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September 06, 2010

What's my name?

Every family that immigrated to the United States has heard stories of how their last name changed over the years, supposedly as a result of impromptu modifications at the hands of the officers staffing Ellis Island. I've been exploring online, seeing what I could discover about my original last name; there have been numerous versions given over the years at family reunions, so it's interesting to see what's recorded in the official record, such as it is, from when my great-grandparents first arrived in the U.S.

The answers to a variety of questions, like our name, appear to have been rather elastic.

June 15, 1900, was the first time my great-grandparents participated in the U.S. Census, the enumerator visiting them at their apartment at 26 Cook Street, Brooklyn, New York. My paternal great-grandfather Max Lipsitz, 33, had been married to Sadie, 30, for nine years; they had three children: Lillie, 8, Henrietta, 6, and my grandfather Harry, 3.

1900 census detail.jpg

According to these entries in the 1900 census, Max and Sadie arrived in the United States in 1891, the same year they'd married. My great-grandfather was working as a day laborer; he'd soon be trading a shovel for needle and thread.

Ten years later, May 5, 1910, my great-grandfather Max Lipshitz was living at 213-215 Seigel Street in Brooklyn. He'd been married to my great-grandmother Sadie for 19 years; Max was 41, Sadie was 39. They had seven children living with them, although the census enumerator noted that Sadie had given birth to eight children, with all eight still alive; Lillie, born in 1893, was already out of the house, although she was back at home by the 1920 census. My grandfather Harry was just 13 years old in 1910, not quite old enough to run away and join the cavalry.

According to this census, Max and Sadie came to the United States in 1881, and Max was not a veteran of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy, nor was he deaf, dumb, or blind in both eyes.

Harry Lief circa 1914.jpg

My grandfather Harry Lief, circa 1914.

Ten years later, Max Lifshutz was living at 920 DeKalb Avenue, in Brooklyn, when the enumerator stopped by on January 9, 1920, to count up how many of my ancestors were crammed into that small apartment.

1920 Census names Max Lifshutz 1.jpg

Max was 50 years old, living with his wife and nine children (my grandfather Harry apparently between hitches in the military).

My grandfather in France during World War I. He returned home after the war and was living with his parents during the 1920 census.

Looking across the page of the census ledger to the right, I found a list of their occupations.

1920 census occupations.jpg

Max was a tailor, making men's pants; my grandfather was a clerk in a "clothing house."

According to the 1920 census, Max and Sadie came to the United States from Russia in 1892, and their three eldest children were born in Manhattan -- presumably near Hester Street -- the rest born later in Brooklyn.

Harry Lifshutz and one of his brothers at the beach, circa 1925

Harry and Shirley Lief 1928.jpg

Harry and Shirley Lief on their wedding day in 1928.

By 1930 my grandfather was married to my grandmother, living with their daughter, my father's debut still three years in the future. Herbert Hoover was president and the Depression was in its early stages, the stock market crashing just a few months earlier.

The enumerator visited my grandparents on April 10, 1930, at their apartment at 2015 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, for which they paid a monthly rent of $33.

In the intervening decade since the '20 census, my grandfather did another hitch in the Army, got out and married my grandmother in 1928. Now 33, Harry was using the last name "Lifschutz," and my grandmother, 24, had dropped her birthname "Sadie" in favor of the presumably more fashionable "Shirley." Harry was working as a "chauffeur," according to the enumerator, who clarified in the next block of the ledger that grandpa was driving a taxi. The census form also reveals that my grandparents had a radio in their apartment, although family lore says they did not yet have their own bathroom, still having to walk down the hall to share one with the neighbors.

The 1940 census isn't online yet, but I was able to track down my grandfather's draft registration card from early 1942, in the months after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

You'll notice that we've finally arrived at the last name currently used by my family: Lief. Harry and his brothers filed the paperwork to adopt "Lief" in late 1939, the government giving the okay in '40.

Grandpa is still living in Brooklyn, apparently having moved to a new apartment. On closer inspection, Harry writes that my grandmother is the person who will know how to contact him; she's living on Liberty Ave., the address Harry lined out.

Were my grandparents living apart? I've heard the marriage was often ... tumultuous, but this is a bit of unexpected news. As I recall, my grandfather was anxious and eager to enlist in the Army, my grandmother appalled that a 45-year-old father of three would volunteer and leave them behind. Perhaps this was the source of the separate living arrangement.

Draft registration back Harry Lief.jpg

Although the draft board said an approximate height was good enough, someone made sure my grandfather was given credit for that last half-inch past 5'6" that was his to claim; I may be a mere half-inch taller than him, but my grandfather towers over me in my memory. Check out those racial classifications; they provide an interesting glimpse into the nation's melting pot stock at the beginning of the 1940s.

A night out on the town for my grandparents, circa 1948. That's my grandfather seated on the left; my Dad's older sister Phyllis standing next to him, my grandmother (second from left), my late-godfather's dad, and my grandmother's sisters on the right.

So, to review:

1900 - Lipsitz
1910 - Lipshitz
1920 - Lifshutz
1930 - Lifschutz
1940 (approximately) - Lief

The flexibility in spelling was easy to explain early on, given that our family name was being translated from Russian or Yiddish, and transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet into English, meaning that the spelling was merely trying to capture the sound of the name.

Harry and Shirley Lief 1977.jpg

Harry and Shirley Lief at my bar mitzvah reception, July 1976. Harry passed away less than a year later, almost 50 years after he and my grandmother married.

What's less easy to explain are the multiple spellings in the census logs. I suppose the most likely explanation is a combination of my great-grandfather's accent and the enumerator's lack of interest in listening to thousands of immigrants explain over and over again how to spell their names.

Or, in the alternative, my great-grandfather was having them on.

The different years given for our arrival in the U.S. -- 1891, 1892, and 1881 -- are more difficult to attribute to language barriers; I have no good explanation for this, and have yet to find the passenger list for Max and Sadie's voyage from the Old World to the New.

As I look over the pages from the various census ledgers, I'm struck by the humanity of the entries, flowing strokes from a fountain pen capturing the smallest details of the daily lives of my great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents. These handwritten ledgers seem so alive, all the more so compared to the modern, sterile, computer-generated logs that will appear to be untouched by human hands when released 72 years from now.

When I look at these written entries, I feel a connection with my grandfather, the three-year-old boy; the 13-year-old youth; the 23-year-old veteran; the 33-year-old husband and father. And, although I never met him, I also feel a kinship beyond that of blood ties with his father, Max, younger in 1900 than I am today, building a family, a new life, in the bustling ferment that was turn-of-the-century Manhattan.

Posted by Mike Lief at September 6, 2010 08:31 PM


You have no idea how meaningful this was for me to read- to see- to experience. Please send me your e-mail address so that I can write to you without it being splashed over face book...

Thank you so much!!!

Your kind of long lost cousin in Israel,


Posted by: Sarah at September 7, 2010 03:08 PM

Incredibly interesting post. You are quite a researcher.

Posted by: Pete at September 7, 2010 08:22 PM

Dear Mike- I'm your cousin. We share the same great grandparents. I last saw your grandparents in 1967, when I was visiting my uncle, Bernie Weinstein, in California, for my sixteenth birthday. I was told from the time I was small that the family name back in Chernigov was Jaffe. The tale was that a friend of Max told him that Jaffe was an immigrant name and that Lifshutz (the way my Grandma Frieda spelled it in her junior high autograph book) was more American!

Posted by: Janet Schanzer at November 28, 2010 07:09 AM

Aside from Jaffe being the family name in Chernigov, Sadie's maiden name was Maransky. Maybe that will help you trace back further.

Good luck.

Cousin Janet

Posted by: Janet Schanzer at November 28, 2010 07:32 AM

Hey Mike - Janet turned me onto your site because I've been picking her brain for info on our family. I've been playing on Ancestry.com. It's no wonder I have trouble finding info due to the spelling. I've had similar issues on my mother's side.

Best to you!
Nora (Weinstein) Mullen

Posted by: Nora Mullen at November 28, 2010 01:30 PM