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  • Jewish Genealogy Tracing Family Histories

    Elinor Spokes

    Published Date : June 12, 2009

    Courtesy of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

    Sometimes the search for one’s roots begins with a sepia-toned photograph of unfamiliar faces and nearly indecipherable handwriting and ends up with a trip to Uruguay to visit long-lost cousins. Sometimes it begins with a scrapbook on a closet shelf which falls to the floor, revealing memories of family and events of years past, and ends up leading to a career. Sometimes it begins serendipitously in a Dor Tikvah “how-to” class on researching genealogy and ends up with the discovery of relatives who were among the founders of Tel Aviv. Perhaps, most often, the genealogical journey begins with a deep desire to connect with relatives, past and present, and ends up with a greater understanding about oneself and about one’s family. According to a 2002 New York Times article, nearly 60 million people in the United States were in the process of creating family histories, making genealogy one of the most popular hobbies in the country. Genealogy Web sites have amassed more than a million paid subscriptions; annual revenue was, at that time, approaching the $100 million level. Spurred by somewhat disparate events which lead them to search for and research their own ancestry, four Baltimoreans share their stories.

    Randi Hertzberg
    Owings Mills resident Randi Hertzberg was at a meeting of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Women’s Department Dor Tikvah program. It was there that the topic of family genealogy piqued her interest.

    Through www.ancestory.com , she found that her family history went as far back as the late 1700s in Israel. Ancestors Pesach and Rachel Goldberg settled in what was then Palestine around the turn of the 19th century. Their son Chayim Goldberg worked with Baron Edmond Rothschild to establish cities throughout Israel. Chayim Goldberg’s son Moshe, Hertzberg’s great-great-grandfather, and his wife were among the founders of Tel Aviv. For this reason, they are included in the original Hebrew Encyclopedia of the “Pioneers and Builders of the State of Israel.”

    With her mother’s help and through other research on the Internet, she connected with another living descendent of the Goldberg family, Sheldon Feinberg, a cantor in Hilton Head, S.C. He was able to share his research and family photos with Hertzberg. Additionally, Hertzberg was able to connect with a family member in Israel and together they began adding to the tree with the information they discovered.

    Her next steps will be to find out what happened to her family who arrived in New York from Romania, and their family business.

    “My own kids always ask about their past and are fascinated by learning that their family came to America from different countries, just like the explorers coming to the New World. Through my research, I am giving them an heirloom and helping them understand who they are,” she says.


    Adam Meister
    Reservoir Hill resident Adam Meister’s search for his genealogical roots began with his great-grandmother on his mother’s side of the family. Although she lived to be 93, Rose Levin Fox didn’t share much about her history.

    What little Meister heard was that Fox had emigrated from Latvia to Boston to Baltimore. She also had many brothers and one ended up in Uruguay. In addition, he believed that someone in the family was a very talented musician.

    Over the years, Meister studied family photos and old postcards with captivating images of faraway lands and indecipherable handwriting in Yiddish on the back.

    One day when Meister was examining the photos again, he noticed the writing on the back was in Spanish, not Yiddish.

    Perhaps, he thought, this might be a link to his Uruguayan relatives. He also noticed the name “Julio Levinas.” On a whim, he Googled the name and discovered a Web site on famed conductor Maestro Julio Levinas of Uruguay. 

    E-mailing the maestro, Meister discovered that Rose’s brother’s son was Levinas. The long-lost family from South America had been found.

    After corresponding back and forth, Meister decided to visit these cousins who lived in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

    “Seeing Julio’s familiar characteristics was like a flashback to seeing my grandfather, who had died in 1992,” says Meister.

    During the meetings, Meister also learned that the family had emigrated from
    Lithuania, not Latvia.

    Levinas also had the address book with names and addresses of American cousins.
    Returning to Baltimore, Meister has collaborated with Levinas on a family tree with the help of http://www.geni.com/

    Meister is now determined to find out about another of his great-grandmother’s brothers, David Benjamin Levin, who was born around 1900 and lived in Baltimore. “This story is not over yet,” he says.

    Preserving your memories

    1. Keep photographs and family documents in acid-free scrapbooks or boxes to prevent aging and ruin.
    2. Remove photos placed in photo albums with magnetic strip pages and place in plastic sleeves. Put larger items in polyethylene bags.
    3. Do not store in an attic or basement due to extreme changes in temperatures or potential flooding. If they must be stored in the basement, place in plastic, sealed boxes or bins.
    4. Copy newspapers with family history or events, as newsprint eventually disintegrates.
    5. Transfer audio tapes to a digital recording, as it become inaudible after approximately 10 years. 

    Source: Jobi Zink, senior collections manager for the Jewish Museum of Maryland

    Edith Brotman
    Edith Brotman, assistant professor of sociology at Towson University, is originally from Pittsburgh, where her family settled after emigrating from the town of Kalvaria, Lithuania in the 1870s. Although she had learned some things about her family from her father, who is now 86, Brotman wanted to find out more.

    Using ancestory.com , Brotman discovered the 1871 U.S. Census records which listed her great-great-grandmother, Bube Hannah Sandusky, and her husband in Pittsburgh. Hannah, as she was called, was well known as a trained midwife in both the Pittsburgh Jewish and African-American communities. 

    Meanwhile, Brotman found articles and editorials in Carnegie Mellon University’s archives that referred to Sandusky’s son-in-law (Brotman’s great-grandfather), R. B. Raphael, as the “Father of Pittsburgh Zionism.” Previously, she had no idea how important in Pittsburgh he was. 

    She also accessed the website http://www.jewishgen.org/ShtetlSeeker which enabled her to search for relatives using the names of towns or shtetls in Eastern Europe. “Be creative with the spelling of names because people changed them often,” she advises.

    She wrote a narrative to supplement her family tree because she felt the information she was uncovering, like occupations and addresses, was too complex for a skeletal family tree. “Learning about my ancestors makes me understand me better and understand my father better too,” Brotman says.

    American Jewish Roots
    Not all Jewish families came to the United States from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, there were 600 Jewish families, to be exact, in the United States before 1860; some of them arrived as early as 1654.

    The family trees of these families are documented in “Americans of Jewish Descent,” a massive volume compiled in 1960 by the late Malcolm Stern, which has become the foundation for research on the topic. The complete text of the volume that was last published in 1991 as the revised 3rd edition, “First Americans Jewish Families:  600 Genealogies, 1654-1988,” is now available at americanjewisharchives.org .

    The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) also houses vast records for genealogical research including a basic collection of materials pertaining to Jewish families.  Although membership in the DAR is relegated to those who possess a proven direct lineage to a Revolutionary War patriot (and yes, there are Jewish members), the library, located in Washington, D.C. at the DAR Headquarters, is open to the public. It has histories of Judaism in the United States, major genealogical and historical journals including publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, among others. 

    The DAR Library also has studies on Jewish participation in the American Revolution and on Jewish communities around the United States, particularly those which date from the Colonial period. Histories of Jewish settlements in specific states are also available. 

    Laya Bitman
    Coming from a small family in Philadelphia, Laya Bitman, now of Mount Washington, wanted to research her family history to find cousins and create the large family that she never had. Also, being observant, she was eager to discover if she had extended family that was observant too. Working on her research approximately two hours a day, her tree now includes over 7,000 names and covers 200 years of her family history, about six generations. 

    She found using myheritage.com helpful because the program overlaps with other family trees, helps to connect the user with other family and indicates when dates don’t make sense. This Web site also allows the insertion of Hebrew names,Hebrew dates and former last names.

    One of her most amazing discoveries was made through cousins in Texas she contacted via one of the genealogy websites. One cousin had volumes of a family newspaper, The Sussmanews, published from 1934-1939 by Israel Sussman, a great-uncle in Philadelphia. This bi-weekly publication, created with submissions from the Sussman-Levin families, chronicled family life in America and Eastern Europe with astonishing detail. Bitman suspects that the newspaper ceased because of the Holocaust, but does not know for sure. 

    The discovery of The Sussmanews was significant, as it expanded her family tree in so many new directions. She created a Web site, http://www.sussmanews.com/, in an effort to reach out and connect with more family. She also has aspirations to one day publish copies of the family newspaper because it describes so much about life in Lithuania during a very difficult period in history.

    “I feel like I am living in the past, present and future, all at the same time,” she says of her research. Through her genealogical journey, has also learned that she has cousins somewhere in Baltimore with the last name of “Jaffe.” Finding that family is now Laya Bitman’s focus. This discovery could sprout more branches of her growing family tree.

    Beginning your own research
    Deborah Weiner, research historian and family history coordinator for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, suggests beginning with living relatives and finding out what they know. Since, she says,  “family stories are not always factual,” don’t be discouraged if your research reveals something that contradicts what a family member has told you. Sometimes names were changed and family members may not have known.

    The Jewish Museum of Maryland Robert L. Weinberg Family History Center has family genealogical records going back three generations in Maryland. They have also spent a lot of time building its cemetery records of the Jewish cemeteries in Maryland.  “Knowing someone’s date of death can be key to accessing other pertinent information,” notes Weiner.

    The Center is open for research by appointment and members can use the facilities for free; non-members pay $5.  A research-by-mail service is also available and the museum staff is happy to answer short, simple research queries free of charge via phone or e-mail. For more substantial requests, a fee is charged. 

    When in doubt, call in a professional
    Lynn Weisberg’s genealogical journey began with the discovery of her father’s scrapbook, filled with artifacts of his life and family, when it fell from a closet shelf.  Weisberg decided to find out more about the people in the album. That was in 1974. 

    Since then, she began scrapbooking, creating albums for her own family. Her albums were so well received, friends began to ask her to create them for their families. Over time, her albums evolved into true works of art, coffee table books. Fifteen years ago, Weisberg made a business of creating heirloom-quality family albums, Heritage Albums.

    Taking only two clients a year, she and her small staff research a family history, doing all the footwork for their clients. They conduct extensive and methodical research by uncovering and providing copies of official documents including ships’ passenger manifests, United States Census reports, birth and death certificates, wedding certificates, pictorials of grave sites and family memorabilia. Often the research requires Weisberg’s staff to travel to find crucial links in a family history. This is all included in their fees.

    The research and album production typically takes a full year. The end product is a one-of-a-kind, hand-done, individually designed, personal album which tells a story of the individual family. The services of Heritage Albums comes at a hefty cost:  The average album costs $50,000. However, Weisberg does offer a more modest service for $7,500 which provides a client with seven-and-a-half months of research presented in a binder. 

    If Weisberg’s fees are too daunting, she does offer some very sound advice when it comes to doing research on one’s own:

    • Work backwards; narrow the search to one branch.
    • Keep a source page. Back up every fact you find and every person you find, because family members may dispute what you find.
    • Keep researching and delving into the research until you reach a point where you know you can’t go any further.
    • Talk to living relatives and find out as much as they know about family. 

    Weisberg notes that “there comes a point in genealogical research when everyone needs professional help. I can help and I can take everyone on that special genealogical journey.” Heritage Album’s website is www.heritage-albums.com.

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