coverThe Family.  Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.  By David Laskin.  Published by Viking Adult.  2013.  400 pages.

This is the story of three branches of one Russian Jewish family, the author’s maternal grandfather’s family.  Although we often think that such family lines cannot be traced back into the “old country”,  Mr. Laskin was able to track many of the individuals in this family back to early in the 1800s, to his great great grandparents Shimon Dov HaKohen and Beyle Botwinik HaKohen.  From a variety of sources which included much help from a couple of cousins, interviews with various family members, transcriptions of old letters, and the historical timeline, Mr. Laskin has pieced together the story of his mother’s father’s family.  With a family tree laid out for the reader right after the table of contents, how could a genealogist resist?

David Laskin started where many family historians begin: with some memories from his childhood, some few pieces of information, and a family rumor.  Although he grew up in a Jewish family, and knew his older relatives were immigrants, he knew little more.  As he described:  “I grew up hearing stories that my immigrant Jewish grandparents told about the “old country” (Russia) that they left at the turn of the last century. When I was a teenager, my mother’s parents began making yearly trips to visit our relatives in Israel, and stories about the Israeli family sifted down to me as well. What I never heard growing up was that a third branch of the family had remained behind in the old country – and that all of them perished in the Holocaust.“

One piece of information and one family rumor seem to have started Mr. Laskin on the road to tracing his family story.  The information was that an great aunt, Itel or Ida Rosenthal, had been instrumental in starting and developing the Maidenform company.  The rumor was that Lazar Kaganovich, the “wolf of the Kremlin”, was a relative.  In trying to track the truth of the rumor, Mr. Laskin re-connected with an Israeli cousin who was the family historian.  The cousin was able to say definitely that Lazar Kaganovich was not part of the family.  However, this left the question for the author of who was part of the family.

Mr. Laskin’s great great grandfather, Shimon Dov Hakohen,  was a Torah scribe as was his father before him.  His family lived in the Pale of Settlement which was on the western edge of the Russian Empire in the early 1800s, in a town between Minsk and Vilna.  The town was known for its yeshiva, institute of Talmudic study, and Shimon Dov’s sons were educated there.  For at least several generations the town was a center of Jewish life, religion and scholarship.  However, no one was exempt from the forces that shaped modern history.  Shimon Dov and Beyle and all their children felt the changes around them and responded in different ways according to their personalities and ages.  When the Tsar, Alexander II, was assassinated in 1881 it led to a round of ethnic cleansing against the Jews.  This in turn led some of the Jewish youth in the country to social activism and to join with others in the Bund.  By 1901 family members, led by Itel and her husband William Rosenthal, began migrating to the US.  The unrest in the Russian Empire, culminating in the 1905 revolution convinced more of the family to leave.   Oldest son, Abraham and his sons followed Itel to the US.  Two young cousins, instead of going to the US went to Palestine (or the Land as Mr. Laskin termed it) to help build a home for the Jews.  And the rest of the family stayed in place fighting for their freedom and lives in Russia.

This is not an uncommon family trajectory or story among many Jewish families, however, Mr. Laskin’s ability to piece together the various lines is less usual.  Using all the resources at his disposal and historical storytelling he was able to link the social forces to individual people and families.  His family’s story might have been my husband’s.

Disclaimer: I am not connected with the author or the publisher in any way.  I discovered this book via something online (a blog probably, but I can’t remember whose) and was intrigued enough to get my library to find it for me.  I learned many things about modern history and the Jewish experience from reading it.

Facebook

I wrote more than a year ago (here) about finally edging my way into the waters of social networking by signing up on Facebook. I have had a number of positive experiences (and a few negative ones!) since then, and find myself thinking about whether there is a better way for me to use it for genealogical purposes. My negative experiences, by the way, have been with Facebook itself not with “friends”. (I tried to log in from a strange computer and then couldn’t remember my password and Facebook locked me out for a month or so. Did, finally, get back into my account; but not without a lot of frustration.)

The gist of the issue for me is this: I first signed up so I could stay in touch with the younger generation of our family, most of whom repeatedly said to me “those pictures are on Facebook”. That use of my Facebook site has worked wonderfully. I can see all the family pictures and comment on them when I want to. I can even share my own pictures. As I got more practiced using the site, I also wanted to connect with other family members, “cousins” of all varieties and have started to do that. So far all of these connections have originated with me, that is, I went looking for people.

However, because it is my personal site, I have tried to be very careful about privacy and so have tried to keep my posts and photos as contained as possible by only letting friends (people already in my friend list) see them. I know that I am limiting myself in terms of others being able to find me by searching for the family names I post periodically. (I assume you can do this in Facebook. Guess I should find out.) For example, I try, whenever I have posted something on this blog, to put that on my wall so everyone who is interested can go look at what I said. Assuming that names mentioned in a wall post can be searched, I am going to try making those posts public, to see if anyone finds me.

I also recently started playing around with making a page in Facebook for the Genealogy Gals. Until I figure out how to use the page, however, and decide with Judy what it should have on it, it will remain unpublished.

screen capture of the Syracuse group on Facebook


The very best is that I discovered a group, thanks to cousin Nancy, called Jewish Community of the 15th Ward, Syracuse, New York (click on the name to go see the front page of the group). This is a new group, in existence for just over a month now, with 88 members last I looked. (There were 68 I think when I joined, so you can see it is growing.) The purpose of the group is to share memories and photos and information about the old 15th ward. This neighborhood doesn’t exist physically any more due to the construction of a major highway and general urban renewal. The group is active and there are some wonderful photos and images already. Everyone is also very helpful in making connections or answering questions.

I haven’t actually verified whether my husband’s family lived within this neighborhood, that is the actual boundaries of the ward, but they certainly were part of the Jewish community from their arrival in about 1905. That makes them latecomers compared to some of the Jewish families, but puts them in the middle of the pack compared to many others. I am hoping my sister-in-law will join the group and that we may find new “cousins” as well. So far the group has shared the recipe for potato latkes originally submitted by one of the aunts to a Hadassah cookbook in the 1960s, and I’ve been told about a handwritten pickle recipe from another aunt. I also found out about a book from the Arcadia series of picture books about places, which I have ordered and await impatiently. What a treasure trove!

I have a number of pictures and documents that I plan to share with this group. I don’t want to step on cousin Nancy’s toes, so will try to be careful not to share pictures we have because she sent copies to us. And before I share any studio photographs I will check up on the copyright issue. I seem to remember that photos taken before a specific date (or over X number of years old) are in the public domain, but I want to be certain.

Twitter

The other social networking site I use is Twitter. I also originally signed onto this thinking that the younger generation in the immediate family would adopt it as a communications channel. I was the only one there for a very long time, but they’ve started to join in.

So, I am on Twitter as an individual and follow several of our fellow genealogists. The question for me again is separating the personal family stuff from the more general genealogical. As far as I know tweets cannot be directed to only some people.

Judy put the Genealogy Gals on Twitter too (yay, Judy!!) and both of us can access that account. Please notice the “follow us” icon on the bottom of the left menu. I suppose the answer to my own question is that I should use the Genealogy Gals account for general genealogy stuff and my personal account for staying in touch with individual family members or friends. I don’t use it much anyway since I’m often not doing or thinking anything I feel the need to share in that way. Too, I haven’t added using Twitter to my cell phone abilities, so there are many times when it isn’t easily available to me.

And, finally, there is a useful new posting by James Tanner over on familysearch.org that summarizes social networking for us genealogists. This post, plus the first comment capture it all.

One pleasant day in mid-October my daughter and I went to visit my mother in her room at the Jewish Home for the Aged in New Haven.  We had both been there many times before, but only occasionally together.  As we walked down the long hallway to the elevator I asked Sara, “What do you want for Christmas ?”  Perhaps an odd question in the Jewish Home, but due to the religiously blended nature of our family we celebrate as many holidays as possible, not yet including Zoroaster’s birthday, but seriously considering it. Sara replied, “I want to know about that lady.”

That lady?  I had walked down that hallway at least a thousand times without pausing to look at the oil portraits of the two women that were hanging there, the portraits being the ones doing the hanging, not the women.  The one that intrigued curious daughter was labeled Lena Steinberg, 1915-1925.

“ I don’t know what I can find out,” I said.  “This is what you do, you’ll love it,” replied Sara.  Of course she was right.  The idea was now firmly lodged somewhere in my cerebral cortex and it wasn’t coming loose until I had answers.

It is odd but true that the things that just fall into your lap unbidden are often the most interesting, educational and entertaining.  So it was with Ms. Steinberg, who turned out to be Mrs. Steinberg, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When in doubt start with the census.  How do we love the census, let me count the ways.  Well, if you’re a genealogist I don’t have to tell you.  I knew she lived in New Haven, so I quickly consulted the census records via Ancestry.com.  There was only one Lena Steinberg in New Haven, living with her husband David, and yes, YES! someone listed as Brother-in-law, meaning Lena’s brother.  How much do we love the words in-law on a census sheet? Again if you’re a genealogist I don’t have to tell you.  Lena was Lena Kan Steinberg.

Next came the really fun part.  Neither my husband nor myself is from this area.  All of my family research is done from a distance.  Now I could work where I lived.  It is so much fun and so wonderfully easy to be able to go and visit the cemetery, the archives, the people who know stuff you want to know.

New Haven has a Jewish Archives!  They have books and pamphlets and all kinds of things.  Jewishgen.com provided cemetery locations.  I was able to visit the places where Lena made her home, the sights of businesses now long forgotten and the grave of this rather extraordinary woman.

Because she did indeed turn out to be an extraordinary woman, an everyday hero.  One of the ones who don’t seek recognition but quietly gets things done.

Here, very briefly, is her story.  Lena Kan was one of the many eastern European immigrants who came to this country around the turn of the 20th century.  She came as an infant with her parents, who settled for a time in Philadelphia, but eventually moved to New Haven where they started a jewelry business.  Here Lena met and married David Steinberg.  The couple had no children of their own and Lena threw herself into meeting the needs of the poor Jewish community of New Haven. At this time there were no facilities for poor, elderly Jewish people to live the end of their lives with dignity in a place where they could conform to the customs and rules of their religion.  In 1908 Lena helped to form the Sisters of Zion.  These women worked tirelessly to form both the Hebrew Orphan’s Asylum and the Jewish Home for the Aged.  The Jewish Home opened in 1915 with Lena Steinberg as its first president. To quote from A History of the Jewish Home for the Aged, “Mrs Steinberg was a forceful and charming woman who was able to attract people and get them to work.  She was a natural to be the first president of the home.”

To me, reading between the lines this woman seems like a force of nature.  If you wanted it done you gave it to Lena Steinberg and then you got out of the way.

Lena Kan Steinberg died on March 8, 1943.  I don’t know if there are Kan and Steinberg relatives who remember her or have heard stories of her life, but it is my pleasure to remember her and to tell the story of one woman who set out to do something and made a difference in her community.

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