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A family reunion across generations and miles

Leni Bloomenthal welcomed attendees at the Shafran family reunion at her home in Waltham on Saturday.Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe

WALTHAM — Propped against Leni Bloomenthal’s porch here is a poster of the Shafran family tree and its 236 branches, one for each descendant of Jacob and Rebecca Shafran, the man and woman staring out sternly from the black-and-white portraits in the center.

The branches, depicted in color-coded rectangles, have held more than a few surprises for members of the Shafran family, who gathered Saturday for a first-of-its-kind reunion.

Their story spans seven generations, eight states, and five Boston-area kosher meat markets. Since the family patriarch, Jacob Shafran, arrived in the city’s North End from Ukraine in 1906 and founded a father-son meat business, the story has been confused and complicated, sometimes even lost, through remarriages, deaths, and a nebulous family feud that cut off communication between relatives for years.

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Until now.

Bloomenthal, 68, Shafran’s great-granddaughter, and her cousin Rebecca von Geldern, 32, labored for months to assemble the history of the family for the first time. They parsed birth and death records and scrutinized census reports.

Their work culminated in Saturday’s at-times awestruck family reunion, where more than 80 cousins came face-to-face with relatives they hadn’t seen in 50 years or hadn’t even known existed.

“We’re first cousins!” said Stephanie Shafran, 65, gesturing excitedly to Clifford Shafran, 53. “And we’ve never met!”

A family tree showed the descendants of Jacob and Rebecca Shafran.Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Jacob Shafran established Jacob Shafran & Sons Inc. at the turn of the 20th century in Boston’s North End, which was heavily Jewish at the time. As the Jewish population moved, so did Shafran’s markets, expanding to five locations including Roxbury, Brookline, and Newtonville.

After four generations, no one wanted to run the markets anymore, and the last one closed in Brookline in 1996. But Shafran family pride didn’t go with it. Many members still live in the Boston area. Bloomenthal has held a Fourth of July barbecue for local relatives every year since 1983.

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This year, she wanted something bigger.

She enlisted von Geldern, whom she called a “real detective” with a knack for computers. The two established a ritual: von Geldern would dig up far-flung relatives on ancestry websites, and Bloomenthal would call them. She threw in an invitation to her barbecue, too.

“I never expected them to say yes,” she said.

The most amazing moment, von Geldern said, was when she tracked down an entire line of the family no one had known existed — the “Charles” line, descended from a son of Jacob Shafran who had died young and whose siblings never mentioned him afterward.

“I got a call from Leni two or three months ago,” said Chester Baker, 75, grandson of the missing Charles. “We talked for hours. It was the best phone call of my life. I was more excited talking to her than when my wife accepted my marriage proposal.”

On top of his tropical shirt, Baker wore a nametag with his name and his father and grandfather’s names, color-coded to match the family tree. So did the other 80 cousins milling around Bloomenthal’s pool, trading jokes and family lore they had never had the opportunity to share before.

They ranged from a few months old to 93 years old, from Boston to Seattle residents, from long-time friends to wide-eyed new acquaintances.

Peter Dinnerman, 73, lives in New Hampshire but grew up in Brookline. His mother bought meat from the Shafran shop all the time — but she never told him about the family connection, due to lingering bitterness from some long-ago falling-out. He hadn’t had any contact with the Shafran family until he received Bloomenthal’s call.

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Leni Bloomenthal, left, laughed with Susie Ritchie.Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Bunny Bayer, 90, sat with a group of women from her generation, some of the sole remaining grandchildren of Jacob Shafran. She smiled into the afternoon sun as toddlers splashed in the pool.

“I cannot believe I’ve lived long enough to see this family I’ve always loved — and more, because I didn’t know all of them,” she said.

When the last Brookline location closed in 1996, said Hank Shafran, 70, Bloomethal’s brother, “it was like a death in the family.” An establishment that had united the Shafrans so long, in love and in labor, was gone.

But at Saturday’s reunion, it was clear that a new tradition may have emerged, as relatives exchanged contact information and munched on hot dogs that were still kosher, even if not bought at a Shafran & Sons.

Asked if there was a single trait that united all the Shafrans gathered in the backyard — a hair color, or a particular mannerism — Hank Shafran considered for a moment.

“A smile, maybe — we’re a happy family,” he said.


Vivian Wang can be reached at vivian.wang@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vwang3.