A Brief Blinken Family History: From Pereiaslav to DC and Back

New US secretary of state's immigrant ancestor was a trailblazing Yiddishist, as well as a carpenter and masseuse

Shimon Briman
10.03.2021
Der Kibitzer, a Yiddish publication dedicated to "Fun, Humor and Satire", was one of a number of periodicals that published Meir Blinken's work in the early 20th century (Image: Caricature published in Der Kibbitzer on July 29, 1909, from the National Library of Israel Digital Collection; Photos of Meir and Antony Blinken / Public Domain)

In 2014, Antony (Tony) Blinken guided the American response to civil unrest in Ukraine, yet the new U.S. secretary of state’s roots connecting him to the region run much deeper.

 

The Blinkens of Ukraine

Tony Blinken’s great-grandfather, Meir Blinken, was born in 1879 in Pereiaslav, the birthplace of the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, not far from Kyiv. During his childhood, Meir had a Jewish education at the Talmud-Torah, a religious elementary school.

Synagogue in Pereiaslav-Khmel’nyts’kyi, built ca. 1900 (Photo: Ukrzakhidprojectrestavratsiia, CJA). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In the late 1890s, Meir studied at the Kyivan Commercial College, which was built as part of a joint educational project undertaken by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. The college’s main sponsor was the Kyivan millionaire and philanthropist Lev Brodsky.

In Kyiv, Meir Blinken became a master cabinetmaker, carpenter, and even massage therapist.

His son, Moritz (1900–1986), Tony’s grandfather, who would become a prominent American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kyiv.

If Ukraine would like to present a souvenir to the next U.S. secretary of state, it could be the recently discovered archival documents about his ancestors: civil registration records from the book of the Rabbinate of Pereiaslav and Kyiv for Meir and Moritz, as well as the Blinken family page from the document collection of the 1897 Kyiv census.

 

Crossing the Atlantic

When Meir was 25 years old, he and his young family moved to the U.S., a tiny drop in the flood of 105,000 Jews who arrived in America in 1904.

There he opened a private massage office on East Broadway.

This district was filled with the bustling life and Yiddish culture of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side had the highest concentration of Jews on the planet: 300,000 Jews occupying one square mile.

Postcard of New York’s Lower East Side, ca. 1906. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Dr. Mordechai Yushkovsky, academic director of the International Yiddish Center at the World Jewish Congress, told the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that Meir Blinken mostly wrote short satirical sketches for the Yiddish satirical journal Der Kibetzer, for example, a feuilleton about a writer who swamps all Yiddish-language newspapers in America with his texts, whenever a new publication appears.

 

Trailblazing Yiddishist

Blinken portrayed the real world of Jewish immigrants: the poverty and lack of food, unhygienic conditions, religious superstitions, the lack of education, a lack of understanding of the new country, and the desire to find one’s place in it.

Incidentally, the editorial offices of Der Kibitzer were located 400 meters from today’s Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where in the building dating to that period you can see the reconstructed world of Jewish immigrants with all the accompanying difficulties of life in this New York City “ghetto”.

Masthead of Der Kibitzer from the June 11, 1909 issue, which featured an article by Meir Blinken. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His essays and short stories were also published in socialist and left-wing Zionist periodicals, including Chicago’s Der Yidisher Arbeter Velt (Jewish Labor World).

In 1908, Meir Blinken published his book Weiber (Women), a poem in prose, in London. In this work, as well as in his short stories, the young writer – one of the first Yiddish writers to raise the subject of women’s sexuality – writes about marital infidelity, abortion, and sexual desire.

In 1965, the literary critic Dovid Shub noted that Meir Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex.

 

The ancestral home’s fate

Meir always signed his name as Blinkin, but his descendants changed one letter, and the name became Blinken. Even on the headstone of the prematurely deceased 36-year-old writer (d. 1915),  his children wrote his name as Blinken.

In the opinion of Professor Wolf Moskovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading Israeli Slavist and member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, Blinken’s Jewish surname means that the founder of the family arrived in Kyiv gubernia from the village of Blinki, which was then in Nevel County, Vitebsk gubernia (today’s Belarus).

In Ukraine, there is no settlement with such a name.

It is interesting to note that Nevel is legendary among Hasidim, who belong to the Chabad movement. In the nineteenth century, the town of Nevel and the surrounding district were a stronghold of Hasidic learning.

In 1927, the communist government seized Nevel raion from Belarus and ceded it to Russia. Thus, today the village of Blinki is located on the territory of the Russian Federation, even though it is only two kilometers from the border with Belarus.

Nevel, 2016 (Photo: Vladimir Levin). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel

Between the censuses of 2001 and 2010, the population of the village of Blinki decreased from twelve to ten inhabitants. The irony is that if the incoming U.S. state of secretary decides to visit the village from whose name his surname is derived, he will probably find his ancestral home completely deserted.

A version of this article was originally published by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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