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The Way Back Machine

When people go looking to connect me to my family, I usually steer them to my mom’s side. The Kahn/Wolfson half of my family was prominent in my family’s synagogue, close with one another, and was anchored by a variety of extroverted store owners. Plus, I knew or know all of them and how we connect.

By contrast, the Goldsteins were less connected. Or, more accurately, my particular branch was less connected to the others. My paternal grandfather was one of seven, only one of which ever had much to do with him. And my Goldstein grandparents were much older—like 20 years older–than my Wolfson grandparents, so I simply don’t know and never knew where to look for any connections that might exist.

Throw in how common the name Goldstein is (more common than Whitworth by a wide margin), and that means that when someone asks me if I’m related to some other Goldstein, my usual answer is “no” or “I don’t know.”  I tell you this simply so you can understand the shock of what happened to me a few days ago. I stopped in a small clothing and uniform store to pick up pajamas for Simon and made chit-chat with the clerk.

“So,” I ask, thinking about all the family stores my grandparents and great aunts and uncles used to own, “does the Shaheen family still own this store?”

“Yes,” the rather handsome man who appeared to be in his sixties answered. “We still own it. I’m a Shaheen.” [I thought he might be when I first asked, as he looked Middle Eastern and the Shaheens are a Lebanese-American family.]

About this time I’m commenting about how nice it is that this particular family store has held on as I hand over my credit card to pay for the pajamas. And here is where my mind was blown.

“Goldstein!” he says looking down. “Are you one of the Goldsteins that used to own Goldstein Brothers around 3rd or 4th between Market and Jefferson?”

At first I had no answer. No one has ever asked me this, and I’m speechless. That store must have closed decades ago, possibly around the time I was born.

“Yes,” I finally manage. “Two of my great-uncles owned one store, and my grandfather and another uncle owned another. I’m not sure which was which, but I think they were pretty close to each other.”*

“I used to live around there,” the man explained. “And you really remind me of one of the younger brothers. It’s your eyes.”

“Aaron?” [that’s my grandfather’s name]

“No  . . . ”

“Wait, wait! Harry? [that’s what everyone called him]

“Yes, Harry! You must be one of his.”

I am. But as he died in 1981, when I was 11 and he was around 86-88 (we never knew for sure; it’s a long story), I don’t think anyone has ever made this connection. I was, and remain, very pleasantly stunned.

All of which makes me realize something about Louisville, a city I returned to eight years ago Memorial Day Weekend. Louisville can be unbearably clicky. Everyone here who’s from here looks for connections and usually goes hunting in your family tree or school history to find them. When I was younger, this was a source of misery. I wasn’t from an A-list family, and I didn’t go to the right schools. But now I don’t care about any of that, nor do most of the people asking.

I bumped into yet another cousin (on the Kahn side) yesterday while out, and she was telling me that her daughter will never, ever return to Louisville because everyone here knows you, knows people who know you, or is trying to find out who they know that knows you. “They’re all up your business; she says that’s why she’s never coming back.” I smiled and thought to myself, “But that’s half the fun of the place!” I had to leave for 18 years to understand that, but today I take great comfort in the ties that bind.

*So, a quick check with my Dad revealed that Max and Jacob Goldstein owned Goldstein Brothers, and Sidney and Harry owned Sid’s. The stores were a block apart. Amusingly, I was telling this story to my hair stylist yesterday, when his eyed widened in recognition. He remembers those stores. Darryl is around 50 and grew up in Shelby county, but his family would come to Louisville to shop and he remembers those stores. The other store he remembers? The Hub Department Store, where his family shopped all the time and where my Bubbie (the Wolfson side again) went to work after she and my Zadie sold their five-and-ten and “retired”.





One Response to “The Way Back Machine”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    We from the Wolfson-Kahn side of your family seem to be able to “retire”, but we have a much harder time to actually stop working!

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