Families grow in many different ways — through marriage, birth, adoption — and increasingly, through long hours spent on Ancestry. com.
Donna Feigenbaum of Glen Rock began this year with a small extended family. Now, thanks to the efforts of second cousin Shelley Harrison — whom she’d never heard of before — she starts the new year with a host of new cousins.
The story began with Elias Lamansky and his wife, Fannie, who came to the United States from that area in Eastern Europe alternately attached to Russia and Poland that now is firmly part of Poland.
“When the Lamansky family came over on the ship, they were garment people, and people from eastern Europe knew that Paterson was the place to go,” Donna said. “Paterson became the base for the Lamanskys. We even have a picture of their house.”
Donna — a former teacher and event planner, who now spends most of her time doing volunteer work — grew up in Fair Lawn and raised her family in Glen Rock. She has two children, Randi Marshall, whose family lives in Queens, and Lee, who lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area.
Elias and Fannie Lamansky had six children. Mollie, the oldest, married Abe Bogart; Alvin Bogart, Donna’s father, was their son. Isadore, the youngest, married Maude Ruth Shelley; their daughter, Dorothy Shelley Lamansky, was Shelley’s mother. Maude Ruth was Catholic, and so is that branch of the family.
“I knew my grandparents had siblings, and I knew some of the people in my father’s generation,” Donna said. “My mother was an only child, and my father had one sister, who had three kids.”
Sadly, Donna and her sister, Karen, lost touch with that family, though she retains memories that she and Karen were “the big girl cousins” to Sandra, Janet, and Marjorie. With the recent expansion of her family, that separation has ended, and the first cousins have been reconnected.
In late August, Shelley — who lives in Garland, Texas, and has taken courses in genealogy — contacted Donna’s daughter, Randi, and presented the facts she had unearthed about the two families. Randi, a journalist for Newsday, was intrigued, her mother said. “She thought it was pretty neat.” Donna was somewhat nervous at first, but decided to “open the door.”
In fact, that door swung wide open. Not only are Donna and Shelley in almost daily contact, but they are now part of a Lamansky Facebook page that is reaching into several generations.
Some of Donna’s “new” cousins have interesting stories. One, for example, was a contestant on the Netflix show, “The American Barbecue Showdown.” “I watched it,” Donna said. “It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about barbecue.”
They also have some shared memories. “I have fond memories of Auntie Anne and Uncle Joe,” Donna said. Anne — her real name was Anna — was another one of the six Lamansky siblings. “They were vibrant and fun to be with.
“When we were little girls, Anne and Joe took us to Jones Beach. I remember digging in the sand and making stuff.”
Interestingly, all her new cousins, now spread throughout the country, have the same warm memories of that aunt and uncle. One cousin, Janna, also remembers watching Anne scratch her head. “Her hair moved,” she recalled, as Donna explained that many of the women in the family had thin hair and felt the need to wear wigs.
The week before Rosh Hashanah, Donna visited 11 gravesites in three cemeteries, following up on the research Shelley has done on Lamansky burial sites. Donna’s grandparents were buried in a cemetery in West Paterson, now Woodland Park. Eight relatives, including Fannie, are buried in Cedar Park Cemetery, where, coincidentally, Donna’s late husband, Steve, also is buried.
Shelley said she has “invested herself emotionally” in this process of discovery. She explained that she started out researching her mother’s maternal side “because of a family story that we were related to Percy Bysshe Shelley, but I didn’t find that to be true.” Nevertheless, the idea that Shelley’s family and the famous poet were somehow related persisted for years. “My mother was ill, so I did that research as a form of entertainment and bonding,” she said. “I was doing it for her.”
After that, she abandoned genealogy, “though I knew I would pick it back up. A year ago, I started researching the Lamansky side; I had no idea all these cousins were out there. I didn’t know much about my father’s relatives.
“I had an urgency to do this, though I have no idea why. I found Janet Sokoloff” — Donna’s first cousin — “a year ago, and I found many people on Facebook, genealogy sites, and obits. There was a lot of detective work, and I also bought a ‘people looker’ book” — that’s a book produced by the internet search site People Looker — “and tried to match up from all the resources information that made sense.”
Most of the people she has contacted were happy to hear from her; other were not. Some newfound cousin “shared a wealth of information,” and some of the reunions spurred by Shelley’s search literally have caused tears of joy.
Shelley always knew that some of the cousins she found would be Jewish, though, she admits, she doesn’t know much about Judaism. “I knew Paw-Paw” — her grandfather — “came from a Jewish family, but didn’t practice his religion,” she said. “Mother and her siblings were raised in the Catholic Church. I’ve told Donna that if I say something wrong, she should please be patient with me.”
Donna has taught her the word mitzvah, and adds new words as they go along. She has also explained that the Jewish New Year, unlike its secular counterpart, is not a time for carousing. “I’m learning about the Jewish part,” said Shelley, who is taking classes online and admits to being “obsessed beyond belief” with the project she has undertaken.
“I wasn’t interested in genealogy before this,” Donna said. “Not hostile, but not interested enough to pursue it. But at this time in my life, with covid, living alone, and being older, it’s been amazing. It’s wonderful for my psyche that I have people who are my cousins.”