This weekend I read an entire book. For pleasure. I knew I should’ve been doing other things – there are so many things I need to be doing, whether for work, school or my internship. But instead I indulged myself and read a book. Some of These Days: The Autobiography of Sophie Tucker, published in 1945 and available online. A few days earlier, I’d watched the documentary about her life by Lloyd and Susan Ecker, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, and learned not only what a larger than life character she had been, but what a smart and ahead-of-her-time networker, marketer and promoter.
And what sparked the interest? A family story that somehow she was a cousin to my great grandfather and his siblings. Our original last name was Kelmansky. Some of the other family stories I am also trying to verify had to do with my great grandfather possibly killing a Cossack; that story appears on the blog odessasecrets: the 1905 pogrom. Anyway, getting back to this one, apparently the story is that the last of the red hot mamas was a cousin. But I have no idea how — which side of her family? Which side of his?
What I’ve learned about Sophie (originally Sonya) was that her father changed his name from Kalish to Abuza en route to the US. His children’s tombstones note his Hebrew name as Zacharia Poltiel HaLevi. So we have Zacharia Poltiel Kalish for her father.
His wife, that is, Sophie’s mother, went by Jennie and Dolly, but her Yiddish name was Yacha. A number of sources I found say her maiden name was Lentz or Lenz with one noting her father’s first name as Akiba. Yet one other site called Jennie’s parents Moe and Esther Zweibelscharf, so who knows?
The Kalishes were from Tulchyn (Vinnytsia oblast).
Before my great great grandfather moved with his children to Odessa, they lived in Ladyzhyn (in Vinnytsia), the village adjacent to Tulchyn. But that doesn’t tell us how the Kalishes or Lenzes were related to the Kelmansky or Malkis families (Malkis was Nathan’s mother/my great great grandmother’s maiden name).
The only clues I could find in her autobiography were scant. Sophie Tucker mentions that when she went to New York in the fall of 1906 to make her way in show business, she did not look up her cousins in Brooklyn because she wanted to concentrate of finding work. My great grandfather Nathan arrived in the US around the time Sophie came to NY, but his older brother Yankel had already arrived several months prior.
Later on in the book, she mentions a cousin named Jessie Levy of NY who attended Sophie sister Anna’s wedding. But I’ve no Levy in my family either.
I tried looking for newspaper coverage of Anna’s 1928 wedding to see if guests were named, but haven’t been successful, and so I even wrote to the Eckers in case they still have access to the archive of address and scrap books which Sophie meticulously kept.
But that’s not all I did this weekend. I was fortunate enough to take part in an extended family Zoom call. Here, I spent time with descendants of Yankel and Nathan, some of whom I hadn’t met before. Yes, Sophie was mentioned, but only marginally.
Listening to family members share their stories about grandparents and great grandparents was wonderful for me. Watching second cousins who hadn’t met before ask each other about family members they mutually knew, pull out really old photographs of shared roots, and speak about their memories of Brooklyn brought to life for me the names I’ve gotten to know so well during the months and months I’ve been spending on our family history.
And really, whether or not Sophie Tucker was a relative, that is less important than bringing family together in the here and now.