It would be pleasant to think that my paternal grandfather was named Adam because he was the first surviving member of his family to be born in the New World. When his life began in 1879, his parents were not yet American citizens. They lived in a New York tenement at the corner of First Street and First Avenue—another omen, surely—in a neighborhood that had already housed several waves of immigrants and would continue to change its ethnic composition every few decades for the indefinite future.
The mini-wave to which my grandfather Adam’s parents belonged consisted of people from the northern fringes of what had recently become the German Empire, who resented Prussian rule and in many cases (including that of my then-eighteen-year-old great-grandfather) wished to escape the Prussian military draft. They had met in New York, married, had two sons who promptly died. But my grandfather, their second attempt at a son named Adam, lived. He was in fact named after his mother’s father and brother; his parents, who had exhausted their capacity for innovation in the act of immigration itself, were not given to bold symbolic gestures. Still, five months later they took the oath of citizenship.
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