June 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Father and Son Search the Generations

I embarked upon a casual tracing of my family’s roots as a teenager, when I interviewed all four of my grandparents successively over a period of a year, mining their still-sharp memories for names, dates, locations and anecdotes. I jotted down my notes by hand, tucked the sheets of paper in a drawer and then went about starting a career, getting married and building my own family.

Some 20 years later, my parents retired to Florida, and the internet was invented. My father, who had worked 80 hours per week for some 50 years as a supermarket manager, now had some time on his hands and went looking for a project. He, too,had an interest in the family tree, and undoubtedly, I inherited my penchant for it from him. Ever the kibitzer, my father had no qualms about going through the south Florida phone books and calling anyone in the region with our unique name.

Once he got a computer, his reach became nationwide. I dug up my notes from the 1970s, bought two copies of the Heritage Family Tree software, and joined forces with my dad on building out the family forest. With my mother as an enthusiastic supporter, we share our findings during our fixed Sunday morning phone calls and regular emails, and thus have built a database of over 2,000 names of people related to us by blood or marriage. We gather our data through communications with relatives, internet searches, fortuitously discovered documents like military records and yes, gravestone inspections while visiting cemeteries. We strike gold when a cousin, aunt or uncle unearths a birth certificate, bris record or ketubah, as these articles have intrinsic value as family heirlooms, and provide, perhaps, the most authoritative history.

As an immigrant family, the apocryphal anecdotes are the most amusing part of the adventure. For example, where’d we get this odd, faux-French name, Leshaw, with its accent on the first syllable? The family lore says that back in the Ukraine, the earliest known paterfamilias, Shmuel Feldman or Kleinman (nobody knows!) had five sons, and perhaps one daughter. These five sons wished to emigrate to America, but Papa was wary of sending them to the “goldene medina” with such a Jewish-sounding name, so he bought papers from a Russian named Lokashofsky. The newly-labeled Lokashofsky brothers travelled west around 1892. Some lingered in Europe along the way, but each landed in New York eventually. Enter “Big Mamie” Brandenburg, who, upon marrying one of the brothers, decided that this Russian name wasn’t suitable for Americans. Just off the boat herself, she conjured up the new moniker, which was dutifully adopted by all the family members. 90 years later, my brother and one of my daughters stylishly capitalize the “S,” rendering it “LeShaw,” suggesting an Irish family with a chateau. (Incidentally, one of Big Mamie’s nephews married another Mamie of smaller stature, dubbed “Little Mamie”).

In earlier times, genealogies were scribed in the back pages of siddurim and chumashim, to be passed down and augmented through the generations. Nowadays, electronic records seem to have a better chance at surviving that generational transit, and, for us, the desktop software makes the whole endeavor possible. It’s super easy to input names, dates, locations of births, deaths, marriages, burials and narratives, and to navigate the vines within the tree to grasp the relationships visually. At times, our research reveals oddities that challenge the structural integrity of the database—like a great-uncle on my mother’s side who went biblical and married his brother’s daughter, or my paternal great-grandparents who are first cousins (those Lokashofskys again). The software can handle these cringey geometries. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

For privacy protection, we never post anything online. We cautiously avoid disclosing the “mother’s maiden name and birthdate” combination, a common security gate for financial accounts, and the names and ages of children. We gather data mostly through personal contact and we owe our interviewees assurances of confidentiality. Through this trust, we’ve engendered lively conversations at smachot and strengthened connections to and among members of our extended family. My father and I have become legendary as “the keepers of the family tree” and we judiciously distribute PDFs or hard copies of tree branches to trusted recipients. Dates or other fields can be left off. For the purposes of further research, I plan to share my records of the older generations, safe from mayhem, on the public sites in the future.

I am skeptical of “Ellis Island” records, hastily scrawled by harried, indifferent clerks, who were, to their credit, probably doing their best to gather details across languages and accents. In a typical Ellis Island story, my paternal grandmother, born Sara Levy in New York in 1899, divulged that her family name was really Angrist. After her father Fischl answered the “Religion?” question with “Jewish,” the weary clerk then rattled off the most common Jewish names. “Cohen?” “Levy?” Thinking the clerk was inquiring of his priestly status, my great-grandfather, a Levi, responded “Yes” at that point in the litany and thus the new name became official. It’s an interesting case of the modern reverting to the ancient.

We stubbornly refuse to pay for any information and therefore bypass the Big Daddy of genealogy sites, Ancestry.com, at upwards of $200/year. However, Jewishgen.org offers plenty of fascinating data, requesting only a voluntary donation in return. Mere hobbyists, I don’t foresee our travelling to some Stalin-era government building in Kiev to finger through musty pages of official archives scribbled in Cyrillic characters. This is down-home, grassroots sleuthing; amateur collecting at its best.

Admittedly, we’ve hit a wall back in time, somewhere around the 1840s, especially with the suspect family surname. Consequently, the tree has grown horizontally more than vertically, which keeps it firmly planted in the present. This yields great gifts, as it occasionally turns up a familial connection to a fellow shul member or a business contact. Even LinkedIn has opened some surprising doors.

Why do we do it? Looking for yichus? No. We hope we will derive our yichus from our children and grandchildren rather than from our ancestors. Rather, there is a certain joy in being part of a big family that extends through the Jewish people in many directions. As sefer Shemot eponymously highlights, we are a people attuned to our lineage. Approaching it with integrity and reverence, you perhaps feel that you are passing along some bit of heritage. But mostly, I cherish the exchanges with my father.


Jerry Leshaw is a career IT project manager, sometime musician, amateur genealogist, devoted father and doting grandfather. He and his wife Sandra have lived in Teaneck for 17 years. For questions about his or your family tree, he can be contacted at [email protected].

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