Diversity wasn’t cool in the small town where I grew up. In fact, it was frowned upon. In the late 1960s, Ridgefield Park, NJ, was comprised almost exclusively of Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans. So, if one’s surname wasn’t Murtaugh, Monihan, Gandolfo or Gadaleta, one was considered an outsider. It was no accident that the words image, Italian and Irish all begin with the same letter. They were intrinsically linked in my old hometown.
As a Cody, I was assumed to be Irish. So, I was considered ‘OK.’ But, that was only half true. My mom’s family hailed from County Clare, Ireland. But, my dad had told us his side of the family was Greek. And, since it was neither Irish nor Italian, Greek was not a good thing to be in the Ridgefield Park of the late 1960s. So, I obfuscated. I laid low. I nodded my head when peers would say, ‘Cody’s ok. He’s Irish like us.’
And, then, the times changed and I forgot all about the whole Greek thing. That was, up until about 10 years ago when my mom put on a Deerstalker hat and decided to do some family sleuthing. She went to her local library, delved into my dad’s murky family history and broke the news that we weren’t Greek after all. As best as she could tell, my mom believed my dad’s family was either Polish or Russian. As the prototypical Archie Bunker-type, my dad wasn’t thrilled with the Polish angle and opted, instead, to begin tell friends and family alike he was Russian. I enjoyed the slowly unfolding drama and, as America became more diverse, so, too, did my ancestral roots. I’d tell anyone who would listen that I was 50 percent Irish and 50 percent goulash. And, that’s the way things stayed until last week when my cousin, Lynn, went to one of those ancestry sites and, lo and behold, hit family pay dirt.
It turns out that my grandfather was born in Galipoli, Turkey (btw, there’s a great Mel Gibson movie by the same name) and my grandmother hails from the oft-contested Galicia region of Austria. So, deep into middle life, I’ve finally discovered my roots: I’m 50 percent Irish, 25 percent Austrian and 25 percent Turkish. And, I am so embracing my newfound personal diversity.
All that said, my gut tells me I still would have been tarred and feathered in my old home town if I’d started boasting about either Viennese sausage or Turkish coffee. Those Murtaugh kids were one tough bunch.
Oy, I’m kvelling over how you snuck “Bubbelah” into today’s post. Now I’m all verklempt. Give me a moment. And if it’s not too much trouble, a hard candy.
Loving it, Ken. Just loving it. Thanks.
Steve, Bubbelah. I think it’s more likely you’re 25% Polish, not 25% Austrian. Why? Galicia was a region of Poland–though parts of it might have been ruled by the Russian Empire over the years. I believe the Austrian Empire got parts of Galicia during each division of Poland, and might have gotten the lion’s share, if not all of it, by the final division. Although the region was then ruled by the Austrian crown, the majority of residents would have been Polish, not Austrian, (Though of course there was probably a good representation of other nationalities and ethnic groups from nearby Eastern European regions and states.)
And to my lantszman Syd’s point, Galicia had a substantial Jewish population, including my father-in-law’s ancestors. I believe “lantzman” means “countryman” in Yiddish, and it’s used as a term of endearment.
And yes, he’s implying that there’s a chance you’re one of us! I might now start calling you “Steve-a-lah”
A Lantzman, Syd? That’s Greek to me. I’ll copy Ed and ask for an explanation.
You’re a Galicianer? Hmmm…maybe you’re a lantzman after all! (Ask Ed).
Bismarck would be disappointed in you, Trish. Prussia is a region in Germany and produced many of the country’s finest generals. I believe Ed once dated a Prussian girl in high school.
I love being a mutt. I know I have blood from Poland, Germany, England (Liverpool – maybe I’m related to the Beatles!), Ireland, Prussia (where ever that was), Cherokee Indian (great grandma was Rosebud)… My town is made up of Poles, Germans, Greeks and Lebanese and we have great food festivals and that’s what it’s all about, food. But even better is living in an African-American neighborhood where my neighbors bring by food from their culture. Two different neighbors grew up in Louisiana and I look forward to the Gumbo.
I love it, Ms Farina. It’s amazing how segregated my town was. I remember when the first African-American family moved in. It was the talk of the town. Today, that very same town is one-third Indian, one-third Asian and one-third miscellaneous. And, I’ll bet it’s a happier place, too.
Thanks Goose. Diversity is a good thing. It sure wasn’t a good thing in Ridgefield Park circa 1968.
Great story, Steve… I had a similar experience growing up in my neighborhood in Brooklyn… Since both my mother’s and father’s parents hailed from Italy, I am 100 percent Italian-American. But with a last name like Farin, everyone assumed I was part Irish. They didn’t believe me when I told them my name was shortened before I was even born.
I was always thought you were a Turkey, Rep. I love a good play on words, especially when it leads me to typing about food.
we are so diverse it’s awesome
Thanks Amelia. I’ve seen the show and love it.
Great article Steve. You might be interested in the Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates series on PBS. It looks at the genealogy of 12 famous Americans, from Steven Colbert to Queen Noor.