Friday, April 15, 2011

How a Mongol Became a Jew Became Irish

While I am Italian on my mom’s side, the stories of my paternal grandfather Adolf Berkowitz are the most well known in my family. Adolf was born in the Austro-Hungarian village of Essen. His father, Max, was part of the Honor Guard for Franz Josef and was armed with a sword. According to family lore an anti-Semite in the town began to harass Max’s father, tugging at his long beard. Fueled by an infamous temper, which has been diluted in recent Berke generations, Max struck the man with his sword. More outlaw than immigrant, he then fled the country leaving his family behind. In 1917 he was able to send money to my great-grandmother Bertha and my 7 year old grandfather Adolf and they crossed the sea to join him in Pittsburgh.

Thirty years later, my grandfather had grown up to be the only Jewish doctor in Antioch, Illinois, and had shortened his name from Berkowitz to Berke. Safe under the guise of an Irish name, Adolf made frequent house calls, carrying with him a large alligator skin bag full of vials of brightly colored pills. When my father Jerry Berke was a child he would sometimes ride this bag like a cowboy patrolling the desert, or perhaps like a nomad on the steppes of Eurasia.

Genghis Khan -- A distant relation?                                                    Jerry Burke, the Author's Father

Berkowitz means “son of Berke.” I’ve been told that the first Berke—from whom all Berkowitzes are descended—was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. So somewhere back there we were Mongols, and perhaps it was the blood of a warrior that caused my great-granddaddy Max to lose his temper that day and strike out for a new life in America. And perhaps it is the ambition of a Mongol horde that drives me to pursue a career in show biz. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you Genghis Khan.

Elly Berke is an educator and costumed interpreter at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She joined the museum in 2009 to play Victoria Confino, thus fulfilling a dream of combining her degrees in American Studies, Theatre, and Museum Studies. Elly acts professionally and studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.

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