I have written about my Italian heritage, my Irish, English, Scottish heritage, and now I will write about my Jewish heritage.
My great grandmother, Rosie Kaplen came from Russia probably in the late 1800’s but no later than 1902. She was a very strict Orthodox Jew.
My great grandmother, Rosie Kaplen when she was young (I love this photo):
My great grandfather, Jacob Sperber came from Austria in 1988 (which at the time was the Austro-Hungarian Empire). He was a merchant, selling vegetables from a cart. He later became a butcher and owned a meat market.
Both of my great grandparents were previously married. My great grandfather’s first wife died at the age of 33. They had three children together. I never knew any of these children.
No one knows the story of what happened to my great grandmother’s first husband, Isaac Kaplan. His name was never spoken of for some unknown reason. My great grandmother had one child with Isaac Kaplan
I don’t know the story of how my great grandparents met. My great grandmother was living in New York during her first marriage. My great grandfather was living in Massachusetts when his first wife died. After my great grandparents married, they had one child together, my grandmother.
My great grandfather, great grandmother & my grandmother when she was little:
My great grandmother & great grandfather:
My grandmother was legally blind from congenital cataracts. She had a difficult time growing up, partly because she was legally blind, and partly because she was Jewish. She went to a school that was predominantly non-Jewish and where only Catholic holidays were celebrated (which really is not that different than today in my any areas). She felt pretty excluded much of the time.
My grandmother met my grandfather, a second generation Italian, who came from a very Catholic home. They eloped in New Hampshire. After my grandparents eloped, they returned home and did not tell their families for a few weeks. My grandmother finally talked my aunt into telling her family that she eloped and married someone who was not Jewish. She was banished from the family and I believe both families did not speak to my grandparents until after my mother was born.
My mother was raised Catholic by a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Catholic father. My Jewish heritage was always confusing for me as a child. When I was little and asked what I was, I would always say Irish, Italian, and Jewish. I remember being told that I could not be Jewish if I was Catholic. I would ask my mother why I wasn’t Russian and Austrian. It was a pretty complicated thing to explain to a child.
Because I grew up in a Catholic home and a very Catholic/Protestant town, the only Jewish things I knew were “blintzes” that my mom made and “Matzoh crackers” that I ate at my grandma’s house, although I did not know the significance of the Matzoh crackers. Other than that, I learned all of my Jewish information through the movies. The first time I really felt connected to being Jewish was when I saw the movie, Fiddler on the Roof. Of course I did not grow up in a similar situation, but this was the first time I was exposed to a part of the history of the Jewish people. It was the first time I saw a Jewish wedding, learned a little about the Jewish religion, the Jewish culture, and saw a Jewish community. Of course this movie also provided me with a very narrow view of being Jewish, but that was all I had at the time.
When my grandmother’s sister and her family visited, we never talked about my family history or the Jewish religion. My cousin was always excited to visit us on Christmas day. I remember him telling me how thrilled he was to go to my mother’s house on Christmas when he was little because he did not have Christmas at his house. I also remember my mom telling me not to mention to my aunt that we were Catholic or that we went to church when she would come over for Christmas every year. My aunt always gave me 12 pencils with my name engraved on them with a $10 bill/later a $20 bill wrapped around them as a present for Christmas, but I think the Christmas tree was the dead give away that we were not being brought up in the Jewish faith.
I have always wanted to know more about my grandmother’s side of the family. Wanting to know exactly where my Jewish great-grandparents came from was the main reason I started researching my genealogy back in the 1980’s. I thought that if I knew where my great grandparents came from, perhaps then I would finally learn more about my heritage. Ironically, I have found the least information about this side of my family as I have researched my genealogy.
My grandmother knew how much I wanted to learn about her family history. She was so sweet. A couple of years before she died, she cut out and saved an article she found in the newspaper about Passover for me.
When visiting Italy, I find myself drawn as much to the Jewish history of Italy as I do to the Italian history of Italy. As I search for more answers, I continue to be fascinated and very moved by the Jewish culture, the Jewish faith, and the history of the Jewish people.