Friday, August 18, 2017

DNA Testing and My Family Tree

It's that time of year again and I just ended another whirwind of genealogy activity at the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies annual conference.  This year it was in Orlando FL. As usual, the schedule was packed with great sessions on all sorts of topics, but a highlight was a full track on the latest innovation in genealogy, using DNA to help build your tree.

You've probably seen the commercials for the DNA testing companies on TV.  "Find out where your ancestors come from", "Find your lost cousins."  Maybe you were intrigued.  (To my cousins:  If you have tested or are interested in doing so, please PM me!).  This can be really interesting but unfortunately, traditional techniques of using DNA to find relatives do not work well for Ashkenazic Jews.  It's much harder.  We are an endogamous population; everyone is related to everyone else.  Everyone who tests comes up as a match to everyone else who tests.  This problem was not addressed at the outset by the companies performing the analyses for general consumers, but with advances in analysis and the advent of two companies and many researchers that put a focus on Ashkenazi Jews, DNA analysis has been added to our toolbox.

I have been trying to incorporate DNA results into my research.  It can be especially useful where traditional document based research can't confirm a suspected relationship.  I have several places in my tree where everyone agrees that two branches are related but we don't know exactly how.  I have written about some, "the Other Roth Family" here, and the "Tepper Zimmerman" connection here.  My research indicates a common ancestor for these branches, or a family story says that a couple were close cousins, but there is no documentation.  That is where DNA may be able to help.

It takes a fair amount of work, and for many family members to test.  Because everyone has a 50/50 chance of inheriting any piece of DNA from either parent, after a few generations, the amount of shared DNA goes down significantly even among direct descendants.  In my family, I have almost reached the limits of reliable testing material since my missing connections are four or five generations back from me so it is important that as many of the oldest generations still alive test now so that their DNA is available for the future.  The test that I have found to be the most useful in my research is the autosomal DNA (or "Family Finder") test.  This isn't limited to only direct male line descendants (Y-DNA) and it can be more specific than MtDNA which can say that the person is in a direct maternal line, but not how far back the common ancestor is.

Over the past two years, I have been getting DNA tests from some relatives.  After the test (a quick cheek swab, no pain, no blood) either they administer the results themselves (look at matches, answer e-mails from potential matches, analyze the results etc) or I act as administrator for them.  At the conference, I  heard about how several companies now allow you to upload the results from one company to another and use their tools for analysis.  A representative from Family Tree DNA, the company I use, also told me how to group all of the kits that I administer into one private family project to streamline my analysis.  I've started that process and am looking forward to making my life easier.  When it is complete, I will also be able to invite others into the project, if I am not the administrator of their results.

I hope that with more family members testing, and more work on my part I may be able to confirm or deny some suspected relationships in my tree.  Several companies have sales on the tests going on right now so if you are interested in giving it a try, let me know.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gone too Soon: Little Esther Grosser

     Esther Grosser was the last child of my great grandparents, Elcon and Jennie Grosser.  She was born on May 2, 1909, at the family's home at 814 S. 4th St in Philadelphia [1].  She was remembered by her older sister, my grandmother, as a happy child.  By 1920, the family had moved to 344 South St, where Elcon had a retail store selling hardware items.[2]
814 S. 4th St Philadelphia, taken Nov 2015

      According to my grandmother, On October 31, 1920, Halloween, Esther was in her costume.  As it was dark, she reached to light the gas lamp, and her costume caught fire.  The death certificate says her clothing caught fire, not specifying a costume, but agreed with the gas lamp lighting.  She was burned over most of her body (flameproof childrens' clothing was not the norm at the time).  She was taken to Pennsylvania Hospital, about one mile away, where she died on November 1, 1920 [3].  She was buried at Har Nebo Cemetery in Philadelphia on November 2, 1920[4].

1. Ancestry. com, Pennsylvania Birth Records, 1908-1909 (Lehi, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2015), Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania (State). Birth certificates, 1906–1909; Box Number: 240; Certificate Number 79776. Record for Ester Grosser

2., 1910 United States Federal Census (Provo, UT, USA, Operations Inc., 2006), Database online.Year: 1910; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: T624_1387; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 48; Image: 797. Record for Colkin Grosser.  

3., Pennsylvania Death Certificates, 1906-1924 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2014),, Record for Esther Grosser.

4.  Ibid.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Phyllis Lieberman Schlesser Swern 1922-2017

Phyllis Lieberman about 1944
    Phyllis and her twin, Jerry Lieberman, were born on December 15, 1922, in Philadelphia to Nathan and Ida (Grosser) Lieberman.  Phyllis told me that she was overweight and always felt unattractive as a child.  The family moved to Trenton, NJ in about 1940. Phyllis, who had dropped out of high school, studied cosmetology and hairdressing.  The family was not a happy one, and the stress grew worse when Phyllis' twin Jerry was killed in 1943 flying for the USAAC (see post here).
    As she grew older, Phyllis learned to highlight her beauty.  In May 1944, Phyllis became engaged to David Bernard Schlesser, son of Selig and Minnie Szlesser of New York City[1].  The Szlessers had immigrated to the US from Austria in 1932[2], and David had signed up to fight for his new country in 1942 at age 20[3].  He was a private in the US Army, probably stationed at nearby Ft Dix.  When they married on September 5, 1945[4,] he had recently been mustered out of the Army and returned to Trenton.  The couple was active in social activities at the Har Sinai synagogue and in October 1948, just before the birth of their son, David purchased a delicatessen at 64 Market Street in Trenton [5]. The marriage only lasted a few years, part of which the couple spent living in the Lieberman home.  By March of 1949, David posted a notice in the newspaper disavowing any debts not contracted by himself[6].  David moved to Miami, Florida, and after the divorce in March 1951[7], Phyllis officially became a single mother.
Phyllis and her son
     Phyllis wanted a more exciting life, and by 1953 she and her son had moved to Manhattan where they lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side, a block from Central Park[8]. Looking back, I suspect that the apartment was subsidized by her long time gentleman friend, although my family never said as much in my hearing. She became a dress designer.  She was always very chic. I remember frequently visiting her there as a child. She took me to lunch at elegant restaurants and ordered me my first oyster. She travelled to the Caribbean, and to Europe.  Her son soon began his education in a series of boarding schools and overnight summer camps, and Phyllis enjoyed the New York social life. By 1960 they had moved to a high rise apartment building at 3 Washington Square Village [9] and she had opened her own dress shop in Greenwich Village.  She designed and made all of the clothes, often using hand painted fabrics made by other artists in the Village.  The clothes were popular, but she was not a good business person, and the store closed, despite contributions from various family members who tried to keep it afloat.  Despite her financial troubles, Phyllis was always generous.  She always had a gift for me, even if I now realize that she was often re-gifting something that had been bought for her.  Sometimes the gifts were not perfectly appropriate.  I remember after a trip to Switzerland and France, she brought my six year old brother some skis, and she brought eight-year-old me a french string bikini.  I loved it, but the rulers of the Jewish Community Center swimming pool decreed that I could not wear it to swim there.
Phyllis in India
    Meanwhile, like many people in Greenwich Village and elsewhere, by the mid-sixties Phyllis had become interested in Eastern religions, and she embraced the idea of shedding worldly goods and living a simpler life.  She moved back to Trenton for a while, and in 1967 briefly married Marvin Swern[10], a widower from a prominent Trenton family who was also going through some difficult times.  They were divorced in 1973[11], although they had separated before that time.  She then went to to India in the mid 70s to study with her guru.
    Although I would see her often at family gatherings in Philadelphia or in Florida over the next decade, I was too involved in making my own life to be aware of hers.  I'm not sure where she was living or what she was doing.  Sometime after her son married and had sons of his own in the mid 1970s, she moved to Portland Oregon to be near his family. In her mid sixties, she decided to take advantage of a program for seniors and continue her education.  She got a GED, and then went on to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine art.
     Phyllis finally moved into a senior citizen apartment building on Northrup Ave in Portland and lived there until the end of her life.  She had a small but nice upper floor apartment with a spectacular view of the city.  She continued to use her designing and sewing talents, making items to sell at crafts fairs for some years, and then in the last few years, making hats for a local charity.  When I visited her last year, her apartment was filled with boxes of fabrics and her dining table was shared with a cutting mat and sewing items.  She was very independent, continuing to drive her car and running her own errands.  Her son and grandchildren were the focus of her life.  In December 2016 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She refused treatment, staying in her apartment and continuing to be independent as long as she could.  She died on March 2, 2017.

1.   Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ. Sunday May 14, 1944. p.10 "Society: Number of Engagements, Miss Phyllis Lieberman" database on line.
2., New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc. 2006),, database online.  Record a SS Alfred Bain from Hamburg.
3., U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death file, 1850-2010 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2011), Record for David Schlesser.
4. Trenton, Mercer, New Jersey Marriage Certificate:  David Bernard Schlesser and Phyllis Lieberman 5 September, 1945. original document. Papers of Phyllis L. Swern.
5.  Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ. Sunday October 10, 1948. p.16.  "Delicatessen Store Changes Ownership" database on line.
6. Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ. Thursday March 3,1949 p.35.  "Personals" database on line.
7., Florida Divorce Index, 1927-2001 (Provo, UT, USA.The Generations Network, Inc., 2005),
8., U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2011),, Record for Phyllis Schlesser.
9., U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2011),, Record for Phyllis Schlesser.
10.  Kettubah between Marvin Swern and Phyllis Lieberman Schlesser, Dec 23, 1967., Dec 23, 1967, Phyllis Swern papers; privately held by Phyllis Swern, Portland OR, 2017
11. Divorce of Phyllis Swern and Marvin Swern June 1973., Papers of Phyllis Swern; privately held by Phyllis Swern, Portland OR, 2017.