Things I Never Knew about my Great-Grandma Jenny

Things I Never Knew about my Great-Grandma Jenny

30 years ago, my uncle did an 8-hour interview with my late grandmother about our family’s history.

And this morning, for some reason, I started listening to that family history for the first time. And once I started, I was mesmerized.

Some of the stories I’d heard before. Most I hadn’t. Some of them surprised me.

I knew that my great-great grandfather, Matvei, was a Cantonist, stolen away from his family when he was a boy in an attempt by the Czar to force him and all the Jews to assimilate. Matvei served in the Russian Army, under brutal conditions, for 20 years.

But I never heard that Matvei told his wife, Chana, that even though the Cantonist boys forgot almost everything they knew about living as a Jews, they tried to observe the little bits of tradition they managed to remember. Matvei told her, “We knew there was an important holiday in the spring, for example, but we didn’t remember anything about it. So one day in the spring we all fasted!”

I also had never heard that my father, Matthew, is named after Matvei.
And I am named after Matvei’s daughter, Jenny.

Jenny, like me, had more than one name.

At birth, in Russia, she was named Zinaida, or Zhenya for short.
When she came to America as a girl in the 1890s, she changed her name to Jenny.
But when she went to school, the principal wasn’t familiar with the name Jenny, and changed her name to Celia.
When Jenny finished secretarial school (she wanted to become a teacher, but couldn’t afford it) and won a prize, the principal decided that Celia was too plain a name for a prize winner. So she changed Jenny’s name to Celene Jeanette.
For the rest of her life, her parents and siblings continued to call my great-grandmother Jenny.
Everyone else called her Celia. She would sign checks with Celene J. And the name, Celia, is the name on her tombstone.

My namesake’s story reminded me a bit of my own. Immigration at a young age to a new country. The name Jenny suddenly strange on foreign tongues. But unlike my namesake, the decision to start going by the name Chana was my own decision, nobody’s else’s, to connect with my Jewish name, my spiritual essence.

Here’s another story I heard this morning for the first time.

I knew that Jenny received harsh treatment from her mother-in-law, who lived with Jenny and her husband until she died.

Jenny felt there was nothing she could do to improve her difficult situation. Her mother-in-law had to live with them. Jenny herself had a gentle, peace-loving character, so she was unable to stand up to her. And nothing her husband could say, she believed, could improve the situation.

But, my grandmother remembered:
“My mother would take my brother and me to a farm far from the city for two months every summer, in order to get away from her mother-in-law’s treatment. It was a wonderful experience for us children and for my mother as well.

“My mother was a woman of remarkable character. She was never bitter. She lived by the ideal that you accept what you cannot do anything about. But, at the same time, you have strategies to make it better for yourself. That was how she lived her whole life.”

A wise woman.

Makes me proud to be named Chana AND Jenny.


  1. Wonderful! Please share more !

  2. This really is a treasure. Thank you!

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