Genealogy at Limmud Philly

Dr. Stephen Cohen is a technical writer, part-time professional calligrapher of Judaica, and long-time genealogical aficionado. He has been researching his family for over forty years, collecting over three thousand relatives along the way. A founding member of the Beth El Synagogue (East Windsor, NJ) Genealogy Club, he was a presenter at Limmud Philly in early March. He gives lectures on genealogy, workshops on Hebrew calligraphy, and speaks exclusively Yiddish with his two children. In addition, he serves as President of the Sharim v’Sharot Jewish choir based in Lawrenceville, NJ, and has published choral arrangements.

For a symposium like Limmud Philly, where one people, Jews, gather for a weekend of learning, a seminar on how we Jews are actually related seems not only fitting, but bashert (a match made in heaven). Therefore, on the Sunday morning of Limmud Philly, I gave a talk on
“Introduction to Jewish Genealogy.” The topic included discussing not only what I call our current “golden age of genealogy” via the internet, but also what materials you can find in your own home to provide you with information about your family. When my Powerpoint-based lecture began, barely a minyan attended, but by the end there were around 25 participants of all ages.

More after the jump.
My session was based partly on a paper I co-wrote with a fifth cousin of mine in Israel for the Israeli genealogical journal Sharsheret HaDorot in 2007, to show how I constructed a coherent family tree starting with two brothers, Daniel and Ele Aron Kantorovitch from Lakhva, in Belarus, in the mid-19th century. I used Czarist passports, century-old birth records, interviews and correspondence with relatives, and the old Jewish standby, for whom are you named. Other items I mentioned as possible sources of genealogical data are b’nai-mitzvah certificates, the drawerful of yarmulkes we all possess, old War Ration booklets, ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), death records, obituaries and other clippings from newspapers, citizenship papers, and old photographs.

From the internet, possible sources to find your relatives are the Ellis Island ship’s manifests (assuming your relatives immigrated through Ellis Island) along with other ports of entry (Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Galveston). Airlines were required to keep manifests up to the 1950s, and you may find your relatives there, on their way to a European or Caribbean vacation. Many Jews entered via Canadian routes, including through Detroit and the Grand Trunk Railway from the Province of Quebec. We all remember last year’s Federal Census, required by law every ten years, and restricted from view for 72 years. Thus the Census records from 1930 and earlier are all open for examination, and you can find many cousins in them.

The Mormons have many records on microfilm (though not every possible record). A crucial piece of evidence in my tree-building was a Lakhva Jewish marriage record from 1894 for a son of Ele Aron Kantorovitch. Many of us have heard the bobe-mayses (fairy tales) that (1) the towns in Eastern Europe were destroyed, and (2) the records were destroyed as well. Neither tale is, for the most part, true; the found marriage record proves this.

As a historical aside, I mentioned the S.S. Morro Castle, the cruise liner that ran between New York City and Havana, Cuba, which my grandparents took on their honeymoon in 1933. I showed the cruise’s souvenir booklet listing my grandparents among the passengers, and images of the staterooms. The Morro Castle caught fire off the New Jersey Shore in 1934 and burned up, with hundreds of casualties, which my grandmother talked about once in a while. Information on the Morro Castle’s disaster and news articles about it can be found on the internet. Such details about your family can fill out your personal history from mere dry names and dates.

More recent research included using‘s on-line Family Tree of the Jewish People to find a mekhutn (someone related by marriage) in Israel. This is a database composed of uploaded family-trees by Jewish genealogists world-wide. I have had my mitochondrial (maternal) DNA tested recently, and discovered that my maternal ancestry dates to the Middle East roughly 50,000 years ago (according to current anthropological understanding). An e-mail I received last June from an Israeli Kantorovitch cousin posed a new, unanswered genealogical question: one Kantorovitch relative apparently immigrated to London, England, and became a prominent rabbi in the mid-20th century. Who is he and where are his descendants?

In addition, I queried the Philadelphia-based audience members: on my father’s side, there were rich cousins who owned a factory in the mid-20th century that made Catholic-school uniforms. Their surname might have been Sherman, and-as my great uncle (of blessed memory) recalled-in the 1940s they owned a chauffeur-driven Packard. Where could I find information about them? Folks did have suggestions, such as a school-uniform store on Passyunk Avenue, an old Sherman Mills in Manayunk, and even some clothing factories on North Broad Street near a Packard dealership. If you know of this family or their factory, I would be most pleased to hear about it.

My session was definitely a two-way street of learning, as it ought to be at Limmud Philly.