The Israel Cantor Family Society (ICFS) is one of the oldest landsmonschaften (Jewish family or town groups) in the United States. Founded in New York in 1913, it provides its members with a sense of history, lively meetings and events, and two cemeteries. With nearly 90 members, the Society continues to thrive in the 21st Century.
The following history was written by AJ Cohn and presented to the Society in the winter of 1938:
As prepared from information furnished by Shifra Cohn and our late beloved William Cantor. This narrative was read on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of The Israel Cantor Family Society, February 25, 1938.
Our story starts in the tiny village of Rudna in the city of Minsk, Russia.
Feivel Kantrowitz was born there in 1778. He was a flour miller by occupation, a man of very moderate means who raised a family of seven children — five sons and two daughters. He died in 1874, at the age of 96, and lies buried in Kamin, a suburb of Rudna.
His oldest son was Yechiel Michel Kantrowitz (The privilege of membership in our society is extended in a direct line to his descendants), who was born in Rudna in 1805. If it will be of any help in picturing to you the historical background of the times, it may be pointed out that when Napoleon entered Russia, Yechiel was seven years of age. He married at 20 Nachama Levine of Koidenov, and led the prosaic life of a small town merchant, conducting his own small liquor business. A disciple of King Solomon, it was his lot to be married five times. These many unions blessed him with a total of five daughters and seven sons. So that the record may be complete, we must mention that at 75 years, he was the proud father of a new born son. He lived to the ripe old age of 103 passing away peacefully in 1908, finding his final resting place in Ivenitz, Minsk.
As a commentary upon life as it was lived by Yechiel Michel Kantrowitz, it is worth noting that under the rule of Czar Nicholas the 1st, Jews were not considered sufficiently trustworthy to permit their service in the army. For some reason the law was later changed to include Jews.
Unaccustomed to the rigors of army life, many Jews fled home. To circumvent this, the government forced army service upon one member in every family, beginning practically at infancy. As a result of this, one brother, Leba, was taken from his family at the age of nine and put through rigorous training for army life.
Yechiel Michel’s children were as follows:
Yushkeh — Killed in the Polish wars at the age of 50.
Mashkeh — Steel merchant died at the age of 75.
Leba — Died at the age of 85.
Shinmeh, Etta, Sonya, Shiffra and Gutteh.
Chaim — Died in this country at the age of 42.
Feivel (Philip) — One of our founders, died at the age of 52.
Schmerel — One of our founders, died at the age of 75.
His wife (now an honorary member) and his children (five daughters and three sons) are members.
And Israel Aaron.
Israel Aaron Kantrowitz, the oldest son of Yechiel Michel, the founder of the Israel Cantor Family Society, was born in 1830 in Rudna, Minsk. He received the usual Hebrew education and when he arrived at marriageable age, he sought the hand of a daughter of a well known rabbi.
As the son of a business man, he did not need nor seek a dowry. Contrary to the custom of the time, he actually had a choice in selecting his spouse. At the age of 18 he was married in Yusda to Runya Rosofsky, daughter of the local rabbi.
The business of getting married was considerably different then, than it is today. After the religious ritual was consummated, three wagonloads of food were brought by the father of the groom for the festivities. For two weeks there was constant feasting in the town. The entire population was invited to participate because almost everyone was related to everyone else.
The first seven years of his married life, he resided with his wife and growing brood at the home of his father.
Later his father aided him in the purchase of a Kretchma (a tavern) in Lovistch. This was in the nature of a concession on the estate of Count Ravutsky. He became fairly well established and enlarged his activities by the purchase of a farm. Turning his tavern interests over to his younger brother, Leba, he moved his family to the farm and for many years lived the life of a gentleman farmer.
He sold out and purchased another farm 30 miles away and for three years misfortune followed misfortune. It seems that one of the dogs on his premises went mad and infected most of his livestock thereby impoverishing him. These misfortunes had a disastrous effect upon the health of his wife and at the youthful age of 39 Runya Rosofsky Kantrowitz passed away and was buried at Yusda. Widowed at 37 with a brood of eight children, he had no choice but to follow the tenets of Israel, “that it is not good to be alone.”
He remarried at the age of 38 to Riva Moskowitz, age 20 of Mir, by whom he had eleven children making a total of nineteen — thirteen sons and six daughters. Of these the following fourteen survived the rigors of the old country and came over to the new: Rucheh, Shifra, Nachama, Leah, Shlameh, Fayeh, William, Saul, Sadie, Sam, Bennie, Morris, Eddie and Mollie.
All of the children of Israel Aaron were members of the society and practically all of their descendants are at this time maintaining membership.
The lot of the Jew, never and easy one, was becoming more and more unbearable, particularly the Russian Jew. Just before the turn of the century, a ray of hope appeared on the horizon. News from the West, America, the land of freedom, of opportunity, was beckoning as never before. Here one could start life anew, unfettered by the limitations and persecutions of the old world.
So the trek westward started. First of our family to set foot on American soil was Rucheh, the eldest daughter of Israel Aaron who arrived in 1887 and settled in Lafayette, Indiana. She was followed ten years later in 1897 by William. Upon his arrival William took steps to Americanize the family name, changing it officially to Cantor.
In 1900 Israel Aaron arrived together with the unmarried members of his brood. Within a few years the entire family migrated and were settled in New York City.
Arrived in a strange land, with a strange tongue and strange customs we naturally settled among folk of our own kind.
Clannishness was a necessity for self preservation. More than that, one even sought the particular circles of one’s hometowners. Societies were formed coordinating the social activities of “landslite.” So that Minsker and Usdor and Pinsker, etc., became subdivisions of the strata of Jewish life in this country.
Israel Aaron, looking to the future, saw in all this, the possible disintegration of the family. Having weathered so many storms he was worried for its unity. With the ambition to co-ordinate his family as a driving force he set about planning the foundation of a family society.
As early as 1905 an attempt was made to form a co-operative organization with financial ambitions. A fund was collected. However, the panic of 1907 put an end to this dream. In 1913 the brain-child of Israel Aaron was again brought to life. This time with the one thought in mind, that it serve as the nucleus for family unity.
First official steps to organize were taken on the occasion of the birth of Herbert Cantor, son of one of our founders, Solomon Cantor. This time it “took.” And what we celebrate so proudly tonight (the occasion of our twenty-fifth anniversary) is proof of its solidity.
The saddest blow to the society was the death on November 24, 1916, of our beloved founder, Israel Aaron Cantor. In his 86th year he passed away peacefully at his home in the Bronx. Mentally alert to the end, he passed his later years in peace and comfort, due to the constant ministrations of his devoted wife Riva. As in life she followed him in death May 26, 1924, in her seventy-second year.
At the time of his death the New York City dailies made considerable mention of the wholesome life he had led and noted that he was the proud possessor of 46 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
All of which, we hope, answers the question — “Who are these Cantors?”