my Jewish heritage

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:


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.

12 thoughts on “my Jewish heritage

  1. How fascinating and complex. Family “tree” is such an apt metaphor for tracing geneology because there are so many roots and branches that twist and cross and turn away again, in so many different directions! Yours seems especially thick and dense with interesting elements and possibilities.
    There is so much that parents don’t tell their children — either because they think it’s too complicated for the child to understand or because they, the parents, don’t want to talk about it. Or they don’t want to trigger a family feud by a kid’s chance question or comment. So I, for one, and probably other children, don’t always know a lot about family’s history. But you’ve done a remarkable job in tracing your past!
    I don’t know much about my family history, especially on my father’s side. He was born in Ireland after WWI and was told that my grandfather changed his name when he enlisted in the British Army, because the Army misspelled his name and it was easier for Grandpa to go along with the new name. But no one seems to have asked what his original surname was, and Grandpa died when I was very small, so I couldn’t ask him myself. So I’ve hit a dead end trying to find out anything about Dad’s side of the family!


  2. Sandra, There was so much that was never talked about (an ongoing theme of my family).
    I wonder if you could trace your father’s side easier through church records? Some church records kept detailed information including names of other family members who were witnesses which may help you find out your grandfather’s real name.
    I found a wealth of information through the Mormon Church – comparing birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other records. They have records from all over the world. I know it is a long shot, but there may be someone at a Mormon Church that could help you (and they don’t try to recruit you to join their church).


  3. Family secrets can be fascinating. We knew from my grandmother that her mother had been “ill” every now and then as a young woman; and had spent some time living with her parents in New York during her marriage, leaving her husband and children at home in Boston, living with her sister’s family. There were stories about staying in bed, about returning home a few weeks or months later. We pieced together various parts of the story from several relatives, and realised that she was probably suffering from post-partum depression after each pregnancy, and couldn’t care for the children.


  4. Hi this is great to read. I should be going to the kelley house for the seventh year this summeri’ll try to send photo’s.


  5. Amy, that is so fascinating how your family could piece together the clues to figure out that your great-grandmother was suffering from post-partum depression after having each child. She was very lucky to have support back then.
    Michael, hey! Great to hear from you! Lucky you to go back again this summer. I would love to get some photos. Take some of the graves if you can.


  6. girasoli, this is fascinating. Such a rich and varied family heritage you have. I have no known ancestry outside of the UK & Ireland. That has made it easy to trace our lineage quite a ways back (to the 1700s on my mom’s side) but sometimes I feel a bit envious of those with a more exotic background. (Hubby’s paternal roots are Norwegian though, so at least my daughters have something a bit more exciting!)


  7. Anne, I think everyone’s history is interesting – just different. You are lucky you have traced your roots back to the UK and Ireland. I hit dead ends on all of my Irish, English, Scottish relatives as far as the places in Ireland, England, and Scotland.


  8. Excellent post. Chris always asks why I give Jewish as my heritage and not Russian, Polish and Austrian and I tell him it’s because Jews were never allowed to truely assimilate (which is probably why we’re still around) so we became a nation within nations, with our own foods, music, dance, history, literature, etc. It became more than just a religion but really even in the Bible, I think we were a people, even before the crux of the religion was formed.
    On researching our family history – we’re able to get glimpses of stuff from the US but any time we try to cross the pond, we’re stuck – again, maybe because of that nation within a nation thing but there doesn’t seem to be much info, if any in Europe. Plus a lot of our family came from areas of shifting borders (lithuania, austria hungry, poland – so who knew who ruled at what point in time). On Chris’s side though we should be able to trace, and I hope to do that for the girls one day.
    Here though, we’ve discovered that my great-grandfather was a bigamist – two wives. And the story about a great grandmother rolling over and smothering her baby in its sleep we think has been proven true too (we found census records that mention the 6 month old but ten years later, nothing). Well, we know he lived and died.


  9. Thanks for the comment Kim. I probably would have thought if myself as being Russian and Austrian if my mom and grandma did not set me straight. Since starting my genealogy research, I have always been interested in the little stories each family has and the history of the culture and people of different lands.


  10. Hi there-
    While searching my name, “Sperber” I came upon your blog. My name is John Sperber, son of Lawrence, grandson of Martin and Victoria and greatgrandson of Jacob and Lottie (Charlotte Hurwitz?) . Martin was the brother of Henry, Helen, stepsister Edith Stoller (husband ‘Red’…they lived in Brookline in the 30s-40s) and half brother to Sally (married to John). My dad, Larry (Lawrence), remembers visiting with Sally and John and children. Larry relates that his grandfather jacob owner a grocery store in Wakefield. My grandfather Martin left home when he was 8/9 in 1908 after Jacob and Rose married, to live with deceased mother’s family (Hurwitz family) until he went to law school. I’m not sure of your name, but we appear to be relatives. Love to catch up.
    -John Sperber


  11. Hi,
    I left a long comment for you in your older blog, I did not see that you have moved.
    I am a genealogist in my family.
    Right now I am researching my husband’s Kaplan family.
    His Great Great Grandfather was ISAAC KAPLAN. He was married and later divorsed a woman who was 12 years younger than he.
    She was Pessia Kaplan according to the ship manifest of 1907.
    But she has changed her first name, because I can not find her anywhere else besides that manifest from Odessa to NYC. They had at least one child Aby I. Kaplan born most probably right on the boat to America, since his NYC birth certificate dating April 25, 1907 does not exist.
    Isaac was a professional actor from age 8 and also a playwright. His ART was the highest and most important thing in his life. He returned to Europe in around 1911 and took his 4 year old boy Aby with him. He also hid his child’s documents from his wife at the American Relief Acossiation that later caused a lot of trouble.
    It is a VERY long story. If you wish, I will tell you more. There is a great mystery about this family, I am trying to find out the truth…
    I have pictures and a lot if documents, the story is evolving very fast. If this sounds familiar—- I beg you to contact me. We are desperately searching for Aby I. Kaplan’s decedents and also his mother, what happened to her? Where was she buried? And what was her maiden name?…
    Thank you,

    Maria S. Farber


    1. Hi Maria,

      I am so sorry for the delay in replying. I am also sorry but I don’t think I can help you. The names and dates to not match my family relatives. I wish there was a possibility of us being related as it would not only help you, but help me also. Kaplan as I found out is a very popular name. I wish you luck in your pursuit.


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