I’ve always loved learning about my family history. Over the years I’ve collected a whole shoe box filled to the top with miscellaneous sheets of information, including interviews with elderly family members, a barely decipherable family tree hand written some thirty years ago in my mother’s shaky handwriting and snapshots of old kvarim. I’ve jotted down the stories that my paternal grandfather, Alexander Mendel Levine, a”h, told me about his father (my great-grandfather), Yehoshua Yaakov Levine, a”h, a Rav in Nezhin, located not far from the Ukrainian city of Chernikov. As a young child, Yehoshua Yaakov’s father (my great-great-grandfather), whose name I don’t know, was kidnapped and forced into the Czar’s army. Somehow, against all odds, he succeeded in holding on to his Yiddishkeit, and when he returned home, over twenty-five years later, he married my great-great grandmother and built a beautiful Jewish home. I wonder if he is the source of his descendants’ tenacity?
Over twenty years ago, while visiting my great uncle in Montreal, I spent an afternoon interviewing my grandfather’s first cousin, Max Budd, who was then in his early nineties. He had immigrated to Canada as a young child, and at first, was unable to remember even a single incident of life in the shtetl. Finally, after some gentle prodding, he related how, on his third birthday, his father had carried him proudly through the streets wrapped in a tallis toward the cheder. His eyes glistened with tears as recalled the sweet taste of the honey as he recited the alef-bais together with the rebbi. Today, when my grandsons turn three and are brought to cheder wrapped in a tallis to experience the sweetness of limmud haTorah, I tell my own children how my grandfather’s first cousin wiped away the tears as he recalled his initial introduction to Torah learning.
From my mother, I heard stories about my grandfather, Michael Meyer Margolick, a”h, who arrived in Montreal, Canada at the turn of the century, together with his widowed mother and siblings. His mother, my great-grandmother, Riva Marolick, a”h, passed away almost immediately after the family’s arrival. My grandfather went on to establish a very successful pant manufacturing company, and did so much for the fledging Montreal Jewish community that he was eventually written up in a book about prominent Canadian Jews. My mother often told me stories about her private nurse and nanny, as well as the cook and housekeeper, and the four-story mansion that she called home. To me, growing up in a small working-class suburb in California, these stories sounded like fairytales.
My mother’s mother, my grandmother, Helen (Chaya) Margolick nee Greenberg, a”h, grew up in Rochester New York. Her parents, Avraham and Rose (Salinski) Greenberg both came from large families. Every once in a while, one of these long lost cousins would send us a newsy letter or even visit our family in California. My mother would become misty eye as she’d reminisce about all the cousins (there were so many that at one point they had a cousin club with a monthly family newsletter!) she had left behind on the East Coast.
A box of family stories and legends, hazy memories, but nothing concrete; until I decided to join a computer-generated family tree maker. As I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together, the family tree program automatically sent me pertinent data. I spent hours poring through censuses taken at the turn of the century, and felt as though I struck gold each time the names of great-great-aunts and uncles appeared, together with their spouses, and children. I was seeing the history of American and Canadian Jewry in my own family’s story – poor immigrants, but proud Jews (in all the early censuses, when asked their race, their automatic response was “Jewish,” never American or German or Russian), who worked hard to attain the American dream, yet succeeded in instilling a fierce love of their heritage in at least some of their descendants.
I’m still in the process of putting it all together, and I’ve made some interesting discoveries (my husband’s great-grandfather and my great-grandfather davened in the same shul in Buffalo, New York!) as well as been introduced via the family tree program to some cousins that I never knew existed. Eventually, I plan to compile all the information as a small family history book, with pictures, inspirational stories, and of course, a detailed family tree. I have no doubt that it will become a treasured family heirloom.
When (and if) I finish this project, I’ll let you know. And who knows? Perhaps as I do my research, I’ll find out that you, too, are among the many relatives that I never knew existed!