Our Shapiro Family


By Leonard Shapiro, Portland, Oregon, 2004

With major assistance from Ted Scheinman, Noah Shapiro, Bessie Sweet and Everett Shapiro



This story surveys our Shapiro family from the time of the prophet Ezra to the Great Grandchildren of Abraham Shapiro.  Abraham Shapiro was my Great3 Grandfather, so this survey will terminate at the level of my Grandfather and Grandmother, who were Great Grandchildren of Abraham.


Many families bear the name Shapiro.  Our family is descended from the prophet Ezra.  We possess the name Shapiro because Ezra was a scribe and the Hebrew word for scribe is sofer.  Over millennia, sofer became Shapiro.  Other Shapiro families derive their names from the Russian word safir, meaning pure, from the German town of Speyer, or from the Hebrew word sofer for a different reason than being descendants of Ezra.

How do we know that we are descended from Ezra?  Part of this story is found in the family newspaper Mishpachah, edited by Ted Scheinman in the 1950s, part was told to me by my Grandfather Harry Shapiro.  Our family emigrated from Babylonia to Spain and eventually to Amsterdam.  Two Shapiro brothers were successful meat wholesalers.  In particular, they supplied meat to Napoleon’s army.  During Napoleon’s 1812 war against Russia, one brother, Abraham, accompanied Bonaparte’s army as it rampaged across Europe, while the other remained in Amsterdam. As everyone knows, Napoleon’s drive faltered on the steppes of Russia.  But Abraham Shapiro remained in Russia.  He married a russian woman and settled there.  Meanwhile, the family of the brother in Amsterdam died out.  In 1880, an attorney wrote to Abraham’s descendants from Amsterdam saying he would come to Slutsk, near the family home, to deliver the yerusha, the inheritance, of the Amsterdam family to its Russian relatives.  The family gathered to receive what it thought would be vast riches.  They were disappointed to receive not money, but a  yichus brif”, a listing of their patrilineal descent from Ezra.  This was a valuable document because it proved our family’s yichus, in particular that we are Cohanim.  According to my Grandfather, the family was sure that the Amsterdam family’s riches had been squandered by the attorney, and he had to escape quickly.

Another, more indirect proof of our ancestry is the prevalence of the name Leonard in our family tree.  Note that Leonard is invariably the English for Eliezer, a common derivative of Ezra.

Most of our family seems to have lived in or near Kapule, near Slutsk, in the Goberne ( province ) whose capital was Minsk.

Abraham Shapiro

I know two children of Abraham.  His oldest son was Jacob Aaron Shapiro, and his next oldest son was Chaim Mofshovitch, a conundrum: why was Chaim’s last name not Shapiro?  My Aunt Julia Dessler told me this story:  Every family could exempt their oldest son from the Czar’s army.  So Abraham Shapiro found a family named Mofshovitch, with an oldest son named Chaim, who had a certificate naming Chaim as the oldest son of his family.  Abraham purchased the certificate.  Abraham’s second oldest son thus escaped the Czar’s army.  So somewhere in this world – I have no contact with them – is a family named Mofshovich, who are Shapiros.

Jacob Aaron Shapiro

I have never seen a picture of Jacob Aaron.  Jacob Aaron married Esther.   Esther is mentioned in the book “Eyes on the Goal” by Julia Dessler.  Julia tells a story about Esther’s kapote (head covering), which you can see in the picture.  Jewish married women covered their hair; nowadays they wear a wig but in those times a kapote was common.  Julia tells of her and her twin sister Rita, sneaking up on Grandma Esther in the middle of the night and pulling off her kapote to discover that she was bald, then running screaming back to their rooms.  I’ll tell another story about Esther in connection with my great grandmother Chaia Sadowski.

Jacob Aaron and Esther Shapiro had five children that I know of.  They include Henia Shapiro Ginsberg and Nechama Shapiro Marsh.  I don’t know who they married or any of their children.

A third child of Jacob Aaron and Esther is Chaia Sarah, who married Joseph Morgenstern.  I have a picture of a Mr. And Mrs. Joseph Morgenstern given to me by Bessie Sweet but they are too young to be the children of Jacob Aaron.  I will have to follow up with Bessie on this.

The fourth and fifth children of Jacob Aaron and Esther were Isaac Shapiro and Eliyahu Shapiro, the founders of two great dynasties that form the remainder of this story.  Isaac’s children settled near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Eliyahu’s children settled in California.  I know of only one occasion, when Rachel Leah visited Michle, when a member of one dynasty visited another.

Isaac Shapiro

Isaac is most commonly described as “a holy man”.  He married Devorah.  Devorah ran an inn, while Isaac studied the sacred writings of the Jewish people.  One story illustrates the aura that Isaac conveyed to everyone who met him.  Each Spring in Kapulye, a local (Christian) peasant would come to Isaac to tell him that a cow had been found on the other side of Kapule, a cow that had wandered from his Inn, and would Isaac please come to retrieve the cow.  The peasant would guide Isaac to the cow by a circuitous route, wandering over the property of every farmer in town, till the cow was found.  Then Isaac would walk the cow back to his Inn and return to his studies for another year.  Not a word was said about what was really going on, lest the local priests be insulted.  The truth was that the peasants thought so highly of this holy man that they believed his footsteps on their land would bring them a bountiful crop for the coming year.  Aunt Julia points out in her book that one year when the peasants were whipped into a frenzy, a pogrom, by their priests to kill the Jews, it was Isaac who came out of his house to calm them down.  They listened to Isaac.

Bessie Sweet told me this story: Isaac’s wife Devorah died young, when his daughter ( and my Grandmother ) Michle was only 10 years old,  Devorah was the mother of all his children.  Isaac believed that a man should be married and he married again, but that marriage was a short one.  His third and last wife was the mother-in-law of his son Joseph.

Isaac and Devorah’s children emigrated to Wisconsin, mainly to Milwaukee.  After they all emigrated, he followed them.  He moved into a small apartment next to a store run by his son Joseph and Joseph’s wife Bertha.

Whenever my grandfather mentioned Isaac’s name, he followed it with the phrase “when he came to shul, everyone stood up”.   Bessie Sweet and others tell me that when he lived in his small apartment, his main activity was to bless people who would visit him.  My mother visited him just after she married my father and she tells the story of that visit, and of being welcomed to the family and blessed by him, in an accompanying video.

I have a picture that is marked on the back as being Isaac and Devorah’s sons and being taken in 1905.  The man numbered 1 is Jacob Aryeh, 2 is Abraham Joseph, who may be the same as Joseph, and 3 is David.

Cecil was a son of Isaac and Devorah Shapiro.  He fell ill from appendicitis shortly after arriving in America and died in New York City.

David Shapiro was another son of Isaac and Devorah, who married Hanna Liebe Bronstein.  Perhaps his daughters Edith Gaines and Miriam Koosman can supply some stories about him.

Jacob Aryeh, another of Isaac and Devorah’s sons, married Peninah and had a son Albert.  Bessie pronounces his name “Yankefare” in the yiddish style, as if he were named after his grandfather Jacob Aaron.

Yechiel Shapiro married Bessie Matskevitch.  ( I don’t have a picture of Yechiel, although he is supposedly in the picture above of Isaac’s sons.)  Their children are Mollie, Edith, Arthur and Doris.

Joseph Shapiro married Bertha Gabrilovitch.  I have mentioned above their store, which apparently was a center of family life.  One of their sons was Noah, whose wedding to Sifra Krasnow is pictured here.  As you can see from reading the Mishpachah articles, we owe Noah a great debt of gratitude for all the family research he conveyed to us.  Another of Joseph’s children is Sarah, who hosted my mother on her visit to Milwaukee, and another is Leonard, whose wife Addie Arnovitz and their children Bob and Dick and wives Karen (sic) hosted us recently for a delightful lunch in Chicago.

Michle, Molly, Shapiro married Harry Shapiro.  Harry was a son of Eliyahu, Isaac’s brother.  Michle and Harry were first cousins.  They were my grandparents.  I’ll talk about them more under Eliyahu’s children.

Rachel Leah Shapiro married Joseph Sweet.  When Devorah died, Rachel Leah raised Michle, then 10, as her daughter.  They remained very close, even when Michle emigrated to California, for example, Rachel Leah had a picture of Michle as a teenager that was not in my grandparents’ belongings.  At some point, with great effort, Rachel Leah and Jacob traveled to California to visit Michle and Harry and the California relatives.  Here are pictures of Rachel Leah with Michle, Everett and Phyllis, and the twins Rita and Julia.  Rachel Leah’s children include Bessie, a great contributor to this story, and Esther, whose son Ted was the editor of the Mishpachah, another contributor to this piece.  Ted’s brother Jon and his family were dear friends of Elayne and I during our years in the midwest; we spent many precious times together.


Eliyahu Shapiro

Eliyahu Shapiro married Chaia Sadowski when Chaia was 13 years old.  Eliyahu’s mother Esther did not approve of the marriage; she thought Chaia was too frail.  After one year, when there were no children, Esther insisted that the marriage be annulled.  Eliyahu refused; he loved Chaia.  Chaia proved her mettle – she gave Eliyahu 18 children.

Eliyahu managed a large farm.  He was as worldly as Isaac was spiritual.  Isaac employed many workers on the farm.  With 18 children, and an adopted child named Server, there were many mouths to feed and both Harry and Julia told me of the huge meals that were common at Eliahu’s home.  My uncle Joseph told me that once there was an eclipse in the middle of the day.  The peasants were scared to death because it was dark in the middle of the day.  Eliahu took out an instrument to demonstrate the moon’s shadow over the sun and explained to all the children and workers what was really happening.  He was not a particularly religious man – Grandpa told me of how he enjoyed smoking even on Shabbat – but he also used to recall how Eliyahu loved to sing tunes each Shabbat.  He often sang the phrase “utzdaka uvracha vrachamim vchaim” from sim shalom. 

My grandfather told me that Eliyahu cared very much for his workers and he illustrated this by the way that Eliyahu died.  He said that a former worker had moved to a neighboring village and was accused of theivery.  It was winter but Eliyahu traveled a great distance to testify as a character witness on behalf of his former worker.  On the way back he caught a cold and died of complications.  Grandpa used to point to this picture of his mother and lament how she died alone in Russia and how sad all her children felt that they could not bring her to America.

Rachel Leah, a daughter of Eliyahu and Chaia, married Hashie Levin.  They had sons Myron and Eliyahu.  I recall hearing from Jacob Sokol that she remained in Russia, moved to Poland, and that one of her sons was a star pianist.  Jacob, Joseph and Harry Shapiro corresponded with her.

Malka Shapiro married Reuven Schmidt, nee Schumiatzer.  Their son was Allen Schmidt, who married Ella.  Allan was a doctor and served in active duty in WWII.

Rivka Shapiro married Berche Sokol, a shocet from Bialystok.  She was blond and blue eyed.  One of their sons was Jacob Sokol, who emigrated to this country.  He and his wife Shoshanah were a second family to me.  Jacob is pictured here in my grandparents’ backyard when he first came to this country.

Yankave Aaron married Mania.  Their children were Chana and Esther.

Yudel Dovid was the “black sheep” of the family, but a handsome one at that.  He was variously described as a communist or a socialist or just a humanist.  He and Minnie had a common-law relationship.

Morris married Rebekah Bauman.  Their children are Dr. Norman Shapiro (married to Frada) Lilian and Etta.

I know nothing about Sara or Noach.

I have previously mentioned the twins Julia and Rita.  Aunt Julia married David Dessler, who is described in loving terms in the accompanying video.  Julia was a large part of my and my family’s growing up.  She gave us recipes, memories, visions of the old country, and all the love we could handle.  Her sons are Alex and Norman, two wonderful people who have also added a great deal to our lives.  Julia singlehandedly raised two brilliant and successful sons who have each had a huge impact on the world. In her old age she shared her wisdom with the jewish and (mostly) with the non-jewish residents of her community, who adored her.  She taught courses in languages, chess, and poetry.

Aunt Rita married Alan (Avraham) Preston, whom we lovingly called Uncle No-Hair.  Their daugher Esther married Bud Behney, whose daughter Susan has remained close to our family.

Louis married Sophie Todresic.  They settled in Santa Rosa, where there home was a center of Shapiro family gatherings.  Louis created a miracle every time he saw one of us Shapiro children.  We usually visited him in the heat of summer.  He would reach into his pocket and pull out a cool unmelted Hershey’s chocolate bar for each of us, so he was always Uncle Chocolate to us, Lable to his peers.   Norman recalls that Lable could usually be found playing pinochle with his buddies, and the kids could always get $10 from him by kissing his bald spot.  Their sons were Marvin and Everett.

Joseph married Charlotte Raff.  Their children were Bert and Audrey.  They lived in Hillsboro.  Dr. Joe Shapiro was a dentist.  After my father died, Joe looked after me often.  It is because of him that I went to Yale, an event that changed my life for the better.

I have a wonderful picture of many of the children of Eliahu.  In the back row are Louis Shapiro, Alan Preston, Harry Shapiro, Charlotte Raff Shapiro and Joseph Shapiro.  Seated in front are the twins Julia and Rita, Molly Shapiro,  Sophie Todresic Shapiro, and Rebekah Bauman.