Chaim Yerucham Kopelman was a
poor scholar in the town of
Chaim Yerucham set his eyes on the lovely Chana Sarah Janofsky, the daughter of well-to-do baker, Mordechai Shmuel, and his wife, Taibe Leah. Chaim’s only capital was his good Yiddishe Kop so he penned a scholarly letter of Torah and sent it to Mordechai Shmuel. Mordechai Shmuel was amused but impressed and consented to the alliance of the young couple.
In 1896, Chaim’s brother, Max immigrated to the States, first residing in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, a town north of Pittsburgh. This is the reason that Chaim ended up settling in that same town. I know that Max moved to
Chaim, now Haiman, came to the States through
Haiman sent the hard-earned fare that had been intended for Chana Sarah, Ellis, and Nathan, to his mother to use as Zelda’s dowry (she later immigrated to New York, married, and had two children; Ruth and Sam Kubrin). Chana Sarah was furious that Haiman had given away her fare and that of her two children, but she set her mind to the task of finding a way to reunite with her husband.
She earned her own way to the
Goldene Medina, by starting her own leather findings business and bringing
herself, now to be called Anna, and her two children, Ellis and Nathan, to
Ellis was five, and Nathan, three, in 1901, when they made their way, steerage class, by way of the Port of Baltimore, to New Kensington, Pa. Haiman went out the next day to buy the boys 50 cent wash suits made of cotton to replace the embarrassing velvet suits that made them look like "Greeners." Haiman wanted his boys to look American.
In addition to earning enough
money for three fares to
Anna forgave Haiman for the mishap with the fare and bore him four more children: Mary, Evelyn, Ethel and Margaret. Margaret had a twin brother who died the day after his birth.
A tragic death befell the family. When Mary Kopelman was 13, she died in a fire. Various relatives have different versions of this story. One cousin says that Mary and a friend were playing dress-up in the attic when a veil caught fire. Mary’s clothes came ablaze and she ran out into the street in a panic. A cousin told me that a train engineer saw her and stopped his train in hopes of assisting her, to no avail.
My mother suggests a slightly nefarious version of this family tragedy, and told me that the playmate pushed Mary into a fire. Mary’s gravestone refers to her manner of death. She is said to have perished in an, "Esh Zar." This means literally, "strange fire," but according to tradition connotes a pagan sacrifice that is not pleasing to God.
I had a friend scour the
Anna and Haiman were, by now, well and truly established in
As Anna’s business flourished, the Kopelmans bought several properties in
Anna also bought a home for her elderly parents who wished to make Aliya from Vashilishok so as to spend their final years in the
Anna and Haiman left the house
When Anna was five, her mother, Taibe Leah, took her and her younger brother, Shlomo to visit with their uncle, Rav Shmuel Salant. Rav Salant told Taibe Leah to leave Shlomo with him and that he would oversee his welfare and make a mentsch of him. After several years passed, Taibe Leah and Mordechai Shmuel decided to come to
One day, Mordechai Shmuel
decided to see how the construction of his farmhouse was coming along. He went
on foot but never arrived—Arab ruffians attacked him, beat him about the skull
and tore up his Tallis in their disappointment at not finding much cash on his
person. Mordechai Shmuel woke up three days later in a hospital in
His son Shlomo was happily ensconced in his learning and didn’t want to return with them. According to my Israeli relatives, Mordechai Shmuel ripped his clothes (Kria) and sat Shiva on Shlomo, but Shlomo’s mother, Taibe Leah sent him some money whenever she could. Many years passed and Shlomo’s father, my great great grandfather forgave his son. Today, Shlomo’s descendants number some two hundred souls.
Shlomo Yanowski at about 60
One of my Israeli cousins
remembers the visit Haiman made all the way from
When all the gifts were in the hands of their respective recipients, Haiman looked up and noticed nine-year old Leah/Danielle, the granddaughter of Anna’s brother, Shlomo. Haiman went to her, crouched down at her level, complimented her on her beauty, and then made a heartfelt apology for not knowing about her existence. Because he had not known about her, he had not brought her a gift. Haiman went straight out to find a present for her, though he had only just arrived from an arduous journey.
Danielle never forgot my
great grandfather's kindness. Years later, making her way to
The tombstones of Taibe Leah and Mordechai
Shmuel Yanovsky who are buried on the Mount of Olives in
This is a photo of
(Nachum) Shlomo Yanowski with his intended, (Chaya) Devora Schick at their
engagement party. He is dressed in Yerushalmi formal dress (in a Shtreimel
and Kapota). Devora was descended on her mother's side from the famed Salomon
clan of Safed, who remain in
One of Shlomo's sons
was killed in the Etzel bombing of the
I have a High Holiday prayer book, its cover of olive wood, and carved by blind orphans. This was brought back from Haiman’s trip to
Both Anna and Haiman took separate trips around the world, each on their own. Their large family and their business precluded their traveling together. During Anna's trip through
Haiman decided that he would pay a visit to Vashilishok to see his aging mother. In preparation for this trip, he grew a beard, so as not to shame his mother with his American, clean-shaven face. After this leg of his trip, he traveled on to
The family joke is that
exactly nine months after Haiman’s return to
Here is a photo of Haiman on camelback in front of the Sphinx of Giza. The man on the donkey is a mystery. The family was told that he was Professor Elliot, later dean or president of Harvard who had a hall named for him at that institution. I was told that he gifted my great grandfather with a complete set of Shakespeare, complete with his inscription.
Unfortunately, my contacts
with the Harvard archivists have laid this myth to rest for a variety of
reasons. His identity remains unknown to me. Haiman and this man supposedly
became quite close because they were two of only a handful of Americans stuck
Ellis was also a genius. His teachers would write a long sum on the blackboard with numbers of many digits for the students to solve. His hand would be up with the correct answer before the teacher’s chalk left the board. He was bored in school and felt he knew more than the teachers. Grandpa quit school at age thirteen. Until the end of his days, Grandpa Ellis denigrated the teaching profession. Ellis had a favorite saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach."
When I became a teacher, I always remembered this and felt a little bit guilty.
Haiman tried to find a profession for Ellis. He apprenticed him to a ritual slaughterer. This was an unfortunate decision. Ellis became sick at the sight of blood. I remember hearing this from my grandfather, though my mother and her siblings don’t remember this.
Ellis then worked in a
factory that made pots and pans. His job was to rub animal fat on the pots to
season them. These two jobs were fodder for his growing distaste for organized
religion. Ellis sneered at his father’s attempts at observing Kashrut, pointing
to the non-kosher fats being rubbed on the pots before they even entered a
Jewish kitchen. Today, living in
Ellis worked at a variety of jobs starting with a long stint at Kopelman's, the family department store, and he used his earnings to put his siblings through college. His sisters became schoolteachers, obtaining degrees at the
Ellis decided to strike out on his own and opened his own wholesale hosiery business on
Ellis lost his business in the1929 crash. He sold odd lots and men’s wear. He also bought and resold stock in stores that were going out of business. Much later, he went to work for Metropolitan Life, selling insurance. Part of his territory was on, "The Hill,” this being the famous hill of the television show, Hill Street Blues.
This was a very rough, mostly
black neighborhood, now undergoing regentrification. Grandpa liked to regale us
with tales about his customers on the Hill, for example, the two brothers,
Artie and Benny Fischel. And there was also a gem of a story about the twin
daughters of one of his black customers, who were named Orangeade and
Marmalade. The children of Ellis' black customers were wont to call Ellis
Kopelman, Mr. Coconut. One of Ellis’ customers had a child who came home with a
note from his teacher, for the purpose of collecting charity. The child’s
mother told him, “You tell that teacher to put you on the gittin’ list instead
of the givin’ list.”
Ellis liked to hold forth on a variety of subjects and had a wonderful sense of humor. Among us cousins, we used to joke that he was the true author of all the jokes in Reader’s Digest and that this was his main and secret source of income.
One of the stories I remember hearing from Grandpa was a word-by-word recitation of the approximately six-line conversation he had everyday with the family’s non-Jewish servant back in Vashilishok. The conversation never varied and was the extent of the Russian that Ellis managed to pick up. He would come home from school and she would ask him, “How was your day, today?”
He would answer, “Very well, thank you, and yours?”
She would respond, “Also
good, would you like some milk and cookies?”
I can’t remember the exact wording, but he would relish the retelling of this story, speaking the conversational lines in Russian. Grandpa seemed to always have just a hint of a mirthful smile on his face as he held forth. Grandpa liked an audience and would always pepper his speech with, “Y’hear, y’hear?” to make sure his audience was paying attention.
Some of Grandpa’s jokes were seasonal. Every Pesach Seder we dreaded hearing him joke about, “Charoses of the liver.”
When my grandfather was nine he developed a cataract in one eye. Anna took Ellis to the best eye surgeon in
Ellis married Elizabeth Shaffer, the only one of my grandparents who was American born, having been born in
For some reason, both Ellis and Nathan had inserted into their English names the middle initial: A. Nathan told people that his initial stood for Austin, possibly after a popular car of long ago, but Ellis would get a sly grin when asked about the, ‘A,' and say that it stood for, ‘Action.’
Nathan graduated from
I credit my success in my research to Uncle Nathan. On one of my trips back home to
More than one hundred years after Anna came to
I got a chill when I realized that my uncle had chosen Cope, Dan had chosen Elman and together these surnames spell the original surname of Kopelman. The family historian of Dan Elman's Grodno clan, Syvia Epstein, kindly shared information and the photo here of the Fargo, North Dakota Kopelman building, funded by her late mother through the life insurance policy of her husband. The building is an historic landmark.
My mother always said that
anyone with the name Kopelman must be a relative. After reading the book, There
Once Was a World, by Professor Yaffa Eliach, I penned a note to the author,
asking if the Kopelmans in her book might be relatives. I was pleasantly
surprised to receive a phone call from Professor Eliach who told me that my
mother is indeed correct. All the Kopelmans from
Professor Eliach further told
me that prior to immigration to
I mentioned to one of the Grodno Kopelman clan that I had written to her cousin Jeff. She answered, “Oh, you mean Yerucham?”
I was excited to learn from Leah Luczak, nee Kopelman, that all the men in her family had this Hebrew name, including the patriarch: Jacob Kopelman.
My great grandfather’s name was Chaim Yerucham and I had found these two names separately and in tandem among the ALD census listings for Kopelman. Yerucham is not a very common name and it is my belief that this shared name is a possible proof of a relationship between the Vasilishki and Grodno Kopelman clans.
Surprisingly, one branch of
Kopelmans refuses to countenance the possibility that the Kopelmans of
Vasilishki are related to one another. This branch has members of the clan in
In the ALD, one can find 120 Kopelmans listed on the 1858 census, from around 20 families. One of my twin aunts has the unusual Yiddish name of Faila. I found two Failas listed on the census and asked Professor Gerald Esterson about the origins of this name. He is an expert on given names and has created an online searchable database of given names. Jerry had never heard of this name before!
After some sleuthing, it turns out that Faila is a match to my aunt’s English name, Violet, having the same meaning and originating from the German word; Veil. While the name does appear in some Polish Jewish trees as Fela, the name is quite rare and seems only to be found in the Kopelman tree in its more Germanic form. Perhaps this is a throwback to my newfound German heritage.At any rate, my Aunt Vi inherited her father Ellis’ sense of humor. She once asked my grandmother why she saddled her with such an odd and un-Jewish name.
An abbreviated family tree
Taibe Leah – d.1919,
Shmuel Salant 1816 - 1909
Mordechai Shmuel Yanovsky – d.1911
7 children, including Nachum (Shlomo) Yanowski b.1872 – d.1944
m Chaya (Devora) Schick b.1873 – d.1956
and Chana Sora (Anna) Janofsky b.1877 – d.1939
m. Chaim Yerucham Kopelman b.1871 – d.1952,
great grandparents of the author
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