When doing genealogy research, I often find I get very focused on one person or one couple or sometimes one nuclear family and forget to think about the bigger picture, the extended family and their history. This has been particularly true in researching my great-great grandparents Jacob and Sarah Cohen and their thirteen children. Each one of those children was a story unto itself; each of their nuclear units told a complete story. Doing the research for each of them brought me into their individual lives—their relationships, their careers, their children, their achievements, and their tragedies.
It was only when I got to child number eleven, my great-grandfather Emanuel, that I realized I had lost the bigger picture. His life was not only about his adulthood—his wife and his children and grandchildren, but was also shaped by and always affected by what was happening with his extended family—his parents, his siblings, his nieces and nephews. It was then that I looked at the overall timeline to see what was happening outside his nuclear family as well as within it.
Now looking back and trying to get that bigger picture overall, I can make some fairly general observations about these thirteen children and their extended family. First, they were all very interconnected in their work as well as their personal lives. Almost all the men, including many of the brothers-in-law and sons-in-law, were pawnbrokers. I don’t have a very good sense of how many separate stores there were in the Cohen pawnshop industry, but obviously there were enough to support more than a dozen families, including a family as large as that of Reuben Cohen, Sr., with his many children. Yes, there were some trouble spots and some disputes undoubtedly, but this was a family that worked together and lived together, often within blocks of each other. One project I have in mind at some point is creating a map to show where they all were living at a given point in time. This was a family where almost everyone stayed in Philadelphia or perhaps New Jersey for multiple generations at least until the 1930s or 1940s.
Every tragedy—the deaths of so many young children, the premature deaths of so many young adults, the horrible accidents—must have rippled through the entire family in some way. This was a family that suffered greatly over and over again—perhaps no more than any other of its time, but nevertheless, more than most of us can imagine today. Almost every one of them lost at least one young child; some lost several. Reuben and Sally lost ten children. Some, like my great-grandparents and Reuben, not only lost a young child, but also lost adult children who died too young.
Yet this was also a family that triumphed. Most of them lived fairly comfortably, if not luxuriously. They moved to the northern sections of Philadelphia away from the increasingly poor sections where Jacob and Sarah had settled at 136 South Street. Many had servants living with them, even when they had only a few or even no children. These were not college-educated people. Most did not even finish high school. But they were savvy business people who, as far as I can tell, for the most part operated their businesses honestly but successfully, as the profile of Reuben Cohen described. They saw themselves as money lenders, as the banks for those who could not borrow money from a traditional, established bank. Some were more successful than others, but overall this was a family that came to America in the 1840s and made a good life for themselves and their descendants.
Looking back on those times makes me wonder what happened. How did this large, interconnected family lose touch with each other? It’s not just my father’s immediate line that was disconnected; every Cohen descendant I’ve been able to locate says the same thing—that they had no idea about all these other cousins and Cohen relatives. My father said he had no idea that his father had cousins. I counted sixty-nine grandchildren born to Jacob and Sarah Cohen. Even if you subtract the many who did not survive childhood, there were probably fifty—meaning that my grandfather had fifty living first cousins, mostly living in Philadelphia, yet my father did not know of any of them.
I suppose that that is how it is as families grow, children marry, grandchildren are born. You no longer can fit everyone around the table even for special occasions. Other families also need attention—the in-laws and all their relatives. Especially back then, before the telephone and the automobile and certainly before the internet, Facebook, Google, email, and cellphones, it was just too hard and too expensive to stay in touch if someone was not in your immediate neighborhood and your day-to-day life. We all know how hard it is to stay in touch even with all those modern means of communication.
So people moved away, grew apart, and lost touch. At least now we can all benefit from knowing the bigger picture, from looking at our shared history, and knowing that even if we do not know each other, we are all part of the same tree.
Thanks to Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia, I now have photos of the headstones for Jacob and Sarah.
They are not very legible, but you can clearly see Jacob’s name in English, and with the help of others, I’ve been told that the Hebrew includes Jacob’s name, Yaakov ben Naftali ha Cohen, and his date of death, 13 Iyar 5648, or April 24, 1888. It also apparently has a reference to London as his birthplace.
The side for Sarah (the second one above) is almost completely eroded, so no one could decipher it. Rabbi Gabbai also found the stone for Hart Levy Cohen, but he said it was nothing but a plain stone as all the engraving had eroded so he did not take a picture. I wish that he had, but did not have the heart to ask him to go back to the cemetery.
All that is left is for us to remember them and their children and their grandchildren.