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.