BALTIMORE (JTA) – It pained Don Jacobson to consider the relatives he’s never met, whose names he didn’t know and the family celebrations they could have shared all these years.
There are doubtless many relatives because Jacobson’s paternal grandfather, Harry, had 12 or 13 siblings. That translates into numerous family events missed and conversations never had.
“I understand that for some reason, someone got mad at someone and no one spoke for years, if not decades. I know you’re shocked to hear that Jews ever do that,” Jacobson, a Denver resident, said in explaining the family’s drift apart.
“Clearly, whatever falling-outs there were, were sufficiently severe that whatever contact in the family I would have hoped for — gatherings for [Jewish holidays] and weekends — did not happen.”
Jacobson, ironically, works to resolve conflicts as a mediator and a lawyer. But he had few facts to offer regarding his own family history. Jacobson knew his grandfather’s generation was raised in Riga, Latvia; some of them emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa; and one of Harry’s brothers was Julius, whose wife was Vera. Jacobson knew, too, that the couple had a son, Sol — and that Sol; his wife, Esther; their four daughters and two sons had lived in Brooklyn. At least they had lived there long ago.
As it turned out, Sol and Esther Jacobson still reside in Brooklyn.
That night, the Jacobsons of Denver and Brooklyn spoke by phone.
“It was a delightful conversation. It was great fun,” Jacobson said after talking with his father’s first cousin. “Both Sol and his wife said that I sounded like my uncle.”
That would be Sidney Jacobson, 89, the brother of Don’s late father, also named Julius, and the last remaining sibling of the five. He lives in a Florida nursing home, and Don speaks with him weekly — but he wasn’t aware that Sol and Sidney had conversed occasionally over the years. Had he known, he and Sol could have established contact long ago.
Don and Sol did converse Tuesday for 30 minutes — the first of what they agreed would be a renewed link between their branches of the family. Their conversation included the jests that come with familiarity – “You’re a rabbi? What kind of profession is that for a nice Jewish boy?” Don asked Sol. He would ask many more questions and do a lot of listening.
Sol told Don that he recalled Don’s father having settled in Texas during World War II because he was stationed in San Antonio, which is where Don was born.
Don also learned that besides his grandfather’s siblings who reached South Africa, one settled in Australia, while the descendants of another are in Toronto. One brother refused to leave Riga because he had a business, a clothing store; presumably he and his family were killed in the Holocaust. When they next speak, Don plans to ask Sol for their names. He’d like to speak with many of his other “new” cousins.
‘You’re a rabbi? What kind of profession is that for a nice Jewish boy?’
In a conversation Wednesday, Esther Jacobson said that she and her husband are glad to have reconnected with their Denver cousin, and look forward to hosting him on a future visit that will include many New York-area relatives. Beyond that, she said, she and her husband preferred not to be interviewed for this article.
For his part, Don Jacobson would like to speak to relatives to learn what traits and interests might permeate the different branches of the family, such as “who’s observant and who’s not — the stories and traditions people have,” he said. “I think that’s part of the great Jewish story. To me, finding out how things happen and when they happened is intellectually fascinating and fun.”
Gaining a fuller picture of his own family will enable Jacobson and his wife, Marla, to transmit that history to their daughter, Jennifer, and granddaughter, Julia. The couple experienced their first important family discovery in the 1990s, when they found Marla’s biological father living in Chicago; she had been adopted as a girl.
Finding Sol exceeded Don’s expectations. At best, he figured, he’d locate Sol’s children or grandchildren.
“I’m thrilled that he and his wife are alive and well,” Don said, adding that he looks forward to telling his uncle of having found Sol Jacobson. He figures that this will jog Sidney’s memory and lead to additional conversations about the family’s past.
Maybe Jacobson will even learn what that feud was all about.