My Cousin Ben’s Bar Mitzvah

I was privileged last weekend to experience something I never would have been able to share if I hadn’t started on this genealogy journey over four years ago.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (or even just know its title), then you know that the first family I researched was that of my maternal grandmother, Gussie Brotman.  From my mother and my aunt, I knew some of the names of my grandmother’s siblings—Hymie, Tillie, Frieda, and Sam. And eventually I found three of her half-siblings as well—Abraham, David, and Max.

Gussie Brotman

Gussie Brotman, my grandmother

But my mother had long ago lost touch with her cousins, the children of her mother’s siblings, and had no idea in many cases of their names, let alone their whereabouts.  So I set out to find them, and as I’ve described elsewhere, the first two long lost cousins I located just about four years ago were my second cousin Judy, granddaughter of Max Brotman, and my second cousin Bruce, grandson of Hymie (Herman) Brotman. From Judy and Bruce, I learned so much about the family and also was able to find all my other Brotman second cousins.

Max Brotman

Max Brotman, my great-uncle

Hyman Brotman

Hyman Brotman, my great-uncle

A little over three years ago, some of the grandchildren of Hyman Brotman and some of my grandmother’s grandchildren met in New York City and had a wonderful reunion—or more accurately for some of us—a first meeting.  It remains one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences I’ve had since starting to research my family history.  And thanks to the miracle of email and Facebook, I’ve managed to stay in touch as best I can with many of these new second cousins.

Celebrating Ben's bar mitzvah---the Brotman cousins, all descendants of Joseph Brotman and Bessie Brod

Celebrating Ben’s bar mitzvah—some of the Brotman cousins, all descendants of Joseph Brotman and Bessie Brod, and their spouses

So I was thrilled and honored to be invited to the bar mitzvah of my cousin Benjamin—my second cousin, once removed.  As I sat in the sanctuary of his family’s friendly congregation, I marveled at the fact that I was sitting in this place with many of my second cousins, sharing in a Jewish tradition that dates back long before the time when our great-grandparents lived in Galicia.  What would our great-grandparents Joseph Brotman and Bessie Brod have thought about this whole thing?

Bessie Brotman

Bessie Brotman, Ben’s great-great-grandmother

As Ben led us through the prayer that includes the phrase L’dor v’dor, from one generation to another, I got goosebumps. I realized that our great-grandparents could have sat in that sanctuary and felt very comfortable, hearing prayers that would have been just as familiar to them as they are to me and as they are now to Ben.  Would our great-grandparents have ever expected that over 120 years after they came to the United States their great-great-grandchildren would still be learning these ancient prayers, reading from the Torah, and chanting the Haftorah?

Surely they would have been amazed to see that sharing in this experience in the synagogue that morning were not just other Jewish people, but people of all different  faiths and backgrounds, all learning from the wonderful rabbi about Jewish practices and values. Everyone was welcome, and everyone there wanted to be there.

Joseph and Bessie would likely smile to think that they had made the right decision coming to the US, despite all their travails, because today in 2016 not only do their ancient traditions survive, they also can be practiced openly in creative, inclusive ways without fear of persecution.

L’dor v’dor.  The family and the traditions continue.  Mazel tov, Ben!

(I just realized this is my 500th post on Brotmanblog—how appropriate!)


Hart Levy Cohen and A Very Brief History of Jews in London

In my research so far, Hart Levy Cohen is the earliest verified ancestor I have found.  There are some others on other lines on my father’s side that are earlier, but not yet verified.  But I am quite certain that Hart was my three-times great grandfather based on the census reports I have been able to locate in both English and American records.

The earliest reference I have to Hart is a transcription of his wedding record from the Great Synagogue of London. I found this on a website called Synagogue Scribes, which provides a free, searchable database of transcriptions of the information from marriage and other records from the Ashkenazi synagogues in London.  According to this site, Hart Levy Cohen, whose Hebrew name was Hirts and whose father’s Hebrew name was Leib, married Rachel Jacobs on January 29, 1812.  I was thrilled when I first found this record because it provided me with not only my three-times great grandmother’s name, but also because it revealed my four-times great-grandfather’s first name.  It also revealed that by 1812 Hart was living in England.[1]

The Great Synagogue of London: This engraving ...

The Great Synagogue of London

The earliest actual record I have for Hart is the 1841 English census, which lists Hart, his wife Rachael (sp?), and four of his children, Elizabeth, Moses, John and Jacob.[2]  Jacob was my great-great grandfather. According to the census, Hart was then 65 years old, giving him a birth year of 1776.  Rachel was 55, giving her a birth year of 1786.  Elizabeth and Moses were both listed as twenty years old, Jacob was 15, and John was 14.  All of the children were listed as born in England, but Rachel and Hart were listed as foreign born.  Hart’s occupation was described as “Ind’t,” meaning he was of independent means, and Moses and Jacob were both described as china dealers.

Hart Cohen and family 1841 English census

Hart Cohen and family 1841 English census

The family was residing on New Goulston Street in the St. Mary Whitechapel parish of Middlesex County in East London.  Scanning through the names and occupations of other residents of that street and nearby streets, I noticed that many of the names were Jewish and that many of the residents were merchants of some sort or tradespeople.  I knew nothing about the history of Jews in London, and thus studying this census led me to research that history in order to learn more about the neighborhood where my ancestors lived in the early 19th century.  That, in turn, led me to read more about the history of Jews in England overall and specifically in London.

Although I cannot do justice to the long and complicated history of the Jews in England here, a very brief overview may suffice.  According to a number of sources, Jews had first settled in England during the reign of William I in the 11th century, but were expelled from England in 1290 by an edict of King Edward I, and there was no Jewish community thereafter until the 17th century when a community of Sephardic Jews from Spain arrived, although many of these Jews hid their religious identities.  Eventually for political and economic reasons, the English acquiesced in the growth of the Jewish community, although there was still a great deal of anti-Semitism.  Jews were not allowed to be citizens and were denied many of the legal rights of non-Jewish English citizens.

In the 18th century, the Sephardic community grew both in size and in wealth and became quite successful, but Jews were still denied full legal rights.  There was a short lived naturalization law passed in 1754 to enable Jewish men to become citizens, but it was repealed one year later due to widespread popular opposition.  It was not until 1833 that Jewish men were emancipated and given full legal rights as English citizens.

Meanwhile, there was also a growing Ashkenazi community during the 18th and 19th centuries, referred to as “Dutch Jews.”  My three-times great grandfather Hart Levy Cohen would have been one of those Dutch Jews, probably arriving at the end of the 18th century.   According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the bulk of the Ashkenazic community consisted of petty traders and hawkers, not to speak of the followers of more disreputable occupations.”  They settled in East London in the parish of Whitechapel, as did my ancestor Hart.  Whitechapel in the 1840s was described in Wikipedia as “classic “Dickensian” London, with problems of poverty and overcrowding.”

It would appear from the 1841 census listing, however, that Hart and his family were not among those poor.  Hart appears to have been retired, and his two sons were china dealers.  Perhaps their particular section of Whitechapel was not as poor as other sections.  For example, their street was very close to the Petticoat Market, a clothing manufacturing center that catered to the well-to-do of London.

File:Thomas Rowlandson - Rag Fair or Rosemary Lane - Google Art Project.jpg

Petticoat Market in the early 19th century

UPDATE:  Thanks to the help of my fellow blogger Su Leslie from Shaking the Tree, another of my very favorite genealogy blogs, I was able to find a map prepared by Charles Booth in the late 19th century that shows street by street the economic standing of the residents.  He rated each street on a seven level scale from poorest to upper class.  New Goulston Street appears to be purple on his map, meaning it was a mixed neighborhood with some poor residents and some comfortable residents.  That also seems consistent with my scan of the census of their street.

Charles Booth poverty map of London, New Goulston Street marked in center,181427.0

In the later part of the 19th century, there was a tremendous influx of poor European Jewish immigrants to London, just as there was in New York and other American cities, coming to escape the oppression, violence and poverty in East Europe. There was also a large immigration of poor people from Ireland during this same period. The Whitechapel neighborhood became even more poverty-stricken, and crime became rampant, including widespread prostitution.  It was also during this period that Jack the Ripper, the serial killer, committed a string of murders and caused widespread terror.

By this time, however, most of my Cohen relatives had left England and come to the United States.  Only two of Hart’s six children remained in England by 1860.  Why did they leave? And why did Hart come to England from Holland in the first place? Those are questions that I want to answer if I can as I dig more deeply into my Cohen ancestors.




[1] I also thought I had found earlier records for Hart in tax records from 1798, but I now think that those records were for a different person because I found a record dated 1768 at the same address, also for a man named Hart Cohen.  These records require deeper investigation.


[2] There were six children altogether.  Lewis and Jonah are not accounted for on this census.  Lewis would have been 21, so perhaps was not living at home, but I have not yet found him elsewhere.  Jonah would have been 12, so I cannot account for the fact that he is not listed, except to note that this was the first English attempt for a comprehensive census and undoubtedly mistakes were made.


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Where they lived: East Harlem in the Early 20th Century

One of things that puzzled me when I started looking at the census reports for the Goldschlagers between 1905

English: Looking from 96th Street in the south...

English: Looking from 96th Street in the south, northward along Second Avenue towards Spanish Harlem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and 1915 was where they were living.  I had always assumed that my grandfather, like my Brotman ancestors, had settled in the Lower East Side when he arrived in New York.  I thought that was where all poor Jewish immigrants had settled in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Yet at the time of the 1905 census, my grandfather was living at 2213 Second Avenue, near the intersection with 115th Street, in the neighborhood we know as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem.  He was living by himself (at age 17) in a building with some families with Jewish names but mostly families with Italian names.  What was he doing there? Why was he living up there and not on the Lower East Side?

When Moritz arrived, they remained in East Harlem on 109th Street, and after Moritz died, Betty and Isadore moved in with Tillie on 109th Street.  In 1915, all of the surviving Goldschlagers were still living on 109th Street.  Eventually, Isadore moved to Brooklyn, and David, Betty and their mother moved to the Bronx, until Betty and Gisella moved to Bayshore, Long Island in the 1930s.  But why had they started and stayed in East Harlem?

330 East 109th Street today

Some quick research revealed that East Harlem was a huge Jewish community in the early years of the 20th century, but that that community had disappeared and was for the most part forgotten.  As David W. Dunlap wrote in The New York Times in 2002, “On the map of the Jewish diaspora, Harlem is Atlantis. That it was once the third largest Jewish settlement in the world after the Lower East Side and Warsaw — a vibrant hub of industry, artistry and wealth — is all but forgotten. It is as if Jewish Harlem sank 70 years ago beneath the waves of memory, beyond recall.”  Dunlap then described the many signs that Jews once lived in East Harlem in the churches that were once synagogues.

Former Temple Israel Jewish synagogue, now Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. Detail: Star of David.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church in East Harlem, originally Temple Israel

The neighborhood had been rural until the subway and elevated trains arrived around 1880.  Soon after tenement buildings were constructed, and immigrants moved in, first German and Irish immigrants, then Jewish and Italian immigrants.  According to Wikipedia, there were 90,000 Jews living in East Harlem in 1917; however, the neighborhood was predominantly Italian and came to be known as Italian Harlem or Little Italy.  That is consistent with my study of the names in the 1905 census.

Photograph shows 105th Street between Madison and Park avenues in 1929, with traces of Jewish Harlem, including the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Harlem <i>(left)</i> and the synagogue called Beth Hamridash Hagadol of Harlem.

My mother remembers that her father spoke several languages and was quite fluent in Italian.  He must have learned Italian living in East Harlem in his first ten years in New York.   He was not a religious person and had left Romania at least in part to escape the anti-Semitism there.  Perhaps living in a mixed neighborhood made him feel more American, although obviously there was a well-established Jewish community there as well with many synagogues and other institutions.   Maybe it was cheaper than the Lower East Side, maybe the Lower East Side was already filled beyond overcrowding, or maybe East Harlem was a better neighborhood, not a cheaper neighborhood.  I don’t know what drew my grandfather there or why he stayed.

It’s always good to learn something new.  Now I know not only something new about my family, but also something new about the history of New York City and the Jewish immigrants who settled there.

2287 1st Avenue, East Harlem, New York.

2287 1st Avenue, East Harlem, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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