Our Anecdotal Jewishness

Dad did a family history with intent to cover his, and our mother’s ancestry.1 He wrote mostly of his memories, but hired professional genealogists to document what came before. They outright failed his father-in-law on our Scots side, understandably, for the reason that made him subject of “Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness”.2

They equally failed his paternal grandmother on our Norwegian side. Dad identified her as Berthe Mathiesen. Only dates (1860-1887) were provided for her. Perhaps the empty hand was due to deflection to a wrong target, for her actual dates were 1853-1887.1 3

Dad thought she emigrated with her husband in 1882. She detained in Norway though, due to the birth of their fifth child. 3 She, along with their three youngest, did not join him until 1886.3 The eldest two children followed in November of 1887, when they met their newborn American  brother, George.

Berith is said to have died in 1887, in Wisconsin, sometime after her son’s October birth.1 No US documents have been found for her. She is known to have been in the US only by a ship’s manifest, family lore, and George’s revealing 1900 Census at the home of  his eldest sister.3,4  

Here she is, sitting pretty in her 1865 census; Berret Has Mathisdatter.3 The stars seemed to be with us, providing this record of great disclosure: both parents, a grandparent, uncle, eight siblings, precise birth data – who could not follow this one?


She was born Berith Hass in 1853.3 Still, there had to be a more complex reason than just birth date, name variation and “disappearance” in America, for her to have been missed.

Might Dad have shared an element on which the genealogist could conclude that she had no documented path to find?


Dad’s book offered this: “family history passed on to us, indicates the Mathiesens were Jewish”.  We heard the assertion on occasion, growing up. The tidbit is tantalizing because now, we independently have Jewish descendants. This means further research will be biased toward wish for confirmation.


We had no “Mathiesen” ancestors in the search-box sense of a family name handed down over the generations. Norwegian surnames were good for one-generation only because they derived from the forename of ones’ father. So, Mathis Bentsen’s issue was Boy Mathisen or Girl Mathisdatter. Thus, Berith was of Mathis Bentsen, son of Bendigt Jonsen, son of Jon Olsen, and so on.

Then too, Judaism is an attribute acquired from one’s mother. Our anecdote had likely been heard over generations, by ears that were ignorant of the fact. But Dad did specify “daughter of the Mathiesens who were Jewish” and did not say Berith, herself, was Jewish.

We would be curious to know of Mathis’ status, which would require following his mother, Berret Andersdatter. But, Marit Jonsdatter would be our target for conveyable Jewishness. Now, she was daughter of Jon Somebodysen, whose wife was yet undiscovered.

Clearly, we could not afford to lose sight of a single generation for a given individual during the search process, in an ever changing patriarchal forename-becomes-surname dance, tethered to a matriarchal religious descent, toward an abrupt encounter with a non-conforming Jewish name, from the early 18th century.


Now Dad was a precise kind of guy. He went on to say “… the Mathiesens who had fled Alsace-Lorraine in the early 18th century and had ended up in Norway”. One had to wonder before proceeding; was the tale a tall one? Perhaps Dad held little stock in it, for he would have known that Alsace-Lorraine was a named entity, only between 1871 and 1918. France had Alsace in the early 18th century, then annexed Lorraine in 1766. The Jews of origin would have claimed either Alsace or Lorraine. The story may have been concocted or, if true, rephrased to the combination, after 1871. If so, it would have happened at the table of those in the 1865 Census.  


So, what to plug into the Alsace-Lorraine search box?  Could be Mathiesen; equally, not.  No worries, there is no such box.  Actually, FamilySearch.org, for example, does address ancestry of Alsace and Lorraine, separated for French and German.4 It is presently not digitized and more importantly, not specific to Jews of our limited time frame of interest.

The bottom line; we were not to retrieve any supportive document from Alsace or Lorraine for our Jewishness.  To hazard a guess, no one else had walked away with such evidence, either.


Just because we could not verify, did not make the assertion false. We would persevere.

A sense of Jewish presence in Norway was needed. Not to take the early 18th century dating too literally, we sought data from then, to Berith’s birth. 

While it is difficult to get a read of actual numbers of Jews in Norway for particular years or decades, the feel is that they were measured in digits, tens, or maybe low hundreds. The Norway Virtual Jewish History Tour sets today’s Jewish population at 1300 in our more tolerant time. It shows that Jews were hampered by alternating status over many centuries: “you can enter” “now you can’t”. One gets the sense of “don’t linger.”

Our fleeing Jews were to have entered in the early 1700s. That would only have been after gaining special permit from King Fredrick IV, ruler of Denmark and Norway from 1699 to 1730. He followed a banning dictum that his father, Christian V, had re-established.5 They meant business; informants were rewarded. Closer to Berith’s time, but beyond our story line entry date, Jews were banned from the inception of Norway’s Constitution in 1814, through 1851. 

Regardless of this paucity of presence, we are reminded that for our purpose, only one was needed.


The Norway registry that held the family birth information was that of Baptism.  Could that have been for “show”? Still clinging and hoping for a clue to hidden Jewishness, we eagerly looked at children’s names on the census. Perhaps Benjamin Matias Arnsberg? Benjamin worked, Arnsberg was a German city, and a third forename was unusual. 

Alas, Jews do not name for the living, so the “Matias” thing stood in the way and it was repeated in a couple of sibling names. Now, his baptismal name was nuanced from the census. It was for Benjamin Mikael Arntsberg.3  Mikael was better than Matias; perhaps a secret Jew.

Records of many countries typically sported two witnesses, usually in name only. Norway mercifully threw a party! In fact, the rich detail is a wonderful counterbalance to their search-awkward naming convention. There were many “Arne” in the community records of his ledger. Berg too, in fact, it is the second forename of our grandfather. Tollof Arntsen and Lussi Bentsdatter were two of his baptismal witnesses.3 They were easily identified as his aunt and likely namesake uncle.  

The Jewish sounding nomenclature was suddenly within Christian Norwegian norms. More and more, the tidbit seemed mere fable.


Jewish presence was so scarce in Norway that our farmer forebear of say, 1730, would have been awed to meet such unique individual. The story could rewrite to:

 “in the early 18th century, an ancestor traded with a Jew in Norway, who was fleeing persecution in Alsace or Lorraine”.

We wished to imagine Merit instructing Berith on punching down the Challah dough for “the Mathiesen’s” Friday evening table. We suspect she did not.

Not properly disproved,  the tale must live on.

NOTES AND SOURCES. Please scroll below to question, comment, like etc. 

1 The Hemmingsen Family Collection including “John O Hemmingsen / Mary Margaret Hemmingsen (Dickson)” authored 1999 by John Oliver Hemmingsen. All materials posthumously published here are copyright © Marilee Wein 2018-2019.  All rights reserved.

2 Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness. Published by Booklocker.com. Copyright © 2018 Marilee Wein.  Articles published by Double Genealogy: the Adoption Witness on this site are © 2018-2019 Marilee Wein

3 The National Archives of Norway, the Digital Archives”. https://media.digitalarkivet.no

Church book from Vefsn Parish 1851-1854, SAT/A-1459/820/L0292 (Berith: b.1853 No. 81) and 1846-1854 SAT/A-1459/820/L0291 (Benjamin b.1849 No. 80). Church book from Hatfjelldal Parish 1878-1898, SAT/A-1459/823/L0325 (Einer b.1882 p. 26/227); Norway Census 1865 Ref: RA/S-2231 of Nordland, Hatfjelldal for Mathias Bentsen; SAT, Trondheim politikammer (1) 32/L0005: Emigrantprotokoll V 23.07-25.04, 1880-1882//SAT/A-1887/1/32/L005 for Ole Hemmingsen p.205/239 in 1882 (2) 32/L0007: Emigrantprotokoll VII 03.07-22.03, 1885-1888// SAT/A-1887/1/32/L007 (2i) for Berit Mathis. with Einer, Marie and Harrold in 1886 p.78/190 (2ii) for Olsen Henrietta and Mathias in 1887 p.177/190 

4 Documents accessed at  www.FamilySearch.org © 2017 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. including US Censuses 1840-1900 from United States Archive and Record Administration (NARA) www.archives.gov Specfically, US Census 1900 for George Hemmingson b. Oct 1887 WI, for Sanborn Town ( Exc. Ashland City) Ashland, WI.

5 The Norway Virtual History Tour by Ingrid Muller. Accessed on 6Feb2019 at 5PM https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/norway-virtual-jewish-history-tour

16 thoughts on “Our Anecdotal Jewishness

  1. What a fascinating genealogical tale! We had something similar in our family because of a translated name. My maternal grandmother’s name was Kathleen Pinkman and one of her brothers had very dark coloring and hair. One thing led to another and we were secretly Jewish. Not so, alas, as I have zero Jewish DNA. Latterly we found out that the family had changed the name from Maguire to Pinkman. The English translation of the Gaelic name Maguire is ‘Ruddy Faced Man’. I guess we were hiding from the English invading force in Ireland.
    I do have some mysterious Scandinavian DNA so I would be delighted to trade my boring Irish roots for your exotic Norwegian ones!


      1. It is funny how we ‘choose’ which bits of our ancestry or DNA to focus on. For me it is always my 5% Native Mexican even thought I look as Irish as a potato. 🥔


  2. My family are crypto-Marrano Jews from Portugal. On my Moms side. My fathers side are Levin’s & Lutherans–odd combo!!
    But, Im just a tomboy Jewish Christian hybrid.

    This is some good news about Norway. What an unusual history. So glad I see a kindred type spirit.
    Im sure there were many Jewish people who escaped Russia and went to Finland also.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s