. But the ship manifest showed Titenskaya. Whatever our family name was when my great-grandfather left Dniepro-Petrovsk, it became Tichinsky on Ellis Island.

I believe my great-grandfather was a tailor specializing in fur. The family first moved to the Bronx to be near American relatives. Shlo­mo, now Solomon, set up his tailor business in his home. Dinah was a founder of the Ladies’ Day Nursery which, in some incarnation, is still in existence and provided early daycare services for working women in the borough. Then they moved to Brooklyn, before Brooklyn was fash­ionable again, and my grandfather and his two sisters went to public school, where they learned English.

My grandfather went to the City College of New York, where he did well academically and was captain of the school’s basketball team in 1917–1918. Avraham Tichinsky’s nickname was Al, but Tisch was the nickname used for basketball cheers, because no one could pronounce his other names. The cheer “Go Tisch” was certainly catchier than “Go Tichinsky.” The nicknames stuck, and he carried that name for the rest of his life. Al Tisch married Sayde Brenner, whose family was from Poland. They had two sons, and he worked hard in the garment busi­ness, making boys’ corduroy knickers in partnership with a man named Handelsman, whom he later bought out.

Al Tisch never loved the garment business, so he took advantage of a great American right—the right to change your mind. He and my grandmother tried their hand at the real estate business by buying a pair of summer camps in Blairstown, New Jersey, which they operated for ten years. Their two sons, Larry and Bob, spent their teenage sum­mers working at the camp.

They bought the camp with a five-thousand-dollar loan from Al’s father, Solomon. It was successful and provided a nice income for the family.

Among the campers was one of their Brooklyn neighbors, Belle “Bubbles” Silverman, who went on to change her name to Beverly Sills; she became a great opera star and stayed a close friend of theirs for her whole life.

Al and Sayde’s sons, my father, Larry, and uncle Bob, fought in the army in World War II. Larry grew up doing the cryptograms in the newspapers and became a cryptographer in the OSS. He was due to be sent over to Myanmar (Burma in those days) but developed hepatitis and finished the war in a hospital in Washington, DC.

The boys took advantage of another opportunity afforded them in the United States—a good education. Before World War II, my father went to New York University’s School of Commerce and graduated at age nineteen. After the war, he used the GI Bill to get a business degree from Wharton and began his studies at Harvard Law School. However, Larry dropped out of Harvard to join the rest of the family in the hotel business. In 1946, Larry and Bob, along with their parents, leased a hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, called Laurel-in-the-Pines, which they ultimately bought and parlayed into a chain of hotels in New Jersey, New York, and Florida. Together, the family took advantage of the opportunities allowed them by the American dream and capitalism.

Through good sense, excellent timing, and a positive vision of what can happen in America, they created a business that, today, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and employs nearly twenty thousand people in hotels, insurance, oil exploration, natural gas pipelines, and packaging. My father met my mother, Billie, on a blind date in June 1948 while he was just getting into the hotel business. They dated for a couple of months before getting engaged and then married on October 31, 1948. Mercifully, I was born nine months and two weeks after they were mar­ried. Billie and Larry went on to have three more sons, my brothers, who are my closest friends and business associates to this day.

I grew up as a hotel brat, moving every year or so to wherever the newest hotel was located and finally to New York at age ten. I have four children, a boy and three girls. My wife, Ann, is a journalist and educator who is working to make the world better by reintroducing single-gender education as a choice into the public education arena. Her efforts have helped thousands of young girls attend college and achieve their own American dreams. My children are all more-than-productive citizens making their own marks in society.

Throughout my life, community and philanthropy were key elements reinforced by my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my grandparents. I don’t know where this spirit came from, but I know it was a key element in the way our family lived. The family was always most important, but we never lost sight of the needs of the community. We were taught to be generous, to be participants, and, no matter what the consequences, to do the right thing.

In all, we came from many different places. My father’s family was from Ukraine and Poland, my mother’s family from Lithuania and Germany. My wife Ann’s family came from France, the United King­dom, and Hungary. Their countries of origin are just reference points, because we are all Americans.

Two of the great attributes of this country are the rewards it offers for taking advantage of opportunity and risk. Throughout our fami­ly’s experience in America, we have had opportunities presented to us. None of them came without risk, but at many important junctures, my forefathers and foremothers were able to assess the risks involved in taking advantage of the opportunities. When doors were opened, we were in the fortunate position of choosing many of the right doors to walk through. No one predetermined what we could or could not do or be. Instead, we had the opportunity to make our own luck.

My grandfather Avraham Tichinsky can count not only his two sons, but seven grandchildren, twenty-three great-grandchildren, and sev­enteen great-great-grandchildren and growing. All American and all committed to the American dream of peace and opportunity in a better world.

America is filled with Al Tisches—boys and girls of every ethnic ori­gin from every corner of the world. I know how hard families work to become citizens of this great country. And to each of you, I want only to say, “Welcome to the United States.”

Andrew Tisch is co-chairman of the board of Loews Corporation. He is widely engaged in the business, political, and philanthropic communities.

This essay excerpt is adapted from JOURNEYS: AN AMERICAN STORY compiled by Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas and is printed with permission from RosettaBooks.

Mary Skafidas’ family’s journey from Greece

My family’s origins begin at the birthplace of civilization, philosophy, and wisdom—Greece! At least if you believe the Greek supremacy por­trayed in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding that’s true.

The movie is often quoted in my house and while it’s a caricature of Greek-Americans—loud, brash, talking over one another, food-focused and family-oriented—it hits the mark almost on the bullseye. Not just for Greek families, the portrayal is reminiscent of other immigrant families as well—Italians, Jews, Russians, Turks, or Persians to name a few.

My father’s family is from Mani, Greece. A dry, harsh, mountain­ous area that creates people just as harsh—with unbending wills and indomitable spirits. In other words, a swift kick to the head by a mule wouldn’t begin to dent the craniums of the people from Mani. It’s often said that all the bad-tempered Spartans (legend has it Spartans left deformed infants out in the wilderness to die rather than be burdened with raising them) were sent to Mani. So, you can just imagine what my father’s side of the family is like.

My mother’s side of the family is from Kalamata, Greece, known for its olives. In contrast to my father’s side, my mother’s family is as smooth and polished as olive oil made from Kalamata olives. They say opposites attract, and the contrast between my mother and my father, and their families, has made for some very interesting family dinners.

My parents’ journey to America took place more than forty-five years ago. They simply boarded a plane and arrived. They were lucky enough to have family in the US that sponsored them to become citizens. Their physical journey, unlike earlier immigrants, was a non-event. It was the emotional journey they took after their arrival that really defines my family.

I’m sure my parents have—on more than one occasion—questioned why they left behind their comfortable middle-class surroundings to move to the United States. When I was a child, my family and I lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—complete with gangs, tiny apartments full of roaches and mice, and a gaggle of teenage mothers. Overlaid on top was constant street noise—yelling, loud crashes, fists hitting—I remember as a little girl sitting in the corner of the room with my hands over my ears trying to block it all out, trying to find a minute’s worth of peace.

While those early years were hard on all of us as we acclimated to a new culture, I am thankful every day that my parents choose to come here, that they saw the writing on the wall for Greece’s future. Every time I speak to one of my relatives in Greece currently facing years of recession with no recovery in sight, I know they made the right decision.

Growing up first-generation, straddling two countries, was not easy. Only someone who has lived this can understand what I mean. You are raised with the moral guidelines of a country you know nothing about. My parents where moored in Greece’s archaic societal norms, never progressing their thinking with the country they lived in. Luckily, their old-fashioned thinking didn’t extend to education, more specifically a woman’s right to education. My parents, especially my father, believed that girls had just as much right to an education as boys. Would their thinking have been altered if I’d had a brother? I will never know. But I was one of the lucky ones, able to receive the tools I needed to make my own way in this world and not be reliant on a man. Others of my cohort were not as lucky.

As a first-generation immigrant I was very aware that I was Greek-American. Not of one country, but of two. I have tried to take the best of both—the rich history, beauty, and tradition of Greece and marry it to the fierce, forward momentum of the United States. I felt that Greek food deserved its own mention in this essay. Not enough good things can be said about Greek food and what a gift it is to the rest of the world!

I am blessed with two beautiful boys, the second generation (at least on my side of the family and more like the sixth on my husband’s side). Their last name is Jones and while I dreamed of such an Americanized name as a little girl, today the name seems like white toast—dry, with no flair. That’s why the middle name for both is Skafidas. It adds a little spice back into their names, makes them interesting, gives them a his­tory and a story. A story that could only be written in America.

My boys’ lives are the perfect blend of all the generations that have come before them. And as our family gathers to roast a lamb on Easter (which has mercifully moved from the front yard to the back), our fam­ily Greek, Jewish, Irish, Russian, Polish, and Welsh all come together to eat and celebrate that we are all Americans.

Mary Skafidas is Vice President of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for Loews Corporation.

This essay excerpt is adapted from JOURNEYS: AN AMERICAN STORY compiled by Andrew Tisch and Mary Skafidas and is printed with permission from RosettaBooks.