When Noah Lapidus was in the fifth grade, his teacher asked the class to produce a family tree. Already curious about his family’s origins, the 11-year old started filling in the branches of Lapiduses and Weinsteins who were pillars of the Jewish community in his hometown of Birmingham, AL.
A decade later, Lapidus hasn’t stopped. What started as a class assignment became a hobby and then an obsession that has taken Lapidus back ten generations and to 20 shtetls in Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania. Now Lapidus, an International Affairs major and Jewish Studies minor, will take his quest to understand his and his people’s roots to the place of origin. In the fall, he plans to study at the Vilnius University, aided by a Ruderman scholarship.
“It’s been my dream since I was 12 to see where my family is from, where my people are from,” Lapidus says.
He will be taking three classes, taught in English, at Lithuania’s oldest and largest university, located in the city (known in Yiddish as Vilna) that once housed one of Europe’s most important and vibrant Jewish communities.Before World War II, 100,000 Jews lived in Vilna, almost half the city’s residents. About 95 percent of Vilna’s Jews were murdered, the same rate as in Lithuania as a whole.
During his time in Lithuania, Lapidus plans to fulfill an immediate personal goal and begin a lifelong odyssey. He intends to visit every town in which his ancestors lived, from Ilnyk Turka, Ukraine (home of Chaia Rachel Frummer) to Vaslui, Romania (home of Celia Altman). He has already mapped out the locations and connections on an Excel spreadsheet. Vilnius itself has personal meaning for Lapidus: his great-great-grandparents Henry Lapidus and Ida Riches were married there in 1891.
Beyond the personal associations, Lapidus hopes to research Jewish roots in Eastern Europe to restore their centrality in his people’s history. Lapidus notes that he is involved in many Jewish student organizations at Northeastern. “If you ask anyone in these organizations what they feel connected to as a Jew, they’ll say Israel, or maybe the Holocaust,” Lapidus explains. “The vast majority overlooks the beautiful history we had in Eastern Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I love Israel, but ask me where I’m from, it’s the Pale [of Settlement in Czarist Russia], it’s from the East.”
Lapidus adds: “We have to take that history back. We can’t let Hitler take that away from us. He took away enough.”
For Lapidus, the journey began with his immediate family. “I come from an amazing family,” he says unabashedly. Even before his fifth grade project, his family and its role in the small Birmingham Jewish community were at the center of his life. His great-grandparents had settled in Birmingham early in the 20th century and helped build the Jewish community that today numbers around 5,000 people. They owned Standard Distributors, a downtown department store, and Rogers Army Navy.
“My grandparents founded half of the Jewish institutions,” which now include four synagogues and a Jewish community center, he says. “The institutions are so strong, it really helps the community connect.”
So when the rabbi gave him the family tree assignment in his class at Jewish day school, Lapidus didn’t hesitate. Besides, whoever did the best job won a book. “I was that guy,” he says, meaning he always had to be the best.
He started by asking his father, an infectious disease doctor who studies HIV/AIDS at the University of Alabama Birmingham Medical Center. His father knew a lot so he easily filled in the grandparents and great-grandparents.
“It took a week to make a family tree,” Lapidus recalls. He won the prize book and also “realized how many people in Birmingham I was related to, how many girls I had crushes on I was related to.”
He kept asking his father for more connections. His father stopped knowing, but Lapidus kept going. “I like a feeling of family. I may not know you, but if I know where your parents come from, what shtetl they lived in, there’s an immediate connection.”
He subscribed to ancestry.com, JewishGen.org, familysearch.org, and other websites. He started posting on message boards, trying to track down distant relatives. He spent summers in the library researching deeds and obituaries. He covered his bedroom walls with portraits of his twice great-grandparents. “I was 11 years old. My sister just had her bat mitzvah. My sister’s passion in life was Justin Bieber. This was mine.”
He learned that his great-great grandfather Harry Lapidus had been born in Minsk in 1863 and immigrated to the States, settling in Bayonne, New Jersey. He had six children, including Lapidus’ great-grandfather, Irving, who moved to Birmingham. His mother’s family was from Rochester, NY. His great-great grandfather, Hyman Snider (originally Chaim Schneiderowitz) arrived from Kudirkos Naumiestis, Lithuania, in 1894.
When he turned 13, Lapidus wanted one gift for his bar mitzvah – a trip to Bayonne and Rochester to see where his great-great grandparents, all of whom came through Ellis Island between 1890 and 1905, lived and died. He got his wish. He went to Bayonne, visited his great-great grandfather’s grave and met a third cousin once removed. He also traveled to Rochester.
He wasn’t done yet. “Once I finished the American origins, I looked to the old country,” Lapidus explains. “A lot of people think that’s where it ends. But there’s nothing to stop you. There are records that go back to about 1700. As long as you have a name and the shtetl, you’re good.”
Lapidus pored through records, relying primarily on 1765 and 1784 Tax Lists of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He found five ancestors born around 1700: Todris Weinstein of Kobrin, Belarus; Isaac Avner of Suwalki, Poland; Simon Biniewicz of Seirijai, Lithuania; Baruch Frezynski of Marijampole, Lithuania; and Moses Weisbond of Ovruch, Ukraine.
The family tree grew more elaborate, adding names and places, going back three centuries. He made some interesting connections, including to Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, a fourth cousin twice removed. He learned of another connection after asking on a website for anyone who knew anything about a Harry Weinstein from Kobrin, Belarus. He heard from Ron Winston, whose family had been named Weinstein and had emigrated from Kobrin. Winston also happened to be the grandson of famed jeweler Harry Winston, who owned the Hope Diamond for a decade before donating in to the Smithsonian Institution. Spending a semester in London with Northeastern’s NUin program, Lapidus met his distant cousin at Claridges, the luxury hotel. “I was 18 years old and dining with Ron Winston at Claridges,” he says.
Lapidus isn’t close to finished with his family tree. He still searches websites and posts on message boards, he still examines censuses and other historical documents. “I do this every day before going to bed,” he says. “This is what I do. It’s the only thing that take my mind off things.”
He is sometimes embarrassed about the intensity of his passion, yet his avocation has infused his likely vocation as some kind of researcher. “It changed my whole life,” he says. “Research made me who I am.”
It led him to a co-op at the Library of Congress during the spring 2015 semester. He spent his working hours researching indigenous law and his free time exploring the library’s vast Yiddish collection in its Germanic and Slavic division (He also co-oped in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s D.C. office.) His Library of Congress experience encouraged him to pursue his interest in Yiddish history. He added a Jewish Studies minor to his International Affairs major. And he decided to study in Vilnius.
Lapidus is still figuring out the formal research he’ll do on the Jewish experience in Lithuania. He has made one firm commitment: “I am determined to remember, to preserve, and to share this seemingly lost part of our cultural and ethical heritage.”
Read the rest of the Spring 2016 Haverim Newsletter here.