© 2019 by Rabbi Rachel Bearman.

  • Rachel K Bearman

Dear Theobold


Dear Theobold,

I wonder sometimes what you would think if you knew that your life and the lives of your wives and children have been a lasting source of fascination for me. The first piece of our family's history that I collected was the obituary of your first wife, Julia.


I found this announcement while doing research for a class in the American Jewish Archives. One day, on a whim, I went to the card catalogue to look for “Folz” and that’s when I found you. Finding that short obituary made you real to me and sparked years of research on all sides of our family tree.

I’m so sorry- I’ve just realized that while I’ve been referring to “our family tree” in my letter, I haven’t actually introduced myself. Let me do that now. Your son, Abraham married Matilda (Tillie) Frank. Their son, Montefiore married Helen Stern, and Monte and Helen’s daughter, Dorothy, married Leo Bearman Sr. Dorothy and Leo’s eldest child, Leo Jr. married Joy Magdovitz. Leo Jr. and Joy are my grandparents. To put it more simply, you're my grandfather’s great- great- grandfather which makes you my four times great- grandfather.

I wonder if it would surprise you to know that more than one hundred and sixty years after you came to Memphis, your family is still living in that city. In fact, your great- great grandson and one of your great- great- great grandsons work less than a mile from where you and your family lived in the 1860’s. I hope that you would be happy to know that your family is still an active part of the Jewish congregation that you helped to found in Memphis, and that the yad that you donated is displayed in the lobby of the synagogue. I bet that you would have a hard time understanding that the small congregation you served is now one of the largest in the country.

As I said before, I have done a lot of research on your life. I’ve found the record of your marriage to your second wife (and my four times great- grandmother), Sarah,


and the naturalization papers that you filed when you declared your intent to become an American citizen. I’ve found you in census records and in Memphis directories and newspapers. I’ve even found you in the archival collections of Temple Israel!


I know that your life was not always easy. I know that you lost your first wife, Julia, only a few years after you came to this country. I know that when you declared bankruptcy in 1868, you were responsible for providing for seven children. I know that you and your family lived through four of Memphis’ Yellow Fever epidemics- when more than 8,000 people were infected and almost 3,000 died. And, Theobold, I know that you died in Kentucky in 1878 from the same disease, during the worst Yellow Fever epidemic in Memphis’ history.

Even though I have learned so much about you, there are still so many pieces of the puzzle that I haven’t found yet and that I might never be able to find. You and Julia both came from Germany. Did you live in the same town? How did you meet? What was your courtship like? I have to admit that I’m assuming you met in Germany rather than in America. But, because I haven’t been able to find Julia on a ship manifest, I’m not really sure if she came to America as a single or married woman. And, Theobold, I’m so curious about your decision to settle in the American South! Did you have family there already or were you the first to leave Germany for the promise of a new life? What was it like to be a Jewish German immigrant in Memphis in the 1850’s? I can’t imagine that was easy for either you or Julia. I know that Julia died on July 14, 1855. Her obituary mentions that she left behind three young children. I have only been able to find records for two of these children, Simon and Rebecca. The other child is still a mystery to me.

I wonder about your wedding to your second wife, Sarah Wolf, on August 29, 1856. I wonder where you met Sarah. At first, I imagined that you and Julia knew her before you immigrated to the US, but after I mapped everything out, the distances between the towns where you lived makes that idea seem unlikely. So, did you meet Sarah in Memphis? I think that I’ve found evidence that her father also belonged to Temple Israel. Maybe you met her at services or at some community function. I know that she was fifteen years younger than you and that she lived for twenty-four years after you passed. Before she died, she saw the birth of 11 of your grandchildren. I wonder what your relationship was like and what triumphs and struggles you saw in your 22 years of marriage.

Yikes! I’ve just realized how long this letter is. I guess that all the years that I've spent researching your life have left me with a lot of questions. I’ll finish up by saying thank you for your commitment to Judaism and to our family. Both have brought so many blessings into my life.

With love,

Your great- great- great- great- granddaughter, Rachel