Mysteries and Tragedies: Early history of the Sherman Family
by Randall Kane
Moshe Yitzhak (Moses) Sherman, my mother’s father, was born 156 years ago, in Lithuania, on April 15, 1861. Until recently we have known very little about him. All my mother ever said about him was that her Papa had a big red beard and that he was too orthodox to have his picture taken.
But our genealogical research has yielded some remarkable discoveries, and it has posed new questions, the answers to which we can only guess.
In the indexed records of the Litvak Special Interest Group, my cousin Elliot Sherman found the 1908 Revision List (Russian Census) with the family in Pasval, Lithuania. The revision lists were used in the by the Czarist government for conscription and taxation purposes in the Pale of Settlement. This one says that Moshe Yitzhak has been "missing since 1882" - the year he and his first wife Yenta Riva (Bass) were married.
My grandfather arrives in this country on May 15, 1890.There are no 1890 U.S. census records available, as most of them were destroyed in a fire. However on June 15, 1891, the year his wife arrives, he goes to the U.S. District Court in Boston to state his intention to become a citizen.
The 1900 census shows Moses Sherman living at 225 Parkman St., Boston, which he owns, with Yenta Riva and several boarders.
Immigration documents can be the richest source of information. Moses Sherman’s naturalization oath gives us a snapshot of a late summer day 111 years ago:
On September 10, 1906, Moshe Yitzhak Sherman goes back to court to swear his oath of allegiance and become a citizen. He brings with him two witnesses who live at 6 Wall St., Boston: his wife's brother--or possibly nephew-- Jacob Bass, a 23-year old tinsmith (who, if I am analyzing the handwriting correctly, fills out the form), and his sister’s husband, Israel Belson, a furniture-maker, 38. Moses states that after arriving through New York, he lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts for three years, then moved to Boston. And in 1906 Israel Belson has known Moses Sherman for 12 years, since they lodged together at 14 Hale Street.
Moshe Yitzhak states he was born in "Russia, town of Bearse". Birzai, Lithuania is about a half hour from Pasval, which is where we found his family in the 1908 Russian revision list. He signs the petition in his own hand, and this one document gives more insight into his life than we have ever seen.
On the 1910 census he and Yenta Riva are living at 15 Willard St., as boarders in the home of his sister Ida Belson and her family. And with them is a daughter Fanny, aged 3.
Did my mother or her brother know that their father had an earlier family? If they did, they certainly never said anything about it.
Also on the 1910 census, living at 107 Leverett St., is Moses’ brother Joseph, with his wife and family, and with them is their mother, 82-year-old Libby Yenta (Brest) Sherman. (Also listed on the census as “Yetta”. This Yiddish name, Yenta, or sometimes Yentl or Etta, is derived from the French “Gentille”). She has to have come over quite late in life, and until we saw this record we did not know she was here. She died in 1912 at age 84. Her death certificate gives us her parents' names: Joshua and Sarah Brest, my great-great-grandparents. Elliot
and I visited her in West Roxbury, and said Kaddish. My mother is named after her; her Jewish name was Libby Yenta. And we have no idea if she or her brother even knew that their grandmother was here.
On November 19, 1917 Moses loses Yenta Riva, his first wife. Her death record gives the cause as a probable heart attack. If Evelyn or Danny had ever visited their father in Agudas Achim cemetery in Woburn, they would have seen Yenta Riva Sherman’s grave right next to his.
So the 1920 census shows him as a widower at age 60, living again with his sister Ida and her family. In 1921 he marries my grandmother, Rachel Leah [Lillian] (Lebowich) Abrams, a divorcée with 3 daughters, Anne, Ruth, and Dorothy. When my mother, Evelyn (Sherman) Kane, is born in 1922, her father is 61. Her brother Daniel is born in 1923. Ruth Abrams dies of an ear infection in 1929, at age 14.
On the 1930 census Moses and Lillian Sherman are living at 53 Dale Street in Roxbury with Dorothy, Evelyn, and Danny. Anne is already married.
Moshe Yitzhak dies of Leukemia on September 21, 1933. My mother is 11, and she will dread the fall season for the rest of her life.
What became of little Fanny Sherman? The 1910 census is the only evidence we have that she existed. I have thoroughly searched the Massachusetts Archives, the records online, and the cemetery where her parents are. There were terrible flu epidemics in Boston in 1917-1918. She may have passed away unreported when her mother did, a hundred years ago. Or she may have been given up for adoption. We will probably never know. But if not for this little bit of research, she and her mother might have been forgotten forever.
In Malden, Massachusetts, at 313 Lebanon St., a stone’s throw from where the I grew up, is the Hebrew Charitable Burying Ground, also known as the Maplewood Jewish Cemetery. When we were kids this cemetery was abandoned and overgrown; I doubt that any of us noticed it. But it is full, and in it are more than 1200 Jewish children, all under the age of 20, most in unmarked graves. It is now maintained by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. On my next trip to Boston I will pay a visit, and if I do not find my aunt, I can at least say Kaddish.