family history and genealogy

Her Name Was Toibe Zelde

Harry and Tillie Kubrin

When I last wrote about my great-grandmother Tillie Kopelman, I didn’t expect to write about her again. When Harry Met Tillie included a brief sketch, mostly based on my Uncle Jay’s memories. Origins: Taube Kurdabrin documented her arrival at Ellis Island and rehashed the earlier sketch. I didn’t think I had anything more to say about Tillie. But exchanges with two fellow genealogists taught me that other discoveries awaited, even if I was oblivious to the possibilities.

This mini-saga begins with a talk my friend Ken Drabinsky gave at a meeting of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta (JHSSA). Ken’s talk was called “Genealogy: What’s the Point,” and it taught me how deep and wide the field of genealogy really is. Ken is an accomplished genealogist. I’ve barely taken the first few baby steps.

I asked a question at the talk about finding U.S. naturalization records, then followed up with an email to Ken a few days later. A lively exchange followed. Ken sent me an image of a birth certificate for Abraham Joseph Kubrin, Harry and Tillie’s second child, after my grandfather, Sam. The birth certificate drew my attention to a discrepancy I’d previously overlooked. The family remembers Abraham’s given name as Alvin, and Alvin is also the name given on his gravestone. Yet that birth certificate (and the 1920 census) list him as Abraham. But in the family, everyone called him Bumie.

Ken also sent an image from a Manhattan telephone directory, which listed a tailor named Max Kubrin. Max was Harry’s brother-in-law. He took American citizenship in 1923. I found Max’s naturalization certificate quite easily on, but I have not yet found the certificate for Harry, my great-grandfather.

Max Kubrin's Naturalization Certificate

Finally, Ken sent a variety of links to other genealogical resources, including a JewishGen KehilaLinks page called The Vasilishki Families Kopelman and Yanowski by Varda Epstein. To my astonishment, this page mentioned my family—specifically, my grandfather Sam Kubrin and his sister Ruth.

As it happened, I was already familiar with the author of the KehilaLinks post. Varda Epstein had written to my Uncle Jay from Israel, wondering if our two families might be related through the Kopelman line. I tried to contact Varda a year ago, using the P.O. box on her letter, but my letter to her came back undelivered.

Varda’s KehliaLinks post was intriguing. It mentioned a Max Kopelman, who had immigrated in 1896, settling in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, with his brother Haiman. That detail made sense—when Harry Kubrin arrived at Ellis Island in 1903, he listed Tillie’s brother Max in New Kensington as his Stateside contact.

But the post said that Max and Haiman Kopelman had a sister named Zelda, who immigrated to New York and had two children named Sam and Ruth Kubrin. These details were a bit off. My grandfather did have a sister named Ruth—but he also had four other siblings, who were not named in the post. The family lived in New Kensington and Pittsburgh, not New York. And their mother’s name was Tillie, not Zelda.

I tried to reach Varda Epstein again, this time using her Twitter account, @epavard. We later got in touch by email so we could send longer messages than Twitter would allow. By coincidence, I also spoke to my Uncle Jay that week, who reminded me that family members had also referred to Tillie as Tibbe Zelda or Tobbe Zelda. And sure enough, when I checked her burial record in the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), her name is given as Toibe Zelde.

I shared this detail with Varda, and it didn’t take us long to make the connection. Her great-grandfather, Haiman Kopelman, had a sister named Zelda. But in the family, she was also known as Tobbe Zelde. So Varda’s great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were siblings.

Tillie Kubrin's gravestoneYet as soon as we solved this mystery, we ran headlong into another. Varda asked me to send her a photo of Toibe Zelde’s gravestone, which I have thanks to JOWBR (and the ingenious sleuthing of my cousin Damon Yoches). On reading the Hebrew, Varda discovered a crucial discrepancy. Toibe Zelde’s gravestone gives her father’s name as Shmuel Eliyahu. Her brother Haiman Kopelman’s gravestone gives his father’s name as Shlomo Zalman. In Varda Epstein’s family lore, the mother of Haiman Kopelman and Toibe Zelde Kopelman had been widowed but had not remarried. So we both have some more digging to do.

Still, I’m satisfied with what I learned from Ken Drabinsky and Varda Epstein. Ken taught me that vast troves of genealogical data lie within easy reach, as long as I know where to look for them. So I definitely need to sharpen my research skills.

Ken and Varda both shined light on small details I had overlooked in the data I had already compiled. Which brings me to the great reward of family history and genealogy. This work sharpens the mind. It teaches you to challenge your own findings—because you never know what you’ll see when you take another look.

© 2015, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.


  1. Varda Epstein

    Wonderful blog post, Andy. And I’m so glad you found me.

    I should tell you that I’m convinced that the father’s name on Tillie’s grave is incorrect. My great grandfather was a “macher” in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and he was often called up for aliyahs and making donations in his parents’ names. He was also a Torah scholar, and older than Tillie. I feel sure the shul he helped found would know his father’s name, and I am also fairly certain Haiman’s and Tillie’s mother never remarried.

    I know a bit more about the story that will help explain why I think she never remarried. Let me look over my notes and get back to you on that.

  2. Andy Kubrin

    Hi Varda,
    Thanks for checking in and for supplying so much valuable information about our shared ancestors. I’m also very glad we found each other.
    It’s a curious thing indeed that the gravestones of Haiman Kopelman and Toibe Zelde name different men as fathers. I plan to do additional research. I hope to find a vital record or other source.
    Thanks again for checking in. Let’s keep in touch.

  3. Steven Solomon Urkowitz

    My son Peter connected me to this string of stories and connections. We also trace back to Volpe, the Urkowitz family. Some are in New York, some grew up in Houston where my cousin Rabbi Mark Urkowitz is still very active. Several of his kids are back in the NYC area. I’m a retired Shakespeare scholar and theater director, long associated as a student and then as a faculty member at CCNY. The beauty of the Volpe Synagogue can live on, and the nightmares of the Shoah can be incorporated into the wisdom of our lives.

    • Andy Kubrin

      Hi Steven,
      Thank you for visiting my blog. It’s fascinating that you also trace your family history to Volpe. Our family name was Kurdabrin back then. Given the size of the Volpa Jewish community, it’s almost certain that our ancestors were acquainted. Perhaps they met at shul.
      For more on Volpe and its beautiful synagogue, please visit The Wooden Synagogue at
      I was very moved by your comment that the nightmares of the Shoah can be incorporated into the wisdom of our lives. That’s so true. Indeed, the only way we can redeem our tragedies is to incorporate their deeper learning into our lives.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Susan Wildfeuer

    I got such a kick seeing my grandparents’ (excuse me, OUR grandparents) picture. I recognized them immediately.

    Thank you so much. Love, Sue

    • Andy Kubrin

      Hi Sue,
      Are you a grandchild of Harry and Tillie? Who were your parents?
      I’m a great-grandchild.
      Thanks for checking in. I’m glad you liked the post.

      • SueWildfeuer

        Sorry it took so long but ….

        My parents: David & Eva Plotkin

        • Andy Kubrin

          Hi Sue. I don’t recognize the names David and Eva Plotkin, but I’ll look into it. Thanks for getting back to me.

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