family history and genealogy

When Harry Met Tillie

My great-grandparents, Harry Kubrin and Tillie Kopelman

Any writer of family history will face many questions of protocol and style. The first and most basic is: Where should I begin?

It’s a complex question, and there’s no easy answer. Most writing dilemmas have been faced before, and in most cases, guidance is readily available. But just as every family is unique, so, too, is every family history. In some sense, every project is a prototype.

The answer to the question “Where should I begin?” depends on your goals and your resources. If you’re drawn by the lure of antiquity, you might want to trace as many generations as possible. It’s easy to understand this passion—there’s something inherently fascinating about the past, and the further back you go, the more this fascination grows. If you’re interested in your family pedigree and the distinction it confers, you may devote a lot of effort to this search.

The methods and resources available to you may also shape your research in this area. The farther back you go, the harder it is to find information. Immigration presents a particular challenge—vital statistics, published accounts, and other data from your ancestral lands may be hard to find, or they may be written in a language you don’t understand. If you encounter these obstacles, the search becomes more complicated. You may need some specialized techniques, like the ones described on this page about Russian genealogy. You may even need to hire a professional researcher.

My account reaches back to the time of my great-grandparents, who, along with their siblings, immigrated from Russia and Hungary. Thanks to online databases like, I picked up their historical trail at the time they reached the United States and have followed it to the present day.

I could probably trace my ancestors back to the Old Country, but that’s not my aim. My goal is to create a rich, vibrant account, with fully rendered characters. I begin four generations back because, with one notable exception—my great-great grandmother, Ida Lamaskin—this is the earliest generation to live on in memory. My mother and my uncles remember their grandparents, along with their great-aunts and great-uncles and the offspring of this first generation to live on American soil. They were a colorful bunch. Oh, god, were they colorful.

Great-grandfather Harry Kubrin, pictured above, was a tailor and itinerant peddler. A short, funny man, he had pluck and determination, which he turned to good account in the New World. He walked the streets of Pittsburgh and New York, selling sundries. He taught his grandsons Hebrew to get them ready for Bar Mitzvah. When a clutch of outsize young men appeared in his shop one day, Harry made the leviathans lie on the floor so he could more easily measure them for their suits. Widowed in his eighties, he courted and married a younger woman, enjoying a brief second round of matrimony until both families got wind of the marriage and had it annulled.

Harry’s first wife, my great-grandmother Tillie Kopelman, is remembered for her extreme dowdiness and stony disposition. With her blunt nose, massive bosom, and a coif like George Washington’s, she was, it must be admitted, an unsightly woman. God knows what Harry saw in her. God knows how he put up with her.

Tillie was a bossy meddler who hectored others into doing her bidding. She accompanied my grandparents on their honeymoon, harassing my grandmother about the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, and badgering the couple about having children. Once the children arrived, she ignored them. She evidently derived greater satisfaction from goading my grandparents than from the children their union produced. Tillie was a tummler, or someone who likes to stir the pot—not the first in our line, and certainly not the last.

Harry’s sister Sophie was a small-time grifter who staged dramatic pratfalls on trains, then browbeat the conductors who came to her aid into letting her ride for free. Tillie’s brother Nathan is remembered for a repellent personal habit, which I shall not detail here.

Harry and Tillie had six children, of which the first was my grandfather, Sam Kubrin. Sam married Rae Letwin, thereby joining the Kubrin line with the tumultuous Letwin clan. The Letwins were had a gift for uproar. But I’ll tell you more about them some other time.

© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.


  1. Caroline Pointer

    Love your style of writing.

    And? It seems Tillie wore the pants in the family? [Sorry. Couldn’t resist. ;) ]


    • Andy Kubrin

      Hi Caroline,

      Yes, by all accounts, Tillie wore the pants in the family. But Harry was a pretty funny guy, and I don’t think he was a complete pushover. Both gone before I was born, alas. I wish I’d known them.

      Thanks for visiting.


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