Researching Mikvah Operator Gittel Natelson
My last post listed how to conduct genealogical research so I thought I would try my hand researching an actual person. I don’t have any relatives that stayed in New York after immigrating to the United States, so I chose to research a member of the Eldridge Street family. My choice: Gittel Natelson, a mikvah operator and member of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in its early days.
I looked at oral histories in the Museum’s collection for more about Gittel’s life and her connection to our historic building. I learned that Gittel was a Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side in the 1880’s. She owned a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) close to the synagogue.
I also did a quick search online by typing in her name on NYTimes.com to see if any articles would come up. The Times has catalogued their entire inventory of articles since 1851, so it can be a useful resource. By doing this, I was able to learn about Gittel buying property at 5 Allen Street, just around the corner from the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This site included the mikvah as well as facilities for ordinary bathing. The mikvah site was uncovered during renovation in the backyard of our beautiful synagogue. I also learned that Gittel’s husband Isaac was involved in the bathing house business, and owned other rental properties in the neighborhood. I found an article from 1894 detailing a real estate dispute, over a property on Ludlow Street, between Mr. Natelson and another man.
Next, I took a trip to the New York Public Library so I could use their subscription to census websites. Ancestory.com didn’t uncover much for me, but I was able to find some interesting data using another site called Heritage Quest (heritagequestonline.com). This is a website that can only be used through subscribing public and education institutions, so look for an access point near you.
My original search for Gittel Natelson didn’t return any results, so I checked for her husband Isaac. Sure enough, a census record from 1900 showed up for an Isaac Natelson living at 5 Allen Street. Unfortunately, his line was at the very bottom of the page and was badly damaged. It was difficult to decipher anything other than his country of origin (Russian-Poland) and his age of 55 years. The census records are written with the head of the household first, followed by anyone else living in that apartment, so I knew that Isaac’s family should be listed at the top of the next page. Much to my surprise, Isaac’s wife was listed next, but under the name Julia! She’s listed as coming from the same part of Europe as her husband, roughly the same age, and her occupation is listed as “home keeper”. It also shows that she is an educated woman – consistent with Gittel’s success in business in America. Here’s a picture of the Natelson census record:
I wasn’t able to find any more information on Julia Natelson. It’s very likely that “Julia” is an Americanization of Gittel’s foreign name. This is a perfect example of how information may be hiding from you in places you wouldn’t know to look! Perseverance and open eyes are important!
My next step was to look up Gittel and her business in city directories and handbooks. A couple of historic New York handbooks are online, but I wasn’t able to find any reference to the Natelson’s or their enterprises. This was disappointing and a little surprising, but you should be ready for things like this while doing research. Just like the census information – be prepared to come up empty-handed one place, and find something unexpected in another!
Resources like the National Archives website and my local municipal archive building are likely to turn up additional information about Gittel and her family. Be aware that these avenues – especially some of the information in the National Archives – may require additional time and, in some cases, money. Read back to my previous blog post to learn more about how those resources can aid in your research.
Though I only used two sources (and the oral history surrounding Gittel in the museum), I was able to uncover some significant information. I had a great time discovering more about Gittel’s life and her family. Good luck with your own research – and enjoy it!