As a child, I loved hearing my mother’s stories about growing up during the Depression. I was fascinated as she recounted how every Thursday, her mother, Sarah Dvorah, would place the chicken that had been living in their yard into a burlap sack for her to bring to the shohet, the ritual slaughterer. The next night that chicken would appear as Shabbat dinner.
I also loved hearing about the buying trips to New York. Sarah Dvorah would occasionally take my mother along with her and, once business was concluded, they would visit with relatives in the Big City. How exciting this was to me.
Since we lived in the same small town in which my grandparents ultimately settled, I could actually go back to the old neighborhood where immigrants lived when they got to America, and even to the very street where my mother lived. Several of my dad’s cousins still lived down on John Street, an exotic place where one of the elders made blintzes in the kitchen while her sons operated the junk business out back and I played with my cousin, Gail, who would visit from another exotic place – New York.
As I have gotten older, I have developed a gnawing hunger to gather and record stories about the family. How did they live? What made them laugh? What did they do for fun? I am especially curious about those people I never knew, such as my maternal grandmother, Sarah Dvorah. Scary how few of us ever thought to ask questions of our parents and grandparents when we were young and they were alive. Not one of her nine grandchildren ever knew Sarah Dvorah. She died in 1932 when my mother, the youngest of five children, was just a teenager, but even the oldest cousin born of the oldest of Mom’s siblings was born well after Sarah Dvorah died.
Along with the stories, I thought it would be neat to gather photos and recipes so that we and our descendants could have a bigger picture of our ancestors’ history. What did they eat? What was considered a special treat? For example, I know from my mom that Sarah Dvorah made her own bagels. Did any of my aunts or uncles inherit that recipe, and perhaps hand it down to their own children? No, not a one. If Sarah Dvorah was anything like my paternal grandmother, Sarah Feyge, she never wrote down her recipes. Other than the bagels, chicken, and soup, I don’t know anything about Sarah Dvorah’s cooking.
And, as for photos, one of the most disappointing discoveries in my quest for family history is that there is not one picture of Sarah Dvorah. Not one photo or sketch among all the cousins. I knew the family was poor, but to have no pictorial record of my grandmother’s physical existence is so sad. What did she look like? Was she tall or short? Fat or thin? Brown hair or black?
So, this summer I am planning a little trek to all the places my grandparents lived in America. I am hopeful that there might be a photo among the archives of the Jewish communities where my zadie, Dov Aryeh, taught heder, religious school. Perhaps I will find a newspaper clipping of Sarah Dvorah having served on a charity committee in Willimantic, Connecticut, or maybe a line about the birth of three of her five children in Ellenville, New York. Those are small towns with what I am hopeful have great potential for success. But what about Brooklyn, New York? What is the chance that I will find a family needle in the haystack there? Is there the slightest chance that a distant cousin or two may still live there and remember Sarah Dvorah’s visits – and even have a photo documenting them?
Is there a chance that somebody out there in the cosmos might read this blog post and recognize the name Sarah Dvorah Katz, daughter of Shrayge Feivel Cohen?
Stay tuned. This could be either a rewarding summer, or a fruitless search.