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Finding my Family’s Roots in Jonestown

Posted on January 27th, 2020 by

A blog post by Museum Educator Marisa Shultz! To read more posts from Marisa, click here.

You may not know this about me, but I am a bit of a genealogy nerd. Whether it’s tracing the branches of my family’s tree back to the docks of Ellis Island and the battlefield of Guilford Court House, or helping a friend learn more about their family’s story, I really enjoy the ‘detective work’ of genealogy. Who would have thought that my sleuthing would lead me here, to Baltimore’s historic Jonestown neighborhood?

In March of 2018, I visited the JMM for the very first time. I had just tracked my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Simon Friedman, and his family to Jonestown through the census records. In every census record they were renting in a different home but always in or around Jonestown, living on Low, Orleans, Fayette, and Granby Streets during their time in Baltimore. I came here, honestly, hoping to get lucky. I was feeling stymied and stuck in my research, and I was hoping that I might find something on display at the JMM that would push my work forward. While I did not find the Friedmans on any of the panels, I learned a great deal about the world they lived in (and little did I know that my serendipitous trip here would lead me to apply for the Education and Programs Internship position that summer.)

So, I continued to pour over the family photographs and documents, learning more facts about the ancestors I was so desperately trying to connect with. I learned that Rabbi Friedman did not serve as a congregational leader but was a local Hebrew teacher. His two oldest children, Ida and Louis, had been born in Russia. His twin sons, Morris and Phillip were butchers, and Phillip served in the Army during WWII. My great-grandmother and youngest of the family, Bessie, eventually left Baltimore and moved to D.C. after meeting my great-grandfather.

In this photograph, Bessie Pasternak née Friedman (my great-grandmother) is seated in the first row, second from the left. She is posing with my great-grandfather’s family, many of whom were immigrants from a shtetl in Poland (but that’s another story for another time).

Recently, however, I made an incredible discovery that I had to share with all of you. As I was looking at a copy of my great-grandmother’s birth certificate, I noticed something that I had never bothered to notice before, the name of the midwife who delivered my great-grandmother. Rosa Fineberg. Her name might sound familiar to you. That’s because she’s featured in our Voices of Lombard Street exhibit.

This is a copy of my great-grandmother’s birth certificate. At the time of her birth, the Friedman family was living on Orleans Street. The document also indicates her father’s job as a reverend and that both of her parents had been born in Russia. In the bottom right-hand corner, Rosa Fineberg is listed as the medical attendant. 

Fineberg served as a midwife in Jonestown between 1890 and 1918. As the Voices exhibit explains “Every time she delivered a baby, Fineberg tied a knot in a piece of string that she wrapped into a ball as it grew. Before she died in 1926, her son unwound the ball and counted 2,000 knots.” My great-grandmother was one of those knots! In a way, the Friedmans were in the exhibit, just not where I was looking for them! While I still have so much to learn about this part of my family, this story in particular helped me realize that I am both living and working where part of my family put down its first roots in America. It makes me misty-eyed just thinking about it.

This photograph is of the Voices of Lombard Street panel dedicated to Rosa Fineberg and her business. In the case is her Midwife Certificate of Registration as well as one of her record books.

I think the other thing that I love so much about genealogical research is that it so often forges a deeply personal connection with history. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how heirlooms, family stories, photographs, and even documents can not only help us understand the past, but also profoundly connect us to the past. I’ve been working on a very exciting project that will add to our current Ida Rehr Living History Character performance. I don’t want to spoil too much about the project now because you’ll get to learn more about it in our next month’s Performance Counts newsletter. However, I will share that Ida Rehr’s story was saved because her granddaughter interviewed her for a school project, and this new project will challenge students to think about how material culture (heirlooms, documents, etc.) can help tell their families’ stories and even their own personal stories.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A-Mazing to the End

Posted on June 22nd, 2015 by

Last weekend I gave one final tour of the Mendes Cohen exhibit and the finish to our story is as bizarre and awesome as the life of Mendes himself.

Special Mendes Visitors

Some very special visitors to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen.

In our penultimate Mendes Cohen program we invited Dick Goldman, co-chair of the Jewish Genealogical Society to speak about the Cohen family tree.  Dick looked at our statement that “Israel Cohen has no known living descendants” as a challenge rather than a fact.  Using somewhat unorthodox methods he was able to uncover the fact that Alan Mordecai Cohen III was not the end of his family tree!  It seems that Mr. Cohen married a member of Hungarian royalty (surname: Buda) and in compliance with her wishes converted to Catholicism and changed his family name to Clarke.

The newly-named Clarkes raised a son and a daughter, both of whom went on to have children of their own. Alan’s daughter Bertha is still very much alive today, enjoying her eighth decade.  The man in the photo above is Bertha’s son, Ronald A. Brown.  When Dick contacted Ronald last Wednesday, he discovered that Ronald was in the process of moving from Baltimore to Gettysburg.  Dick told him that the exhibit was closing on Sunday – what a piece of timing! So it turns out that the very last visitor to the exhibit was a direct descendant of Israel Cohen, Mendes’ father.

But that isn’t the most incredible part.  The most incredible part is that Ronald’s cousin Richard Clarke and his uncle Alan Clarke formed a business called Marcor Remediation here in Baltimore in about 1980.  Here is a description of Marcor from the Baltimore Sun in 2006.  I have highlighted the part that floored me in red.

Marcor’s primary business is garden-variety asbestos removal and demolition. But in recent years, the company has been the Forrest Gump of environmental cleanup, stumbling into some of the biggest headline-grabbing disasters in recent memory.

Some people make history, and others are witness to it.

Marcor is its janitor.

The company was tearing down walls and removing asbestos in the basement of the Pentagon when terrorists struck with an airliner on Sept. 11, 2001. Days later, its crews were first on the scene at the Fresh Kills landfill in New York’s Staten Island, where hundreds of workers labored for 10 months to sift through every scrap of rubble from the World Trade Center.

During that period, they assisted contractors decontaminating the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington after a second anthrax attack forced lawmakers and staff from their offices. And with about 700 employees spread nationwide, Marcor has been on the scene after just about every major hurricane of the past two years, from Ivan and Charlie to Katrina and Rita.

It’s all in a day’s work for a company that got its first job – removing asbestos from a Baltimore County elementary school – on the day Mount St. Helens exploded in Washington state in 1980.

“It’s almost like, `What is it that needs doing that nobody else is doing?'” said Richard Clarke, who founded the company with his father, Alan Clarke. “And that’s where we want to be.”

It is the ultimate a-mazing finish to the story.  Mendes was sent into the powder magazine at Fort McHenry when America is under attack in 1814 to secure the facility from harm.  His familial descendant Richard Clarke went into the World Trade Center 187 years later to remediate the explosion when America is attacked again.  I thought that this type of coincidence only happened in the movies.

I also learned from Ronald Brown that his grandfather Alan Mordecai Cohen was 6’5” – suggesting he was a beneficiary of the same gene that produced Mendes’ impressive height.  Ronald also said that his son possessed a documented history of the Cohens that his uncle created in the 1980s.  We’re hoping to get a copy for our collection.

We hope everyone has enjoyed following along with The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and his continuing adventures as much as we have – he is certainly going to be missed here at the Museum.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

JMM Insights: November 2014

Posted on November 21st, 2014 by

This week’s edition of JMM Insights highlights the work of two of our volunteers, Martin Buckman and Vera Kestenberg, who have been diligently compiling a database of Jewish Times birth records. This important genealogical resource can be accessed from the JMM website along with other important databases such as burial listings and circumcision and midwife records.

Marty and Vera have been working on an ongoing project that lists all births that were announced in The Baltimore Jewish Times starting with the March 1928 edition. From these newborn notices, they have created a database that now contains pertinent information about more than 10,000 births. It should be noted that while this database is not a complete record of all the births that occurred within the greater Baltimore Jewish community (because not all new arrivals were routinely reported to The BJT) it is probably a good representation.

We are thrilled to report that the database has surpassed 10,000 listed births, a major accomplishment. In recognition of this important milestone, I asked Marty and Vera to share some insights that they have learned from their work on this project and here are some of their thoughts regarding the popularity of names:

Marty & Vera

Marty & Vera

Marty Buckman:

I thought it would be interesting to learn which given names were the most popular in the Baltimore Jewish community during three distinct eras: the initial period of 1928 through 1941; the World War II years of 1942 through 1945; and the post-war years from 1946 through 1954.

The ten most popular female names from the 14-year era beginning in 1928 were (in descending order) Barbara, Elaine, Phyllis, Judith, Beverly, Lois, Harriett, Marcia, Ruth and Linda. The list of favorite male names was headed by Howard, David, Stanley, Robert, Louis, Barry, Edward, Richard, Joseph, Marvin, and Stuart or Stewart. Most of the reported hospital births took place at Sinai Hospital; to a much lesser degree, Women’s Hospital, University Hospital, Church Home and West Baltimore General Hospital followed.

During the four war years 1942 through 1945, Barbara was still the leading female name but the rest of the list changed somewhat to follow with Harriet, Susan, Linda, Ellen, Judith, and Marcia or Marsha. For the males, David moved to the top of a list that was sprinkled with some newcomers- Alan, Stephen or Steven, Michael, Richard, Barry, Howard, Robert, Harvey and Ronald. The top three hospitals remained the same: Sinai, Women’s, and University followed by Franklin Square and West Baltimore General.

After World War II, from 1946 through 1954, Susan rose to the top to become the favorite female name, followed by Barbara, Judith, Linda, Deborah or Debra, Ellen, Sharon, Nancy and Carol or Carole. Male names were dominated by Stephen or Steven, followed by Mark or Marc, Alan or Allan or Allen, Michael, David, Robert, Richard, Jeffrey, and Howard. Sinai and Women’s remained the favorite hospitals, followed by West Baltimore General which became Lutheran Hospital , University and Johns Hopkins.

When we reach our 15,000th name, we will take another look at our database to see if and how preferences have changed.

Additional Comment by Vera Kestenberg:

One interesting thing to note is that many announcements do not list the mother’s name, just Mr. and Mrs. (husband’s first name followed by last name). It gives the appearance that the mothers have nothing to do with the birth!


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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