Passover During A Pandemic

Every year for as far back as I can remember, my family has gathered for Passover. In my childhood, we had seders at my aunt and uncle’s house with my cousins Jody and Jeff. Then we all started doing a second seder together at our house. Every year, no matter what else was happening, we had seders. They were wild and chaotic and so much fun. Passover was my favorite holiday and was my first introduction to Jewish culture, history, and religion.

Once I married, the tradition shifted, but nevertheless, every year we had seders, one with my family at my parents’ house, one with my husband’s family either in New Jersey or the Bronx or later in Newton. They were all wild and chaotic and a great deal of fun.

Then we had grandchildren, and we began hosting one of the seders at our house, relieving my mother of the burdens of preparing the seder. We love hosting the seder, although the craziness beforehand and during makes me appreciate what all those who had hosted in the past were experiencing. Trying to convert our house to Passover dishes and pots and pans while also cooking some food ahead of time, renting tables and table cloths to accommodate the crowd, and then attempting to participate in the seder while also warming and serving food was a logistical challenge.

Passover 2019

But seeing my family gathered together around our table made it all more than worthwhile.

My dad and Remy, Passover 2016

Harvey and Nate

So here we were, facing Passover during the social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. How were we going to celebrate without being together? Would this be the first year ever in my memory that I would not be going to a seder? The thought saddened me, as I know it did for Jews all over the world.

Fortunately, my nine-year-old grandson Nate presented us with a challenge and an idea. Could we do a virtual seder using Zoom, the platform his school was using for remote learning? We spent some time learning how to use Zoom and thinking of how we could do this.

We scanned the Haggadah my family has used forever (The Haggadah for the American Family—mostly in English and accessible to all) and figured out who would read which parts. We added back in the handwashing we usually overlook. Nate and Remy practiced the four questions. Then we distributed a PDF of the scanned Haggadah to all who would be attending with their parts designated in the margins. As a final touch, Nate filmed himself doing an introduction and explanation of how things would work, and I emailed it all to everyone along with a Zoom invitation.

Nevertheless, the day of the first seder, I was feeling a bit blue. Sure, I had a lot less work to do, but that made me feel a bit at loose ends. Was it really Passover? I set the table for two with our seder plate filled with the usual ingredients, our cups for Elijah and for Miriam, our matzah holder, and salt water for the parsley.  It looked empty. We even put on nicer clothes than what we’ve been wearing since self-quarantining to make the day feel special. And then we waited for our guests to arrive in the Zoom waiting room.

Our seder table 2020 (before the seder plate was filled)

And they all showed up on time, ready to go. After chatting a bit and saying hello, our grandson Remy, only five, asked if we could have a virtual group hug. Can you imagine how happy that made me? We all reached out our arms to each other. What an amazing insight for a five-year-old—to recognize that we all needed that embrace, even if it was only across the internet.

I asked if everyone had a seder plate, and sure enough, everyone had made the effort to put together as best they could a plate with charoset (or an apple), moror, an egg, a shankbone (or a plastic sheep), and parsley or some other green. It was so uplifting, seeing that everyone had made the effort to make this a real Passover. Here are a few examples; you can see the creativity involved.

In fact, my younger daughter Maddy went all out and made chicken soup and matzoh balls, something she had never cooked before, and it looked amazing. My older daughter Rebecca made homemade macaroons. Everyone cared enough to do whatever they could to honor our holiday and our traditions. Suddenly it felt like this was really Passover.

Once we started the seder, it was almost as if we were all in the same room. Nate and my husband shared the responsibilities of being the leader, an honor Nate had certainly earned by virtue of his efforts and creativity in getting the seder organized. We went through our Haggadah as we usually do, adding a few extra comments appropriate to the situation—talking about the need for handwashing, adding an eleventh plague for COVID19, and recognizing the current meaning of the lesson that the wise child is the one who works for the benefit of all humankind, not just for him or herself.

Nate and Remy did a beautiful reading of the four questions, first in English and then in Hebrew. Then I read something our rabbi had written, describing how this Passover is different from all other Passovers and making us all think about our gratitude to those on the front lines of this pandemic—the medical personnel, those working at grocery stores and drug stores, the delivery people, the police and fire and other emergency personnel. Her words also gave us hope that as with our ancestors in ancient times, we would pull through and get out of this contemporary time of captivity.

And then we shared our dinners together, gefilte fish, soup, or whatever we each had prepared for that evening. Nate and Remy searched for the afikomen in their own home, and we sang for Elijah, but didn’t let anyone else inside. We pulled out whatever we had for dessert, and then we said good night.

Of course, it wasn’t the same as being together. Zoom makes it hard to have individual conversations or any real extended conversations that aren’t interrupted by the chatter of everyone else. And there are no hugs and kisses to say hello and goodbye.  But we had celebrated Passover. We had been together. We had remembered our own family traditions as well as the traditions of Jews everywhere around the world and throughout all time. We had had a seder.

Next year we hope we will be together in one space. But maybe this year’s seder will be the one we will always remember best. Because we all cared enough to make it real, to feel the connection to each other, and to appreciate what our traditions have taught us about hope and freedom and gratitude.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter

This year the lunar calendar has aligned Passover and Easter perfectly.  The first seder takes place on the evening of Good Friday, so this weekend Jews and Christians (except Eastern Orthodox Christians) will all be celebrating an important holiday. At least in my part of the world, it is also spring. My lawn is green, the daffodils are blooming, and there are buds on the trees about to burst into flower. It should be a joyous time. After all, Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery, and Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ. I hope that for all who celebrate (and for those who don’t) this weekend brings lots of joy.

For me, this year Passover is tinged with sadness. This is the first year my father will not be with us. It’s just two months since he died, but somehow it feels so much longer. So for today’s post, I want to ponder Passovers past and my father’s role in them.

When we first celebrated Passover, it was at my Aunt Elaine’s house. Her husband, my Uncle Phil, had grown up in a more traditional home than my mother and her sister or than my father. Uncle Phil could read Hebrew, and he knew the traditional songs and the blessings. So, of course, he led the seder. We used the Haggadah for the American Family—almost all in English, except for the blessings, the four questions, and some other passages. It was perfect for our assimilated, non-affiliated, non-religious family.  I was enchanted by the whole experience. It was my first and for the longest time only exposure to Judaism, and I loved the story, the music, the rituals, and, of course, searching for the afikomen.

Uncle Phil and Aunt Elaine

After the first couple of years, my mother must have decided that she also wanted to have seders at our home, and so we began to have one seder at my aunt and uncle’s house and one at our house. At our house, my father took over the leader’s role (with my uncle helping on all the Hebrew and the songs). Given that my father was not at all religious, it was perhaps an uncomfortable role for him to assume, but he certainly wasn’t going to let another man lead the seder in his house. If he was uncomfortable, he certainly did not show it. He always did a great job, and I can still hear his voice, reading the English text, admonishing us to be quiet and listen, and then giving up and moving on to the next page.

When my aunt and uncle moved to Florida, my father was all on his own as the leader. By then I was an adult and married with children, and we did one seder with my husband’s family, one with mine. My husband’s family’s seders were far more traditional and educational, but also always warm and filled with love. The seders at my parents’ house continued to be somewhat chaotic—too many people talking, too many people getting up and down, chasing the children, helping with the food and the dishes. My father continued to lead the seder, and we all read from the Haggadah and said the blessings and sang the songs. Our children read the four questions.  And in the midst of all the noise and chaos, the seders continued to be cherished by us all.

Then I became a grandmother. And we wanted our grandchildren to experience Passover at our home. Now my grandsons read the four questions. Now my husband and I hide the afikomen. And now my husband leads the seder.

Passover, 2016.

My father graciously moved out of the leader’s chair. I wonder whether that was hard for him—recognizing that another generation was taking over and that his time as the leader after over fifty years in that role was over. If so, he never showed it. He seemed to relish the opportunity to watch over the younger generations without having to worry about keeping the seder rolling along.

My dad, Passover 2016

This year there will be a missing chair at the table, a missing voice adding to the chaos, a missing mouth to feed. That missing chair, that missing voice, that missing mouth will be noticed and felt by us all. When we open the door for Elijah and wait for him to sip the wine, I will be watching for my father instead. Not, of course, literally. I don’t believe in ghosts. But I know that his spirit will be there inside each and every one of us as we hear, once again, the words of the Haggadah.


A Happy Post for Passover

Passover starts tonight, and the holiday always makes me reflect on history: Jewish history and my own family history.  When I first started on this path about five years ago, I never anticipated how much there was to learn.  I didn’t have an appreciation for what my own ancestors had experienced or how integrated my own family’s history has been with Jewish history—in Europe and in the US.  Nor did I understand how interconnected we all are in so many ways and what a truly small world it is.

One of the great benefits of family history research is finding cousins you never knew about and making connections.  I have been so fortunate in that regard.  I have connected with cousins as close as second cousins and as distant as fifth cousins, cousins who live close by to where I live and cousins who live all over the world, cousins who are in their nineties and cousins who are in their twenties.  Some of these cousins found me, some I found through my research.

It’s always a bit of a shot in the dark when you reach out to a stranger and tell them you are somehow related to him or her.  Sometimes you get no response, sometimes a skeptical response, and sometimes a truly enthusiastic response.  This post is about several truly warm and enthusiastic responses, and they relate to my Katz cousins from Oklahoma.

So a bit of background.  My Katz cousins are all descended as I am from Scholem Katzenstein and Breine Blumenfeld from Jesberg, Germany, my 3x-great-grandparents.  While I am descended from their son Gerson Katzenstein, my Katz cousins are descended from their daughter Rahel Katzenstein and her husband Jacob Katz.  As I wrote previously, Rahel and Jacob had six children.  Thus far, I have written about Samuel and a little bit about Abraham, both of whom came to the US in the 19th century as young men.

I had no information about the other four siblings except for a death date for Meier Katz, whose death record is included in the Hesse, Germany, Deaths, 1851-1955, database on Ancestry:

Meier Katz death record, Jesberg, Germany Hesse, Germany, Deaths, 1851-1955 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016.
Original data: Sterberegister und Namensverzeichnisse. Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Wiesbaden, Deutschland.

I knew from the Ancestry transcription of the record that Meier had died on October 30, 1925, in Jesberg, but I could not decipher the script to read any of the other details.  I posted the death record on the German Genealogy group on Facebook, and the kind people there provided me with a translation that included the information that the informant was a man named Karl Katz who had been residing at the same address as Meier.

Jesberg, 30. October 1925

Before the undersigning registrar appeared today the personally known merchant [Handelsmann] Karl Katz, residing at Jesberg Haus No. 28, and declared that the retired farmer [Auszüger] and widower [Witwer] Meier Katz I., 83 years 6 months 16 days old, residing at Jesberg with the delaring person, born at Jesberg, has been married to the deceased Sprinzchen née Jungheim lastly residing at Jesberg, died at Jesberg at his domicile on 29. October 1925 8:30 p.m.

The declaring assured that he had direct knowledge of the death. Read out, approved and signed Karl Katz

I thought that Karl might be Meier’s son and decided to search for a Karl Katz born in Jesberg, expecting not to find anything or perhaps at most a record from Germany.  But instead I found U.S. naturalization papers for a Karl Katz who had arrived in the US in 1938 and settled in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  I immediately thought this could not be a coincidence—that somehow this Karl Katz had to be related to my other Katz relatives in Oklahoma.  If this Karl Katz was the son of Meier Katz, he was the nephew of Abraham and Samuel Katz.  It made sense that in 1938, escaping from Nazi Germany, he would have come to the place where his father’s brothers were living.

Karl Katz naturalization papers
National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C.; ARC Title: Declarations of Intention for Citizenship , compiled 1908 – 1932; ARC Number: 731206; Record Group Title: Records of District Courts of the United States; Record Group Number: 21

As I did more research, I found the ship manifest for Karl along with his wife and a son.  When I checked the second page, expecting to see that he was going to his uncle Abraham Katz in Oklahoma, I was surprised to see that instead it said he was going to his brother, Jacob Katz, in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It seemed I had found another son of Meier Katz!

Karl Katz passenger manifest New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.
Original data: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls. NAI: 6256867. Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36. National Archives at Washington, D.C. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957. Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls. NAI: 300346. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives at Washington, D.C.

I was quite excited and then started researching Jacob Katz, only to learn that he had been in the US since about 1886 and had been in Stillwater, Oklahoma, since at least 1899 when he’d applied for naturalization.  So he had in fact been in Stillwater long before his uncle Abraham Katz had moved from Kentucky in about 1910. And Jacob was also a merchant, according to the 1900 census.  (More on Jacob and the other children of Meier Katz in posts to come.) And I kept seeing newspaper article references to Katz Department Store.

At that point I decided it was time to learn more about the history of the Katz Department Stores in Oklahoma, so I did a Google search of “Katz Department Store” + Oklahoma. One of the search results was from a blog in which the blog author described herself as a member of the family that had owned the Katz Department Store in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

So, of course, I wrote a comment on the blog, asking the blog owner to contact me and explaining that I thought we might be related.  I knew nothing about how this woman was related to the Katz family, but I figured I had nothing to lose.  Not too long after, my newly found fourth cousin, once removed,  Abbi Goldenberg, responded.  We exchanged a few emails and then a lovely phone conversation that covered not only family history matters, but also what it was like to grow up in the Southwest, cattle ranching, food labeling, politics, and life in general. From Abbi I learned that not only had Meier’s sons Jake and Karl come to the US, but so had all of Meier’s children, whom I will discuss in subsequent posts.

Katz Department Store sign as you enter Stillwater, OK
Courtesy of the Katz family

As if that connection wasn’t exciting enough, I then made another cousin discovery just a few days after finding Abbi. Once again it was indirectly through a Google search.  I had Googled “Abraham Katz + Oklahoma,” looking for an obituary, and one of the search results was a page from  I am generally skeptical of Geni because no sources are cited for the trees there, but the page for Abraham had a wonderfully detailed biography that had been told to the writer by her father, who was Abraham’s grandson.  I sent a message to the writer, Marsha Katz Rothplan, who was the manager of the profile on Geni, and again, within a few hours I received a response.

And this is where the small world story comes into play.  The response was an email I received just as I was about to go to sleep (yes, I check my phone before I go to sleep; bad, I know). Marsha was excited to be in touch, but not only because we happened to be fourth cousins.  She had looked me up on Facebook and realized that I live in the area where she had once lived back in 1988. Although she had grown up in Oklahoma, she had ended up in New England after college and worked at the JCC that my family has belonged to for over thirty years.  Although my eyes were drooping closed, I immediately sent her back a quick email (in fact, I was so excited that I hit “Send” too soon and sent her a three word email the first time).  Chances are very good that at some time while she lived here, we met each other without ever knowing that we were related.  And we know a number of people in common.

To top it off, Marsha was coming to my area that very weekend from across the country, and we arranged to meet for dinner.  We had a wonderful time, and she has provided me with many interesting facts, photographs, and stories about the Oklahoma Katz family.  She’s also connected me to her father and to other family members who have also shared stories and information.  As I now turn to the rest of story of Marsha’s great-grandfather Abraham Katz in my next few posts, I will have the benefit of the insights and photographs shared by Marsha and her family.

My fourth cousin, Marsha, and me April 4 2017

Then just this week, I connected with yet more of my Katz cousins, descendants of Samuel Katz—more wonderful people who responded warmly and with great interest in learning about their ancestors. And one of them is close friends with the nephew of one of our close friends.

With the help of my newly-found cousins, I’ve learned not only more about my Katz relatives, but about a way of life I previously knew nothing about and once again about the reality of how interconnected we all are.  I’ve also added some smart, funny, interesting, and warm women into my life.

Happy Passover to all who celebrate! Remember—everyone you see or speak to may end up being connected to you in more ways than you can imagine!


Passover 2016: The Exodus

In many ways Jewish history is about one exodus after another.  The Jewish story begins when God tells Abra(ha)m, “Lech Lecha,”  or “Go, Go out.”  He instructs him to leave his father’s land and go to a new land where his children would be as numerous as the stars.

There are many journeys throughout the Bible—Noah’s journey, Jacob’s journey, Joseph’s journey, and, of course, the exodus from Egypt led by Moses, which is recalled and re-enacted every year on Passover.

This Friday evening we will once again remember and re-enact that journey.  We will read the story of the Exodus.  We will drink wine, recline like free people, and eat matza to remember that our ancestors had no time to wait for the dough to rise before exiting from Egypt.  We will eat the bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery, and we will eat the charoset—a mixture of apples, nuts, and wine—to embrace the sweetness of freedom from slavery.

English: Passover Seder Table, Jewish holidays...

English: Passover Seder Table, Jewish holidays עברית: שולחן הסדר, Original Image Name:סדר פסח, Location:חיפה (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But that exodus was not the last journey our people took to freedom.  Over the centuries Jews kept moving from one land to another, either having been expelled or deciding on their own to seek freedom from oppression, violence, and hatred.  They moved to Babylonia, to Spain, to eastern Europe, to Germany, to places all over the globe, including eventually to the Americas.

I have spent much of the year since last Passover studying the journeys of my paternal relatives from Sielen, Germany—my father’s maternal grandfather’s family, the Schoenthals.  Although I still have a few more stories to share about my Schoenthal cousins, now that I have written about all the children of Levi Schoenthal and Henriette Hamberg, I want to spend this Passover looking back over the story of this particular family.

Levi and Henriette Schoenthal had ten children who survived to adulthood, all born in Sielen, Germany.  Of those ten, eight settled permanently in the US, and all but one of those eight started their lives in America in western Pennsylvania—either in Pittsburgh or the town thirty miles away, known as Little Washington.  Henry, the oldest son, arrived first in 1866, and by 1881, eight of the siblings were living in the US.  Henry over the years was a book seller and a china dealer, but underneath was a deeply religious and well-educated man.

His youngest brother was my great-grandfather Isidore, who arrived in 1881, also settled in Washington, and also worked as a china dealer.

Isidore Schoenthal

Isidore Schoenthal

In between Henry and Isidore were four other brothers in the US plus two sisters.  Over the years almost all of them prospered.  Some moved away from western Pennsylvania.  Simon ended up in Atlantic City, where he and his wife raised nine children, many of whom ended up in the hotel business there; Felix and his wife and two daughters ended up in Boston, where he became successful in the typewriter repair business. Julius lived in Washington, DC, worked as a shoemaker and had four children.  Nathan lived in many different places.  And even Isidore and Henry eventually left Pennsylvania, Isidore for Colorado and Henry for New York.  The two sisters, Hannah and Amalie, stayed in Pittsburgh for most of their lives.  Both were married and had children.

Felix and Margaret Schoenthal from 1919 passport application, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; Roll #: 728; Volume #: Roll 0728 - Certificates: 70500-70749, 19 Mar 1919-20 Mar 1919

Felix and Margaret Schoenthal from 1919 passport application,
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Roll #: 728; Volume #: Roll 0728 – Certificates: 70500-70749, 19 Mar 1919-20 Mar 1919


Simon Schoenthal, my great-great-uncle

Simon Schoenthal, my great-great-uncle


The next generations wandered even further afield, although many ended up not too far from where their parents had originally settled.  My grandmother, who was born in Washington, PA, and grew up in Denver, spent her whole adult life in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

My Grandma Eva

My Grandmother Eva Schoenthal Cohen

Martin Schoenthal, Gertrude Sch., Hettie Sch Blanche Walter

Walter Schoenthal, Gertrude Schoenthal, Hettie Schoenthal, Blanche Stein and Walter Stein in Arizona


Arthur Schoenthal promoted 1942-page-003


Washington Evening Star, September 14, 1928, p. 9

Washington Evening Star, September 14, 1928, p. 9



Washington Star, December 2, 1928 p. 64

Washington Star, December 2, 1928 p. 64

Washington Evening Star, February 18, 1963, p. 24

Washington Evening Star, February 18, 1963, p. 24


Overall, the Schoenthals in the US prospered; most were successful business owners.  Most of these people appeared to have full and happy lives, although there were some who struggled.  Today there are numerous living descendants of those eight siblings, myself included.

On the other hand, the two siblings who stayed in Germany did not have as happy a legacy.  Jakob died young, and his daughter Henriette was killed in the Holocaust.  His four other children survived and, like their aunts and uncles, ended up in western Pennsylvania. Lee, Meyer, and Erna came before the war.  But Johanna was deported to a camp in Gurs, France, during the war and did not come until 1947.   From these five children, there were just two grandchildren: Helmut Levi, son of Henriette and Julius Levi, and Werner Haas, Erna’s son.  Both grandsons made it to the US before World War II.  Neither had children, however, so there are no living descendants of Jakob Schoenthal and his wife Charlotte Lilienthal.

Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, June 14, 1984, p. 23 ewish+Chronicle+Vol.+23+No.+18 Formed+by+the+union+of:+Jewish+criterion+;++and:+American+Jewish+outlook.

Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, June 14, 1984, p. 23


And finally Rosalie, the youngest child of Levi and Henriette, after living in the US for a few years made the fateful decision to return to Germany to marry Willy Heymann.  They had six children.  Four survived the Holocaust.  The three sons, Lionel, Max, and Walter, settled in Chicago before the war, where Lionel became a well-regarded photographer.   One daughter, Johanna, who was widowed at a young age, followed her stepdaughter Else Mosbach to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to escape the Nazis.

The other two daughters, Helene and Hilda, were murdered in the Holocaust as were Helene’s two daughters, Liesel and Grete.  From Rosalie’s six children, only one grandchild survived, the son of Max Heymann.  I am still hoping to find him.

Stolperstein for Julius Mosbach and family

The Schoenthal story illustrates how one fateful decision can alter the future irrevocably. One decision to take a chance and leave what you know—to listen to the call of Lech Lecha, to venture out to a new land—can make all the difference.  By taking a chance that the sweet charoset of that new land would outweigh the bitterness of leaving a land they knew, my great-grandfather and seven of his siblings changed their own fates and those of their descendants.

What if Jakob and Rosalie had left Germany when their siblings did?

And what if the other eight siblings had never left at all?  This story would have a very different ending.

In fact, it never would have been written.


Passover 2015: The American Jewish Story

Handmade shmura matzo used at the Passover Sed...

Handmade shmura matzo used at the Passover Seder especially for the mitzvot of eating matzo and afikoman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A year ago I was feeling disconnected from Passover until I heard my grandson tell us the story of Passover in a way that made it feel new and exciting and different all over again.  This year his little brother will experience his first seder, though at only ten months, that experience will likely be short and quite unfocused.  Just a lot of really noisy people sitting around a table eating food that he neither can nor would want to eat.  But it’s a new reminder that every generation and every child experiences Passover as a new experience, allowing all of us who are jaded and detached to be able to relive our own early experiences with this special holiday.

Last year I entered into Passover thinking about my mother’s ancestors, the Brotmans, the Goldschlagers, and the Rosenzweigs.  I focused on their exodus from the oppression and poverty and anti-Semitism of Galicia and Romania and their courage and the desire for freedom that led them to leave all they knew to cross the continent and then the ocean and come to New York City, where they again lived in poverty but with greater hopes for a life of freedom and economic opportunity.  And they attained their goals if not in that first generation, certainly by the third and fourth generations.

Poor Jews taking home free matzohs, New York

Poor Jews taking home free matzohs, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the last year now, I have been researching, studying and writing about my father’s paternal relatives.  It has taken just about a full year to cover the Cohens, the Jacobs (with whom I actually need to do more work), the Seligmans, the Schoenfelds, the Nusbaums, and the Dreyfusses.  Soon I will start my father’s maternal relatives—the Schoenthals and Katzensteins and whatever other surnames pop up along the way.  Researching my father’s families has been so different from my mother’s, and I can go so much further back.  I can’t get back much before 1840 with my mother’s family and have absolutely no records before 1885 or so for any of them.  Although I have a number of Romanian records for my Rosenzweig and Goldschlager relatives, I have no records at all from Europe for my great-grandparents Joseph and Bessie Brotman, despite hours and hours of searching and even DNA testing.

In contrast, my father’s ancestors have provided me with a rich opportunity to learn about Jews in Amsterdam, London, and especially the towns of Gau-Algesheim, Erbes-Budesheim, Bingen, and Schopfloch, Germany.  I have been able to find records all the way back to 1800 or so for almost every line.  I’ve had amazing help along the way on both sides of the Atlantic, and I’ve even learned a little German to boot.  My father’s families were pawnbrokers and peddlers and clothing merchants; they were pioneers and politicians and war heroes.

Harrisburg Market Square with Leo Nusbaum store

Harrisburg Market Square with Leo Nusbaum store

They came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, and most of them suffered terrible heartbreaks, economic struggles, and early deaths.  Most of them settled in Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but there were those who went to places that I’d never think a Jewish immigrant would go: Iowa, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, California, and, of course, New Mexico.  Many married outside the Jewish community and assimilated into American culture far more so than my mother’s relatives.  Ultimately, the Cohens/Jacobs and Seligmans/Schoenfelds and Nusbaums/Dreyfusses were successful; they found the American dream, and they embraced it.

But there is a very sad underside to this story of American success.  It’s the story of those who did not leave Europe.  For the first time in my life I confronted the reality that the Holocaust did not just happen to other families, to other Jews.  Not that I have not been deeply affected by the Holocaust all my life; ever since I read Anne Frank’s diary as a child, I’ve identified with and cried for all those who were murdered by the Nazis.  But I never knew that I had relatives left behind in Germany who were part of that slaughter.  I am still finding more, and I will write about them soon.  The list of names of my cousins who died in the Holocaust grows longer and longer, and I realize more than ever how grateful I should be to Bernard Seligman, John and Jeanette (Dreyfuss) Nusbaum, and Jacob and Sarah (Jacobs) Cohen for leaving Europe and taking a chance on the new country across the ocean.

memorial plaque gau aldesheim

So this year for Passover I will be thinking about that first major migration of Jews from Europe to America.  I will be feeling thankful for the risks my ancestors took, and I will be feeling the loss of not only all those who were killed in the Holocaust, but the loss of all the children and grandchildren who would have been born but for those deaths.

And overall I will be celebrating family, freedom, and faith—faith that the world can be a better place and that human beings can be their best selves and live good and meaningful lives.  May all of you have a wonderful weekend—be it Passover or Easter or perhaps just another weekend in April for you.   Celebrate all the good things in life in whatever way you can.

A Passover Post-Script

Passover - Shalom

Passover – Shalom (Photo credit: paurian)


Our first seder is over and done, the rented table has been returned, the food has been eaten or put away,  and the house is (somewhat) back in order and far too quiet now that the guests are gone.  We have the second seder tonight at my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s house, so now I get to be the guest and sit back a bit.  But before I move on from last night, I wanted to share my thoughts as a follow-up to my original Passover post.


I wrote in that post, based on last year’s seder, that Nate was too young to understand the story of Passover.  What a difference a year makes! He not only understood the story of Passover—he taught it to all of us.  He told us about how the “pharaoh guy, the bad guy” made all the people work too hard and how they never had a break.  He told us that Moses asked pharaoh to let his people go, but pharaoh said “No, no, no,” and so God sent frogs and locusts to punish him.  “The sky was so thick that the people could not see.”  He described how the people were in a hurry and had to carry the dough on their backs and how “the ocean snapped open so they could get on the island, and then it snapped closed so the soldiers could not get to the island.” And he closed the story by telling us that the people opened their backpacks once they were safe on the island.


Horsemen of Pharaoh

Horsemen of Pharaoh (Photo credit: Nick in exsilio)

Sure, a few details are missing and a few geographical facts are slightly off, but he got it.  He got the idea that the people were unfairly treated and that they wanted to be free.  He understood how important freedom is and how we have to stand up to the bad guys when they deprive us of that freedom.  He knows that the journey may be dangerous, but that you can cross the ocean and reach a place where you are free to open your backpacks and live in peace.


Isn’t that exactly the right lesson to learn from the Passover story? To cherish freedom, to stand up to evil, and to take steps, even dangerous steps, to ensure that you and your loved ones can live in peace?  My ancestors must have been smiling down on my three year old grandson with such pride.  As was I.  As were we all.






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Passover wishes and thoughts


Passover Seder Plate

Passover Seder Plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As we approach the first night of Passover on Monday evening, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, as I usually am this time of year.  There is the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and all the other details that go into preparing the house for Passover and for the seder.  I am also feeling torn because there are so many things I want to do in connection with my research and the blog.  I have lots of photos to scan and post, both from my Brotman relatives and my Rosenzweig relatives, stories that need to be written, documents to request, people to contact.  But I do not have time.  So while the kugel is baking and before I start turning over the dishes and pots and pans for the holiday, I thought I’d take a few minutes to ponder what Passover means to me this year.


Passover was once my favorite holiday of the year.  I loved the seder because as a child, it was my only formal exposure to Jewish history and Jewish rituals.  I grew up in a secular home.  We did not belong to a synagogue, I did not go to Hebrew school, and there were no bar or bat mitzvahs celebrated in our family when we were children.  It was just fine with me, but I was also very curious about what it meant to be Jewish.  Passover gave me a taste of what being Jewish meant and could mean.  My Uncle Phil, my Aunt Elaine’s husband, had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, and although he was not terribly religious either, he wanted to have a seder.


So every year we had a seder, first only at my aunt’s house, and then my mother started doing a second seder at our house.  My uncle, the only one who knew Hebrew, would chant all the blessings and sing all the songs, and the rest we would read in English from the Haggadah for the American Family (not Maxwell House).  I was enchanted—I loved the music, the stories and all the rituals. I looked forward to it every year.



As an adult, I began my own exploration of what it means to be Jewish.  I married a man from a traditional family, and he wanted to keep the traditions and rituals that were part of his childhood.  I also wanted to learn more and do more.  I took classes, I read, I got involved with the synagogue, and over time the Jewish holidays and rituals and prayers and services became second nature to me and provided me with meaning and comfort and joy.

Passover has become just one small part of my Jewish life and identity now, and over time, it has lost its magic.  It no longer is my favorite holiday of the year.  The matzoh gives me indigestion, the chore of changing the dishes and pots and pans has become tiresome, and the seder is so familiar that it no longer feels fresh and new and exciting.


If I look at it through my grandson’s eyes, I can feel some of that old excitement, but he is still too young to ask questions or to understand the stories.  He just likes the songs and looking for the afikomen and being with his family, which is more than enough for now.  This picture, one of my favorite pictures ever, captures some of that feeling.  From generation to generation, traditions are being preserved.

L'dor v'dor  Harvey and Nate

L’dor v’dor Harvey and Nate


But this Passover I will try to take the time to think about things a little differently.  I will think not just about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and going from slavery to freedom.  I will think about all my maternal ancestors who made their own Exodus by leaving poverty and oppression and prejudice and war in Romania and Galicia to come to the place where they hoped to find streets lined with gold.


I will think of my grandfather Isadore, the first Goldschlager to come, leading the way for his father, his mother, his sister and his brother.  I will think of how he traveled under his brother David’s name to escape from the army and come to America.


I will think of his aunt, Zusi Rosenzweig, who met him at the boat at Ellis Island.  I will think of his uncle Gustave Rosenzweig, who was the first Rosenzweig to come to the United States back in about 1888, with his wife Gussie and infant daughter Lillie, a man who stood up for his extended family on several occasions. And I will think of his aunt Tillie Rosenzweig Strolowitz, who came to the US with her husband and her children, who lost her husband shortly after they arrived in the US.  I will remember how she took in my grandfather and his sister Betty when their father, Moritz, died, and their own mother and brother David had not yet arrived.


And I will think about my great-grandfather Joseph Brotman, who came here alone in about 1888 from Galicia, whose sons Abraham and David from his first marriage came next, and whose son Max as just a ten year old boy may have traveled to America all alone.  I will think of Bessie, my great-grandmother for whom I am named, who brought two small children, Hyman and Tillie, on that same trip a few years later, and who had three more children with Joseph between 1891 when she arrived and 1901, when Joseph died.  The first of those three children was my grandmother Gussie Brotman, who married my grandfather Isadore Goldschlager after he spotted her on Pacific Street while visiting his Rosenzweig cousins who lived there as well.


All of these brave people, like the Israelites in Egypt before them, pulled up their stakes, left their homes behind, carrying only what they could carry, to seek a better life.  I don’t know how religious any of them were or whether they saw themselves as brave, as crossing a Red Sea of their own.  But when I sit and listen to the blessings and the traditional Passover songs this year, I will focus on my grandson and see in him all the courage and determination his ancestors had to have so that he could be here, free to live as he wants to live and able to ask us, “Ma Nish Ta Na Ha Leila Ha Zeh?” Why is this night different?


Why is this night different from all other nights? It isn’t because we are free; it’s because on Passover we remember what it was like not to be free and to be grateful for the gifts of those who enabled us to be free.

Happy Passover to all, and thank you to all my  Brotman, Goldschlager and Rosenzweig relatives for making this such an exciting journey for me.






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