Family lore offers great stories‚ some are even true

Bruce Berwald (left)  and Mark Cantor. Berwald’s grandfather invented the Magic 8-Ball. Cantor’s family folklore includes a story about his great-great grandfather, who ran a speakeasy.


I should be cruising on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean right now. I am the rightful heir to a fortune worth billions of dollars.

According to family lore, my great-grandmother Pauline Rosenbloom Nissenson invented a formula for Pond’s, the cold cream manufacturer. Pauline had the résumé for it; she was originally from France and a beautician by trade. By the early 1900s, she was living in New Orleans.

I did a little checking and about 1930, Pond’s did, in fact, add some new product lines. There was a liquefying cream and some glop called Pond’s Angel Skin. Were those the result of Pauline’s alchemy? Was she paid, or did a big corporation take advantage of a helpless widow? 

Alas, there’s no definitive answer to those questions, so I guess I’ll hold off buying that mansion in Frontenac.

Such are the pitfalls of our beloved family folklore. Some stories are dubious origins and turn out to be family myths. But they are fun to discuss at holiday gatherings and pass along from generation to generation. 

Many Jewish St. Louisans have them. Over the years, Leora Spitzer has a couple of stories, perhaps true or partly true, about her ancestors.

“One was that my nana had tea with David Ben-Gurion,” said Spitzer, 23, referring to Israel‘s founder. “The other was about my great-great grandfather, who was a wheelwright. His family was indigent, and he was on a wagon, and somebody tried to steal it. So my great-great grandfather, this little Jewish man, ran down the street, pulled the thief off and punched him and got his wagon back.

“I can’t vouch for the truth of these family stories,” she said.

Nor can Mark Cantor verify the accuracy of a story of his great-great grandfather, Ben Riemer, who ran a speakeasy in the early 1900s.

“He was apparently quite a character,” said Cantor, 50. “During Prohibition, he fled to Canada, and after repeal, he came back, but there was a rumor that he had another whole family up there. My grandmother, Dorothy Riemer, told me that Ben was a bootlegger all during Prohibition and had deserted the military in the Spanish American War before that.” 

Al Snyder does have evidence that a family story about his grandfather and a future world heavyweight-boxing champion is legit.

“I confirmed with my mom that it was Sonny Liston,” said Snyder, 45. “My grandpa

described him as mean, but he didn’t talk much about it other than making the claim that Sonny Liston had worked for him cleaning cars for his company, Ace Cab. Apparently, he was partners with a man named Costello, a reputed mob boss who did jail time. This was circa-1950s.”

Folklore has been a staple of Judaism for centuries. There are stories of mythical monsters like the Golem, demonic creatures like Lilith, folk medicine, the evil eye and all kinds of other bubbe-meises. Hamantaschen is often associated with a myth. Haman never wore a three-cornered hat. (The Yiddish word tasch means pouch or pocket.)

Retelling of folklore is definitely a tradition for many families. Truth is often stranger than fiction, as the following three examples of local family folklore attest.


Faye Fay’s father, Sam Schechter, was in spy school during World War II. That’s not just folklore. Fay has a hidden talent, courtesy of her father’s skill and training that he passed along to her.

“When my father was drafted into the Army, he arrived at boot camp and the authorities asked, ‘Who knows how to type?’ My father raised his hand because he figured maybe he could get out of basic training,” said Faye, 67. “Well, he’d never typed a day in his life before that, but they believed him and they put him to work doing the camp newsletter, and he became very good at it and became a good writer. He was considered one of the smartest in the camp, so they put him to work as a trainee in spy school, and they taught him Russian and spy stuff like how to pick a lock. And when I was a little girl, he taught me how to pick a lock.”

The Magic 8-Ball inventor

Bruce Berwald is a doctor, as were his father and grandfather. His maternal grandfather, Abe Bookman, took a different career path. Bookman was an inventor and innovator.

“He invented a way to print on plastic, which was a really big deal,” said Berwald, 49. “He also invented the Magic 8-Ball.”

That’s no family myth. The National Toy Hall of Fame inducted the fortune-telling device last year and credits Abe Bookman for introducing it in 1946. Bookman eventually sold the company  and Magic 8-Ball patent in 1971 to Ideal Toys. Tyco bought the rights to the ball in 1987, and it’s now marketed by Mattel. More than 1 million of the balls continue to be sold annually.  

The creepy Ouija board

Before Betty Kagan was born, her grandparents Simon and Ruth Portnoy found themselves in a quandary, according to family folklore. It seemed that Simon was into Kabbalah and mysticism.

“He and a friend used to do the Ouija board ALL the time,” said Kagan, 67. 

Then things got weird. 

“The Ouija board spelled out the names of all these people who would pass away, and then they would pass away,” Kagan said. “So it was creepy Ouija. This went on and on and on for I don’t know how long, but my grandmother one day came in and said, ‘Simon, you have got to stop doing this, we’re losing all our friends!’ and he put the board away.”

The story didn’t end there. Betty and her brother Mike (a rabbi) heard about the mystical Ouija board for years and, about 1975, their mother, Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein, decided to pull it out of storage for a quick consultation.

“My mom has that little bit of sixth-sense stuff, she’s a little psychic, so she wanted us to work the Ouija board, because she was going into the hospital the next day,” Kagan said. “First she took us to see Woody Allen’s ‘Love and Death.’ This is the sense of humor in my family. And when we came back, she wanted to do the Ouija board.

“She started asking it questions like, ‘Am I going to meet somebody single?’ and suddenly I could feel my deceased grandfather’s presence. Tears started running down my cheeks and the Ouija board spelled out, ‘Put me back in the box,’ and that’s the last time we got it out. Now, anytime my mom talks about the Ouija board, my brother and I say no!”

Game. Set. Match.

When Peter Barg was a teenager, he was a big fan of the Marx Brothers. He watched their movies and quoted their famous lines. That’s when, at the dinner table, his grandmother casually mentioned that she hung out with Groucho and Chico Marx when she was Peter’s age.

“She was 15 and lived with her family in Manhattan Beach, in Brooklyn,” said Barg, 62. “She was a flapper and quite attractive. Her name was Frieda ‘Fritzi’ Bloomberg Levy. She would play cards with Chico and tennis with Groucho. She was playing tennis with Groucho one day when Groucho’s wife came onto the tennis court with a gun. She accused Fritzi of messing around with her husband. But they were just tennis pals, and it was innocent. They remained pals but she never played tennis with Groucho anymore. But she continued to play cards with Chico.”