Museum Educator Discovers Unexpected Tenement Ties
September 20, 2018

If this story inspires you to discover your own family ties,  the Tenement Museum is hosting its own genealogy program next Thursday 9/27/2018. The program will  explore the genealogical research process through the stories of New York immigrants and attendees will learn 10 essential steps for discovering your own family history. Buy tickets: UNCOVERING FAMILY HISTORIES: 10 ESSENTIAL STEPS

In the fall of 2017, just before I began work as an Educator at the Tenement Museum, my grandmother sent me her parents’ marriage certificate. By then, such gestures had become routine – she needed someone to safeguard old documents and reasoned they belonged with the only historian in the family. Over the next year, she sent me several historical gems –old photographs; a 1944 letter of recommendation allowing my grandfather to enter the Navy; his list of places served during the war; and court papers documenting the family’s name change from “Buznitsky” to “Barry.”

My great-grandparents’ marriage certificate

But the marriage certificate proved the most revelatory, containing information directly relevant to Lower East Side history and, even more astoundingly, 97 Orchard Street. My grandmother’s father, Hyman Mayo, immigrated to the United States from Kastoria (listed on the 1910 census as “Turkey [Spanish]”) in 1907. By that time, his father, Bivinisto, and two older brothers, Zachary and Jacob, had already arrived in the country, working as a dressmaker and laborers in a kettle factory, respectively. By 1910, the entire family had settled on the Lower East Side, first on Broome Street before moving, as indicated on the marriage certificate, to Allen Street. In short, my ancestors lived around the corner from 97 Orchard Street and hailed from the same town, Kastoria, as Victoria Confino, the feature subject in one of the museum’s most popular tours, ‘Meet Victoria’.

When I became an Educator at the Tenement Museum, these facts seemed a strange coincidence. But the marriage certificate reveals something more: my great-grandfather’s mother, listed as Sophie, had a Confino surname as well. Could Sophie and Victoria have been related? In fact, they were. After consulting the museum’s voluminously rich Confino family history archive – with helpful assistance from Jessica Underwood Varma, head of the museum’s costumed interpretation programs – I learned that Sophie and Victoria were cousins on opposite sides of a family drama. According to family lore, Victoria’s father, Abraham, married her mother, Rachel, only after someone left her at the altar. That someone was Semantov “Chino” Confino, Abraham’s older brother and the alleged “black sheep” of the family. Later, Chino fathered Sophie with his first wife in 1875. Thirty years later, Sophie gave birth to my great-grandfather, Hyman. From there, the family line becomes easy to trace: Hyman fathered my grandmother, Sylvia, in 1931, and Sylvia gave birth to my mother, Loren, in 1956. My sister and I entered the world in 1988 and 1983, respectively. The marriage certificate uncovered a new piece of family history: my mother, sister, and I directly descend from Sophie Confino, Victoria’s cousin, who lived in 97 Orchard. For nearly a year, I had been giving tours in one of my ancestor’s homes without knowing it. Did Sophie ever visit? If so, what did they talk about and what other residents did she see?

Back (left to right): my great-grandparents, Esther Mayo and Hyman Mayo, and Sophie Confino, my great-great grandmother. She frequently shopped on Orchard Street, stored extra food on her fire escape, regaled my grandmother with stories in Spanish, and loved jujubes. Front (left to right): Sam Mayo and Sylvia Mayo, my grandmother.

On a personal level, this discovery infused my research on the Lower East Side and work at the Tenement Museum with personal significance and highlighted the museum’s unique mission.  Discussing family history offers a different lens through which to analyze and understand history. For me, the marriage certificate raised precisely the sorts of imaginative questions that can animate tours at the museum. From a single historical document, it became possible to flesh out the daily experiences of individuals, families, and residents in a single building. Examining the lives of the Gumpertzes, Levines, Baldizzis, and others allowed me to engage audiences in the process of using the public record to capture human reality. The museum thus creates space to analyze the intersections between micro- and macro-history, how large-scale policies, cultural shifts, and social and political change impacts ordinary people and vice-a-versa. As an historian whose work tries (sometimes in vain) to balance these two perspectives, it was refreshing to continually grapple with how to best situate the museum’s widening pool of individuals and families in the times in which they lived. The museum’s programs thus raise questions about the relationship between family history and academic history and the ways in which individuals can (and maybe sometimes cannot) change the course of history and complicate historical knowledge.

By centering this type of genealogical research in its tours, the museum provides an opportunity to examine where others’ experiences converge and diverge from the families who lived at 97 Orchard. These similarities and differences – both large and small –make the Tenement Museum a fundamentally different historical experience and institution. Recently, the museum has created a program to make its focus on genealogical research more explicit. On Thursday, September 27th from 6:30-8:30 PM, “Uncovering Family History: 10 Essential Steps” will discuss the process and challenges of researching family history. Perhaps the seminar will lead you to a surprising discovery that connects to 97 Orchard or elsewhere – sometimes it only takes a marriage certificate to learn something new.

-by Barry Goldberg