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.