I fell down the genealogy rabbit hole entirely by accident. A college friend shared a Facebook link that caught my eye: a Kickstarter campaign to help produce a documentary about a family-run matzo factory on Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Rivington Street, I thought. My mother had cousins who lived on Rivington Street.
We’d long ago lost touch with them. And so, out of curiosity, I searched their names on Google. And up popped a listing from the 1940 census, showing those very cousins living at 127 Rivington St.
How cool! You can search the census!
And so I started to poke around, looking for my parents as small children, and my grandparents and great-grandparents as newly arrived immigrants early in the last century. There they were in black and white. It all seemed somehow satisfying and validating, official proof of their existence.
I’ve always been fascinated by old documents. I remember being strangely thrilled as a child to see my late grandfather’s electrician’s license in a gray metal strongbox in my father’s closet. The online world now holds a treasure-trove of such documents, not just the census but naturalization papers, passenger manifests, birth and death certificates, draft registrations. Like the bones and pottery dug up by archaeologists, they bear silent witness to people and events long gone, daring me to fill in the blanks and reconstruct their narratives. The storyteller in me was hopelessly hooked.
My older brother had done much of the legwork for our family tree, so I harbored no hopes of discovering a secret sister or celebrity cousin. But I nonetheless became fascinated by the way these newly available documents could flesh out family lore and bring my ancestors’ stories to life in three dimensions.
While I knew, for instance, that my paternal grandfather, who’d come to New York City from Latvia as a toddler, had had a sad, hardscrabble childhood, I really only grasped the vaguest outlines of the story. But I soon found myself staring at the 1900 census page for 169 Ludlow St., the tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where my grandfather’s family lived. Next to each woman’s name is recorded the number of children she had given birth to, followed by the number of living children she had. My great-grandmother Frieda Mendelsohn’s numbers—9 and 4, respectively—seemed shocking until I started looking at her neighbors. Essie Goldberg’s entries read 14 and 3. Yetta Hafter: 10 and 6. Ida Bilkers: 12 and 3. (Married at 20, Frieda’s nine children included three sets of twins, a fact that I still can’t quite fully grasp.)
The deeper I got into the paper trail, the more my family’s struggles came to life in sobering detail. I found a ledger entry from a Staten Island cemetery for the pauper’s grave where Frieda’s 8-month-old daughter Rachel was buried in December of 1899. I worked to picture the somber scene that winter day. Was my then 9-year-old grandfather there as they lowered his baby sister into the ground?
And while I think I may have been aware that my grandfather’s younger siblings, Lena and Joe, were sent to an orphanage after their mother contracted tuberculosis and eventually died, there was something startling and poignant about actually seeing my great-grandfather’s signature on their intake and discharge papers; both children were in and out of the institution—they were, heartbreakingly, listed as “inmates” in the census—for much of their short lives. I tried to imagine the ritual of goodbyes and reunions.
It soon became clear to me that genealogy is not just about losing yourself in the past. Rather, it’s about engaging yourself very powerfully with the present and the future. Becoming intimately familiar with the lives of my ancestors made me feel more anchored and centered in the here and now. I looked at my children’s faces with a newfound awareness of how they fit into a larger context. And I realized that events that had happened on the Lower East Side more than a hundred years ago— the death of an 8-month-old baby, for instance—had profoundly shaped the man my grandfather became. And that, in turn, had affected the man my father became. And so on and so on, a chain linking endlessly into the future.
I came to see what a too-perfect cliché I now embodied. My 20-something great-grandparents, a simple Latvian shoemaker and his wife, had boarded their family onto a boat in 1892 in search of a better life. Frieda Mendelsohn died at just 36, and only one of her nine children—my grandfather—lived to see 30. And here I was, with my college education and my swim club membership, sitting in an air-conditioned home, able to peruse the Internet from my phone. I had two children kept almost effortlessly healthy by the wonders of modern medicine and hygiene; I could hop in my car and be at one of the best hospitals in the world in less than 15 minutes. I could push a button and get ice from my refrigerator, or type words on a computer keyboard to make a hot meal appear at my doorstep. Now what was I complaining about again?
In their wildest dreams, Isaac and Frieda Mendelsohn couldn’t possibly have imagined the circumstances of my life. But I sense that on some level, I must represent exactly what they were after as they braved that passage across the Atlantic 122 years ago. I can only hope I do them proud.
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives with her husband and their two boys in Mount Washington. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.