Courtesy of the Baltimore
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 HertzbergOwings 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
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 MeisterReservoir 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
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
Source: Jobi Zink, senior collections manager for the Jewish Museum of
Edith BrotmanEdith 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
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 RootsNot 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
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 BitmanComing 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
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 researchDeborah 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
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:
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.