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Published Date

January 1, 2004

This resource was developed as part of Linking Family History and World History by Linda Pomerantz.

Morris was Jacob and Sara‘s oldest son, born in Monastir in 1906. As an infant he was given to his uncle and aunt to be adopted and raised as their son. The reason for this event was that Jacob’s oldest brother Mercado was childless, and following the mores of their family and community, a younger brother was obliged to give his son to a childless older brother.

Morris’ new father and mother were known to the Sarfaty family as Tio Mercado and Tia Matilda. Tio Mercado made his living in Monastir as a tinsmith who built and repaired the metal turrets of the town’s mosques. From Morris’ account, Mercado was a deeply religious man who used the threat of God’s wrath to inspire fear in young Morris. It was a dour and frightening home for Morris.

He was seven years old when he emigrated to America in 1913. Morris traveled on the ship with Jacob and Sara and the two year old Clara. Amazingly enough, the secret of his identity was maintained throughout his childhood. Morris believed the Sarfaty children were his cousins and didn’t know they were his blood siblings until he was a teenager.

As a young teenager, Morris developed tuberculosis, an event that decisively shaped his life. At that time, there was no cure for t.b., and those with the illness were isolated from the rest of society and had little hope of living “normal” lives. Morris spent most of his teen years in a sanitarium outside of New York city and endured slow healing after one lung was collapsed.

For more information about tuberculosis and its impact on American life at that time, see Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture Since 1870 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996).

Sara began visiting Morris at the sanitarium on weekends, bringing him things to eat. Gradually, she revealed to him the secret of his identity, and when Morris was released from the “san,” as he called it, at the age of seventeen, he came home, not to the home of Tio Mercado, but to his natal home, to Jacob and Sara and his sisters and brothers. The 1923 family photograph we have been analyzing commemorates his return to his natal family.

Morris never married. Along with close ties to his family members, the friendships he formed in the sanitarium remained important to him through his life, in particular his friendship with an artist, Ben Steinmetz. In his later years he lived with his widowed mother and cared for her until her death in 1978. He was a follower of Hinduism and Rosecrucian religious ideas, in addition to those of Judaism. He was an ardent environmentalist and lived frugally in spite of having amassed considerable wealth through investments in stocks and bonds. He died in 1992 at the age of 86 as a result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident in New York City. His life and personality had a great impact on his brothers and sisters and their children.

Reflective Questions

  1. What does the story of Morris’ adoption suggest about family ties and the role of children among the Sephardim in the early twentieth century?
  2. How does Morris’ experience relate to that of the family member you are studying? How is his experience different?
  3. Has a serious illness impacted the family history you are studying?
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