Sunday, March 25, 2012


Mother's mother and maternal grandmother both died in the month of Nisan.

My grandmother, Sarah Rosenbloom Gordon (Sarah bat Israel David) died on the third day of Pesach 5719, fifty-three years ago, at age seventy-three more or less.

Her mother, Etta Bryna bat Yehudah the Levi died on the sixth of Nisan 5656, one hundred sixteen years ago. How old was she?  I can only guess. Almost surely in her mid to late thirties. Her eldest daughter was about eighteen. Her only living son was a few weeks short of his second birthday. The story is that there had been other sons who did not survive infancy, so the local rabbi suggested giving this one the name Chaim. Chaim Benzion, he was called. He was the only one we knew, aside from my grandmother herself, and I didn't exactly know her.

Uncle Hymen writes his mother's name as "Ethel Beatrice (last) unknown,"
a back-translation from what he had named his own daughter.
  We are also missing Etta Bryna's maiden name. I am sure my grandmother would have known that, but no one ever asked her. Likely my grandfather too, because although they married in New York, they knew each other in Russia when he was courting her sister. Or maybe he didn't.

My great-grandfather (and namesake) married again soon after his wife died and the new wife - who had two children of her own - may have discouraged further connections with the dead wife's family. Maybe Etta Bryna's family didn't live in Borisov, so seeing them would have involved some effort. Or maybe they were in town and Uncle Hymen simply never realized they were his mother's kin. Uncle Hymen left Borisov for America when he was only twenty, so who knows what he once knew and later forgot.

But Uncle Hymen had some old pictures in his house on Carmody Drive and I had seen them when I visited. One showed his sister Shayna Libe standing next to Etta Bryna's grave. That's how I know the date. That's how I know her father's name. I should be showing you that picture here, but I cannot. The second cousin who has it will not show it to anyone. He barely - and rarely - admits to having it.

My grandmother had a hard life and when I knew her, she was old, unwell and and her list of languages didn't include much English, which is why I wrote above that I didn't exactly know her. She had been active in Russia's illegal Socialist movement and was involved in the first revolution, after the Russo-Japanese War, spending a couple of years in Siberia for her trouble. The whole family were Socialists.
On her marriage certificate, Sarah Rosenbloom signs in Hebrew

In Siberia (the one with the black hat)

In 1910, she followed her two younger sisters to New York, arriving a few months before the death of the older of the two - Rachel Leah (Rose), who was the one my grandfather had really wanted. In 1914, Sarah married Raymond Gordon and they moved to Vandergrift Pennsylvania, a place she never liked. They raised five children, he owned a furniture store and she lived for those occasions when they would see the rest of the family in Washington DC and New York. (He would say "But we just saw them last year.")

But let's get back to Etta Bryna's maiden name. 
We have four families - the Rosenblooms, the Jaffes and the Lichtermans from Borisov and the Gordons from nearby Dolginov - connected by marriage, at least.
All these families had additional children.
We know that Uncle Hymen didn't remember his mother's maiden name, so his documents can tell us nothing.

The unmarried sister Rachel Leah died in 1910 and is buried in New York. Her sister Shayna Liba attended the funeral, so the mother's maiden name was definitely known by someone available. Unfortunately, we have not located the death certificate.

Etta Bryna's maiden name should appear on both the marriage certificate and the death certificate of my grandmother, Sarah Gordon. But it doesn't. She herself did not report it for the marriage and Mother said it would have been like her father not to bother to ask. (Most of the information about my grandmother is wrong on the marriage record.) The informant on my grandmother's death certificate is not listed but was probably my mother's sister and she almost certainly hadn't a clue.

The younger sister, Shayna Liba died in 1916 and her death certificate has a number of oddities. Her name is listed as "Sadie Rosenblum," even though she was married to Julius/Yehudah Lichterman. (Uncle Hymen referred to him as "Zisal.") The certificate has no space for spouse's name or for informant's name, so we do not know who provided the information. Her father is recorded as "David Rosenblum," instead of "Israel David." (He was known as "Srul.") Her age is recorded as "23" when she was in fact twenty-six or twenty-seven and it says she lived in the US five years, when we know she was there since at least 1907. The certificate has her mother's name "Yetta Lichtman," but this is written in a different hand, as though it was added later, perhaps when a family member showed up with the information.

When I first saw this, it occurred to me that perhaps Etta Bryna's name was not Lichtman, but Lichterman, and that the daughter Shayna Libe (Sadie) had married her first cousin. This made exquisite sense given that both families were from Borisov. I saw no evidence of anyone named Lichtman in the Borisov area.

One more piece of evidence is my grandmother's passenger manifest.  When she went to the United States in 1910, her passage was paid by "cousin," despite the fact that she had a sister in New York (or New Jersey).  Her destination was identified as "cousin J. Ben...on, Brooklyn NY 517 New York Ave."

There is no 517 New York Avenue in Brooklyn in the 1910 census, but there is a 517 New Jersey Avenue.  At that address, we find a couple named Jake and Gittel Benenson. Jacob Benenson is also from Borisov as is his wife Gittel Lichterman, of that same Lichterman family. So perhaps when my grandmother said she was going to her cousin, she meant Mrs. Benenson, the Lichterman.

(Incidentally, the 1910 census has Eliyahu Ber and Mary (Gordon) Jaffe in the same building as the Benensons.)

So without much available in Borisov records, I concentrated on the question of whether the Lichtermans are Leviim. If their father Joseph was Etta Bryna's brother, the his children's tombstones might indicate that. Five of them were in the US.

Julius disappeared soon after his wife's death and no one ever knew what became of him. They say he was heart-broken. Perhaps he returned to Russia, attracted to the successes of the Bolsheviks. In any case, no tombstone there.

Last summer, I visited the graves of Gittel (NY) and Alice (DC). Gittel's is a traditional stone, but no Levi reference. Alice's has no Hebrew. I also went to the find the grave of the brother David, in DC. There is no stone. Another brother, Nathan, is buried in Virginia and I have someone who promised to take a look. I have no great hopes.

Another brother, Chaim, died in Europe but two of his children came to Israel. His daughter doesn't know if they are Leviim and her brother's grave doesn't say. The two youngest Lichtermans, Paya Bluma and Nahum, supposedly never left Russia.

One would think that if Etta Bryna Rosenbloom is indeed the sister of Joseph Lichterman, there would be some overlap in their children's names. We know that Etta Bryna had sons who died young and there may be overlap with them that we cannot know. (Joseph has a son Yehudah, which was Etta Bryna's father's name, but that's not really significant.) There is no overlap among the daughters, but here too there may have been early deaths that we don't know about.

Then there is this:
A revision list (like a census) entry for 1874.  (The birth years for adults are often estimates.)

Etta Bryna's eldest daughter Alta with
 daughter Etta Bryna Kaplan - mid-1920s
If the second person in this household is the Joseph Lichterman we know - which seems likely - the fact that he had a daughter Bryna (at the bottom) may reflect a relationship with our Etta Bryna.

This investigation is obviously not complete. There is much to be done and occasionally new documents become available. One of these days we may be able to make a determination.

As writing, this is a poor ending. As research too.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


24 Adar 5772
I have found that the Hevrot Kadisha (burial societies) here in Israel are among the most cooperative institutions with which I have dealt. Many have put information on line and all of them are very helpful with telephone inquiries. The website for the one serving Greater Tel-Aviv, for instance, not only tells you where to find the graves in its six cemeteries, but also tells you who is buried on each side of the grave in question. The one in Petah Tiqva has a computerized station at the entrance to the cemetery, which will give you a printout of the grave location with directions.
Not just in the olden days
Jerusalem, however, poses special problems, particularly the ancient cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. The terrain is difficult, rows and sections are not well-marked and most importantly the Jordanians destroyed many of the tombstones during their nineteen-year occupation of the city. And many of the pre-State graves have no surnames. The Hevrot Kadisha - and I can speak only of the three Ashkenazic societies - do the best they can. Their maps are computerized. They will give you step-by-step directions over the phone in the manner of "go six rows to the east then ten paces towards the electric pole." They will also arrange for one of their guides/security people to meet you and show you to the grave. Which may or may not have a tombstone. Which may or may not be in its original place. 
The Judean Hills from Yedidyah's grave
The story I am about to tell illustrates a particular sort of problem that doesn't come up in most grave searches. But it is typical in the sense that everyone involved gave his best effort to solve a problem.
CHAPTER ONE - The Background
Michele is an American who was working in Tel-Aviv for several years. She contacted me back a few months after I first began accepting clients, about three and a years ago, to see if I could locate her great-grandfather's grave on the Mt. of Olives. Yedidyah Choper had been born in Volkovysk Poland (now Belarus), and had gone to New York before 1900. He came here to live his final years sometime after his third wife Alte died in 1923. Michele wasn't sure when he had died beyond "between 1945 and 1947."

Yedidyah had five sons. Three went to the US early on, one was killed in the Holocaust and one survived and went to the US afterwards. No one is quite sure which of the sons is from which of his first two wives.

Later Michele wrote of a visitor Yedidyah received, his grandson, Manny.
Yedidyah and Manny
He was a pilot in the Army Air Corps - had taken some generals to Cairo for a meeting in '44 (I think) and got leave to visit his Zayde in Palestine.
With a few phone calls, I determined that Yedidyah was buried in a section that was nominally under the jurisdiction of the Hassidim Burial Society, in row thirty-two, grave 11 in one of several sub-sections that belong to an organization called Agudat Achim that brings Americans for burial here in Jerusalem, occasionally burying Americans who lived here. Hassidim told us that he had died on 27 Adar 5705, sixty-seven years ago this week.

A few weeks later, I met Michele and we went up to the grave site, together with my eleven-year-old son Devir.

Michele at Yedidyah's gravesite
The area was in poor condition - better than some sections, worse than others - and many of the stones were either illegible or missing altogether. Some graves had been rebuilt by relatives, after 1967. After we looked around unsuccessfully ourselves, Hassidim gave us phone directions and we located the spot of the unmarked grave. You can see from the photograph that the upper (horizontal) stone with the epitaph is missing and only the base remains. Michele took some pictures and on the way back to town we discussed what might be involved in having a new stone put in place. She decided to leave that for the time being.

CHAPTER TWO - The Challenge
About a year later, I heard from Michele again. She wanted to put up a stone on Yedidyah's grave. That would include designing the epitaph, since we had no idea what had been written on the original stone.

We started off discussing what kind of stone, what kind of lettering, how high to build it, the wording and of course her budget. I don't get involved in this kind of thing often, but I had had some contacts with local tombstone makers so I knew where to get quotes. In the meantime, I rechecked all the details with Hassidim and things got complicated.

Dear Michele,

I was at the cemetery yesterday to confirm the location of the grave, so that I could give specific directions to the stonemaker.
It turns out it is not as simple as we had thought.
According to your photo, your ggf's grave is in the row that starts with Chaim Shelomo Goloventzitz, and is adjacent to the grave of Chaim Alexander Ziskind.

I called the Burial Society and spoke with Natan, who is my usual connection there and who was not available the day we went together. Natan has your ggf's grave in the next row to the west, that begins with Yehoshua Zelik Tarshish. This row sort of splits into two due to the topography and Nathan says that your ggf is in the "half row" that leads from the Tarshish row.

When I tried to get more specific, intending to record the individual names in that half-row, he made a reference to the graves of Meir Philips and Gershon Gottesman as being eight graves apart. In fact, those two gravestones are side by side. So it is clear that either Natan's records are not correct or the new Gottesman stone was put in the wrong place.  
Now this whole section is subcontracted to a burial society called Agudat Achim and Natan suggested that they would have more precise information. So I called the man there, presented the problem and he said that he would have a close look at this in the days after Yom Kippur. I shall, therefore, get back to him next Thursday
I went back and forth with the man from Agudat Achim and soon it was March. Michele had family coming at the end of April after which she herself would be returning to the US, so we needed to be done by then.

I got both burial societies' versions of the rows in question and compared them with the actual graves on the ground. Some graves matched, some did not. In some instances, recent tombstones didn't match the names on the graves. I had long since "turned off the meter." This had become more a matter of principle than of simply doing a job for a client.

Dear Michele,

I spoke with the fellow from the burial society a few days ago. He says they have done everything they can using both maps and tools at the site.
He is fairly sure which is the grave site, but is not 100% positive, therefore he cannot permit the erection of a new monument
He is planning to put a plain slab on the spot and will show us where. This is not a satisfactory answer as far as I am concerned, but I am not sure what we can do about it. I will speak with some outside rabbis on the subject.
We decided where we thought the grave site is and took counsel from a senior rabbi. He had the authority of Halacha, but had no administrative authority over the burial societies. He said we should put the stone where we thought the grave was, but instead of writing "po nitman" (here lies buried), we should write "bahelka zo nitman" (in this section lies buried).

We settled on the inscription, on the types of stone, the height and the molten-lead lettering. I sent the stonemaker a Word file and he faxed me back the final design as it appeared on his computer.

The full inscription was to read:
In this section lies buried

A man dear to his wife, children,
grandchildren and great-grandchildren,
R' Yedidyah
ben R' Israel Zeev

Born in Volkovysk,
Died in Jerusalem
on 27 Adar 5705

May his soul be bound in life.

This stone erected in 5770 by his descendants.

In Israeli terms, everything went well from that point. It was not completed - only partly because of changes in the stone that Michele wanted - until the very last minute, but that is considered normal around here. I hope that Yedidyah Choper would find this to his satisfaction. May his memory be for a blessing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


A few weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow in England, as follows:

I should like some research conducted about a distant relative whose family may have settled in the UK and Israel.  He was the nephew of ...Getzel [who] lived in Odessa.  His youngest son, Hyman K[redacted] (my grandfather), who was born in 1878, came to the UK in the 1900s.  He told people that his father had a sister, Sadie, who had a son who was also living in the UK.  It his his relatives who I am trying to trace.  The only information I have is what my grandfather once said, which was that the man's name was Berman (though that could be Burman, I suppose), that he was about my grandfather's age, perhaps a little younger, and was living in the Edgware Road in London in the 1950s.  He had a kiosk which sold newspapers but which may have been a small department store.  Berman had a sister in Israel (who married someone named Chainin) and a son in London who was a senior civil servant, who would have been born in about 1910.  Both Saul [who had recommended me..IP] and I thought that the best way to trace Berman was through his brother-in-law.

Please let me know whether this is the sort of research which you would be prepared to undertake.
As a rule, before answering this kind of inquiry, I poke around a bit, without turning on the meter, to see what the likelihood is that I can accomplish anything useful. As often happens, my first task is to understand what it is that the inquirer has told me. Many times the story of a family structure suffers from antecedent ambiguity. It may be perfectly clear to the writer whom each "his" refers to, but it is not always clear to the reader. Had I actually taken this case, I would have drawn up a chart based on what I understood the family structure to be and sent it back to the client for confirmation and with notations such as "Born when?" (More often than not, the client sends it back with all kinds of corrections and clarifications. Sometimes he just goes away and it's probably for the better.)

I attended a lecture by Dr. Neil Rosenstein at one of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) conferences, on the difficulties of doing rabbinic genealogy which is his specialty. Although linking to a prominent rabbinic line is considered analogous to getting onto a major highway, once there, you often find that the antecedents are very confusing, there are few mentions of years and the punctuation does not always meet the needs of the modern reader. He brought one example where a particular rabbi's line was described something like this:
His father was xxx and his mother was xxx and his father was xxx and his father was xxx and his father married the daughter of xxx and her mother was the daughter of xxx and his father was xxx...
The way Rosenstein told the story, he published a work describing this nine-generation lineage, realizing only later that it seemed like too many generations for the number of years involved. Only several years later did he realize that the "her" that I marked in bold blue actually refers to the mother of the rabbi at the bottom of this lineage rather than the person immediately preceding that pronoun.

In the case the man in England presented, we seemed to be talking about a woman named Berman or Burman who married a man named Chainin a couple of generations ago. No given names here, except that the woman's mother was Sadie.

The first question, of course, is how you write Chainin in Hebrew, since there is no Hebrew letter that sounds like the English "ch." People unfamiliar with languages other than their own often think that sounds transfer from one language to another simply and unambiguously, not realizing that a name with a simple spelling can be written half-a-dozen ways in another language. In Hebrew this is complicated by the absence of vowels. (In one memorable instance, I was looking for someone with the uncommon name KERN, but in Hebrew it is written the same as the very common KEREN. Client was not happy.)

The name that made the most sense to me as a representation of Chainin was what I would write as Sheinin and there are probably 150 households by that name in Israel. So even assuming this is correct AND that the name hadn't been changed either by the original couple or by subsequent generations AND that the family had sons to preserve name going forward AND that they even remained in the country, finding someone would be no simple matter.

And it's one thing to look for a needle in a haystack.  At least when you find the needle, you know you have completed the task. In the case of many searches you have to wonder how you will recognize a positive result even if you happen across it. There may be many needles - which is the right one? Or it may not be clear if what you find even qualifies as a needle.

There is one possible solution, of course. That would be to write letters to all those 150 households and ask if there was a Berman woman in their past.  Or Burman. Or Borman. I have done this kind of thing before. About ten percent of the letters are returned by the post office. Probably another thirty or forty percent are not answered. Of those who do answer, many tell me their life stories and expect me to find answers to their family questions. It isn't the kind of thing I want to do, even if I had the time, which I don't.

Another possible solution is to put this story out in places where such things are discussed. For the most part, the potential client shouldn't need me to do that, aside from some very basic guidance. But as he pointed out when I mentioned using this as a blog topic, maybe someone reading my blog will recognize the people.

Friday, March 2, 2012


MORRIS PICKHOLTZ - Chaim Menahem ben Zvi and Itta Leah
My father's father was fifty-one when I was born and was in the hospital with a heart attack. It was serious enough that my parents thought I might be named for him and he had already been given the additional name "Chaim." As it turned out, he lived another nine years and died of something else, on the ninth day of First Adar 5717, fifty-five years ago.

My grandfather was born in Zalosce, in east Galicia. He was named for his mother's uncle Mendel Kwoczka who had died seven months earlier. When he was six, his father and second brother went to America, following the eldest brother and the first two sisters who had gone earlier. The next year, his mother took the three youngest on a ship from Liverpool to Montreal and from there to join the others in Pittsburgh via St. Albans Vermont.

At age twenty-four, he married his brother's sister-in-law and they had three children. My grandfather was in the wholesale grocery business on Miller Street with two of his three brothers and much of that time the business was sufficient to support the three families. When Uncle Joe turned sixty-five, they closed down Pickholtz Brothers (which I remember visiting a few times) and my grandfather worked his last years selling for a company called Tak-A-Toy, that placed small toys on racks near checkout counters in grocery stores and supermarkets.

All those years, he was an active member of the Poale Zedeck synagogue, serving a number of years as vice-president of the men's club, while my grandmother was president of the sisterhood.

I have a replica of this gene
 He went into the hospital on a Shabbat morning, soon after my ninth birthday. No one had to tell me that evening that he had died - I knew on my own. They didn't let me go to the funeral. I was mad about that for probably thirty years.

My grandparents lived in Squirrel Hill - first on Phillips Avenue and later on Northumberland Street, across from the police and fire stations, not two blocks from our house. So we saw them often, but I cannot say that I had much of a one-on-one relationship with him. My loss. I'd like to think that I talk to my own grandchildren more than my grandfather spoke to me. But I always sat on his right at the seder table. And he was the one who noticed that my toes pointed out when I walked.

There is a Sunday when I was seven-and-a-half that I will always remember and appreciate. My father and grandfather, together with Uncle Bob, took me to Forbes Field. It was my first game and the last of the season. We sat in the bleachers in left field. Going to a game was a really big deal, as we didn't have much baseball on television and certainly none in color, with real green grass. The Pirates lost 4-0. Johnny Podres started for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next week he pitched in the World Series and won two games.

I learned how to keep a scorecard that day.

And I learned the word "generations."

Four Other Ancestors
Simon (Shimshon ben Shelomo?) Rosenzweig, born Rajec Slovakia 1787-1790, died Puchov Slovakia 3/4 Adar 5620, 26 February 1860. He was my father's mother's father's father's father.

Golde Buchalter died in Obertyn east Galicia 2 Second Adar (11 March 1881) at age sixty. She was my wife's father's mother's paternal grandmother.

Betsy (Beile Gittel bat Moshe Aharon) Diamond, died in London, 8 Adar 5697 (19 February 1937) at age ninety-three. She was my wife's father's mother's maternal grandmother.

Binyamin Yitzhak ben Mordecai Aharon Mostek (aka Lindenberg), born 1866 probably in Prznasnyz Poland, died 24 First Adar 5708 (5 March 1948) in New York. He was my wife's mother's maternal grandfather.

Uncle George
My mother's brother, Gershon ben Yerahmiel and Sarah Gordon, born 5 April 1920 in Vandergrift Pennsylvania, died 15 Second Adar 5760 (22 March 2000) in Pittsburgh.

Uncle George and Mother
Uncle George was the younger of Mother's two older brothers and they were particularly close. They lived not far from us while we were growing up, though he went back to Vandergrift every day to work in his father's furniture store, "R. Gordon & Son.". Eventually it became his.

He served as a lieutenant in the US Army during WWII and together with his wife raised three children. He was a good man and a fine uncle.

One more that I want to mention, who is not a family member
The fifteenth of Adar is the yahrzeit of Uri Megidish, may G-d avenge his blood. In fact, I think He did, in rather spectacular fashion.

When I served in a reserve artillery unit, one of the two communications sergeants in our battery was Uri Megidish. He had big bright teeth and smiled all the time. I knew him in another context, as he was vice-principal of the religious high school in Yeroham when I lived there.

Our paths diverged and Uri moved to Gan Or, a moshav in Gush Katif, where he became a farmer. He worked in his own greenhouse and he enabled a few local Arabs to make a living as well. Until the day that one of them stabbed him to death. It was the fifteenth of Adar 5753, nineteen years ago.  Uri was thirty-nine and he left a wife and four children. His first son had celebrated his bar mitzvah two months earlier.

The years went by and one fine day - oh what a fine day it was - eleven summers later, Uri's daughter had given birth to his first grandson. The day of the brit, an IDF helicopter took out a car carrying two terrorists in Gaza, killing them both. One of them was Uri's murderer.

Thirteen months later, Gan Or and the rest of the Gush Katif communities were destroyed and turned over to the Gazans. Uri's was not one of the bodies that had to be disinterred, as he had been buried in his parents' moshav, Segullah, near Kiryat Gat.

Uri and I were not close friends or anything, but you know how sometimes something silly revives a particular memory of a particular person? This will always be linked in my mind to Uri Megidish. That and the big Hines Ward smile.