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Life Arts    H3'ed 1/24/11

Twentieth-Century Success Story: Poor Immigrant Family Achieved American Dream Through Music

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My guest today is Erika Goldberg. Welcome to OpEdNews. When we met a few weeks ago, you told me a very interesting story about your family, which has been in the Boston area for several generations.  Can you get us started, Erika?

Good morning.  You know I think everyone has a "story" to tell, but I've been involved in this one my whole life. As an observer of this family, it's been quite a ride.  It starts with an immigrant couple just off the boat [at] Ellis Island, overwhelmed and excited about a new life filled with expectations and hope.  So, Nathan and Mary - their original name was something like "Polgrabitsky" - good luck pronouncing that one!  Somewhere along the line at Ellis Island, it got changed to Gomberg.  So Nathan and Mary had eight children - my mother had a twin that died - so that left seven.  Their names were: Ray, the eldest, Bob, Cela, Harold, Leo, Edith and Ralph.  Of the seven, six went on to fame and, not quite "fortune." But to a first generation of Americans, it was a new kind of "fortune" - it was success in a new country.

Mary and Nathan felt that music was the gateway to becoming a cultured American.  I actually have somewhere hidden in my treasures a photograph from the "old" country of a distance relative holding a violin in his hands on the fields of Russia - but don't ask me who he is - it's just an interesting link from the past.

Along the line, someone in Chelsea, Massachusetts where Nathan and Mary settled, gave Bob a violin, and their lives were changed forever.  He took to it like a baby to milk, and everything flowed from that.  He shared that violin with Cela his sister.  And then someone gave Ralph and Harold an oboe which they shared because they couldn't afford two oboes!  Then, Leo saw how satisfying and exciting this was, so the family scraped enough money [together] to rent him a trumpet. Oh, how he adored the sound and he never put it down after that.  And then, my mother was given a cello to join in.  That was the story - no one ever paid because they were so brilliant.  Now, the story goes that these six little children were living their lives quite poor in Chelsea.  At this time, the Curtis Institute of Music had become the "Harvard" of music education.  Curtis was established by Mary Louise Curtis Bok - of the Curtis Publishing Company.  She married Bok, of the Harvard University family, and together they established the Curtis Institute of Music.  

The story continues that one day Efrem Zimbalist, the great violinist who was on the Board of Directors of Curtis, heard about this amazingly talented family. Curtis Institute did, and still does, only accept the brightest and most brilliant of musicians - and it's all FREE!  The story continues that one day, he took the train to Chelsea and sought out this "phenom" of a family. He approached my grandmother with a deal she couldn't refuse: "If you give me your children, I will see to it that they never have to pay for music lessons again, and we'll provide free room and board."  To that offer, my little grandmother simply opened her eyes wide and responded, "DA!"  And so they traveled to Philadelphia and their careers took off.   

1924 daguerrotype, Erika's mom in left-hand photo [bottom], two siblings already with instruments, with proud Papa top left and middle of right-hand photo. 

Uncle Harold Gomberg went on to become first oboist in the New York Philharmonic.  My Uncle Ralph Gomberg went on to become first oboist in the Boston Symphony.  Uncle Leo Gomberg went on to become trumpet player in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.  Uncle Bob went on to perform in L.A. with Toscanini.  Ciel, a violinist, went on to marry Ruby Newman, the big band leader back in the forties and fifties, and also performed solo.  My mother Edith went on as well through Curtis as a cellist.  And the eldest child stayed home to care for the Mama and Papa. So many greats, such stories.  

So, bottom line is, out of seven children in an immigrant family from Russia, six went through the Curtis Institute of Music on scholarship and distinguished themselves as the largest family to ever attend!  

I loved reading The Help, because that's what it was like in the fifties as first generation American Jews fleeing Europe tried to integrate into a new society as well, and not speaking much English.  PBS did a very interesting series on the Jews that fled Germany and France to America and what they encountered. We had that in the Boston symphony. Mike Wallace's cousin was my father's "desk-mate" at the BSO, and I remember how they struggled to get money together, enough to get his family out of Europe to escape the Holocaust.  There's tons of stories like that still out there.

Fascinating. What about your mom? What was she doing?

My mom was awesome, truly awesome!  First off, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor - big purple eyes, flaming black hair pulled back dramatically, and she was only four-foot-eleven and three-quarters inches tall.  She used to say she missed the human race by a quarter of an inch.  And virtually every man she met fell in love with her - I have photos of her with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland - and they all adored her.  Her name was Edith Gomberg - she was a cellist - and, oh my, did she love her cello.  She used to tell the story of how she fell in love with my skinny little dad because he would carry her cello home from music lessons.  She also went to Curtis - I think I mentioned that - but "Lenny" [Leonard Bernstein, Curtis Class of '41]  and all the others adored her.  She actually once gave a phone interview to an admirer in a bubble bath tub, and she giggled at me because the interviewer never knew she was in the tub at the time!  

There is a great mystery in our life though because I have absolutely no record that they were actually married.  I mean she never ever had a wedding ring - and that was highly unusual in that time! - and they were often photographed professionally, but never together, which was highly unusual at that time - and she kept her maiden name, and I can find no record that they were ever married!  My daughter made me join Ancestry.com last summer and I still can't trace their marriage.  

What about your dad? 

George Zazofsky [Erika's dad] playing solo with the Boston symphony orchestra, 1967

Dad was first stand assistant concertmaster of the Boston pops orchestra with Arthur Fiedler and assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  His story is also remarkable because he co-founded the International Conference of Symphony and Orchestra Musicians [ICSOM]. At that time, back in the forties and fifties, there was a huge backlash against someone with a Russian-sounding name. He showed me how our phone was "bugged," because they felt he might be a communist.  And then he started his new labor organization and that even inflamed things further.  

I encourage you and your readers to find a book by Julie Ayer entitled, More than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History at Amazon.com. She details exquisitely the plight of classical musicians back in the early days and the plight of my father and others like him deciding to branch off and start a new union.  It's quite interesting reading if you want to truly see what my life and the lives of millions of others involved in classical music were like in the forties and fifties.  

I recall  from our previous conversation that your parents moved to Waban/Newton and continued their relationship with music there. Can you fill us in a bit on that, too?

Sure.  After the war, my father was anxious that we get a good education and wanted to be near other members of the Boston Symphony, so the move was on to the suburbs.  They picked Newton, Massachusetts because of its proximity to Boston, and truly, quite a few other musicians followed.  Unfortunately, my memory as a child was one of exclusion because we were "odd" - classical musicians were suspect, European - Russian! - were kind of queer; and Jewish, well that was just strange.  

So believe it or not - and in this day and age it's hard to believe! - where we moved, we were the only Jewish family in our neighborhood.  Quite soon, I learned that a lot of social "clubs" were not open to us. For instance, girl scouts were filled, dance lessons were closed - we were just not welcome.  My family was acutely aware of what was happening in Europe. We took into our home distant relatives, orchestra members fleeing orchestras in Europe - and even a man I'm still not sure was a member of our family because he didn't speak English!   It was always explained to me that music was our religion and that meant we could go anywhere and find a symphony hall, an orchestra, and be welcome.  Can I tell you how true that was!

Anyway, "odd" people to a child came and went from our home after the war.  My mother was always cooking, and music was always heard - practicing, or on the radio, or a new thing called 'records'.  It was never boring, believe me!  

I believe you!  How about the next generation, the one after Mary and Nathan's kids?

This magic "gene" pool from Russia did not extend beyond one child, my brother Peter Zazofsky, who now teaches violin at Boston University.  When he was younger, he won many, many violin competitions around the world - the Wienowski Violin competition in Europe, the first American to win the Montreal International Violin Competition, and many others.  But this story is mainly about an immigrant couple named Nathan and Mary, and, wow, what their gene pool produced.  So, there you have it.  I have a myriad of old photos, recordings, interviews on tape, and much more.  But I can tell you that being a little child observing these giants was so much fun - an instrument was always around, always taken out, oboe reeds shared, musical extravaganzas and stories galore!

Thanks so much for sitting down next to a complete stranger - me - and sharing this remarkable story. It's been a real pleasure!

Curtis Institute of Music guarantees the quality of its student body by offering every student a full-tuition scholarship. The school relies on endowment revenue and the support of many generous donors to fund the lessons, practice, rehearsals, classes, and performances that enable its students to become tomorrow's legends. [from their website]

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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