Genealogy: when too much is too much

Preface: a piece written  for Family Tree Magazine several years back:

Don’t Prune That Tree

Wherever we go-whether it’s Israel, Canada, Colombia, Slovakia, Australia or America-I can usually name a local cousin or two from the thousands of people I’ve researched over the years. My kids, exasperated, invariably ask, “A real cousin? Does he know you?” They, for whom any cousin past first is too distant, understand I have no problem embracing second and fifth cousins equally. I also welcome cousins by marriage (and their cousins, too) as my own. My family tree is wider than it is high. If your clan is small, you take what you can get, right? And besides, I believe all Jews are brothers.

So when my son planned a trip across America, I suggested an alternative to the motel route. He could travel genealogically, staying with cousins. Our forefathers emigrated from Russia to New Jersey, Poland to Pennsylvania, and Slovakia to New York. Today, I exchange e-mails with their grandchildren in Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and California. To me, that’s a mighty fine itinerary. But my son sought excitement. Anonymity. Spontaneity. The last thing he wanted, he laughed, were cousins. He wanted to live his own dream, not mine.

Human Alphabet

Let him laugh. I haven’t yet met all our e-mail cousins in person, and perhaps I never will. But I have been blessed.


Recently, I asked Geni, the noted genealogy site, to compute my relationship with a distant cousin– but one close enough that I knew personally.

Their response?

xx  is your second cousin’s husband’s sister’s husband’s nephew’s wife’s second great uncle’s wife’s niece’s husband’s nephew’s wife.

Got that?

Pnina Gutman: Who Am I and What’s My Name??

On receiving results of a genealogical DNA test  (going back some 5-6 generations),  I found that I’m  related, somehow, to Pnina Gutman. Those who follow my writing may recall that, several years ago, I wrote a piece, “Who Am I and What’s My Name?” describing her search for her identity.

Tragically, she’s still looking.



Barbara Rebhun, safe with the Kaczmareks Do you have a copy of this photo in your family?


What now? I have no idea– but theoretically– through studying the DNA results from all Pnina’s new-found relations– even those who are  very distant— might she be able to find herself?

It’s a wonder– she and I crossed paths– then, amazingly, meet again.
Yet it is not so strange.  We, after all,  are products of Jewish endogamy– intermarriages of cousins with cousins, uncles with nieces, and especially, repeated marriages between selected families-. Our DNA is all over the map. We carry our past with us. God willing, Pnina will find hers.


Do you have a copy of this  in your photo album?
“Barbara Wenglinski” with Charlotte Rebhun in Warsaw Do you have a copies of these in your family photo album?
Pnina & her daughters today...see any resemblance to your family?
Pnina & her daughters today… see any resemblance to your family?

Eta Zazulia Fishman, z”l


I just learned that my cousin, Eta Fishman, died a week ago.  As I was told, “she died at 9 am and was under the ground at 11:30.” So unfortunately, I did not accompany her on her final journal.

Eta was born 103 years ago in Chotin, Bessarabia.  During the Holocaut she was incarcerated in Transnistria.  Many there starved to death, many were shot.  She lost most of her family. In the late 1950s, she and her beloved husband Velvel immigrated to Israel. Though they had few relatives nearby, they welcomed visits by their cousins in Colombia–  the Wassermans and the Wattenbergs, and those in the US– the Amsels, the Sallys, the Beckers, and others. Eta was a real balabusta.  Everyone enjoyed  her warmth, her meals (usually chicken), and especially, her cookies. While Velvel worked for the army, Eta, cooked at a yeshiva in Bnei Barak.  When I immigrated to Israel (alone), they met me at the plane. yelling, “Melodia…Melodia..Melodia.”  Only when I was the last one there did I realize that it was   me they were calling…..I stayed with them for the next several weeks, And  each night,   never fail, she would put out plates of cookies by my bedside “just in case I got hungry”  I always wondered if that was because of her horrifying past in Transistria. Eta was SHARP.  But once,  when I telephoned, she answered in gibberish.  I thought she’d had a stroke. But no, she explained., she’d simply run out of things to read in Yiddish.  So having  taught  herself the Rumanian of her youth, she’d been deep in a Rumanian book when she answered….. Here’s a piece I wrote about her several  years ago. ROSY ROSSEL

 Special to JTNews


The author’s cousin Eta, who made her beet rossel dish last year, likely for the final time. The jar on the windowsill gleamed rosy red in the sunlight. Mesmerized, I reached out to touch it. “Rossel,” my grandmother smiled. “Beets special for Passover.” Years later, when I spied an identical jar on my cousin Eta’s windowsill, childhood memories came flooding back. Inside were the same beets covered by the same rosy bath that I remembered. I was not surprised. After all, Eta and my grandmother, Bessarabians both, prepared all the same traditional foods. But I was amused. Now, decades later in Israel, I had once again stumbled on the rossel of my youth. In the old country, where many had root cellars, people would begin their Passover preparations as soon as they had put aside their Purim merriment. Farmers hauled in wagonloads of potatoes, the heavyweight staple of every Passover meal. Housewives, dreaming of light, golden sponge cakes, tucked a few eggs aside each time they made the rounds of their chicken roosts. After all, during Passover they would need scores of laboriously whipped egg whites to replace their usual leavening agent, sally-kally (ammonium bicarbonate). Like sally-kally, regular vinegar is also forbidden during the holiday. So these industrious housewives would prepare a kosher-for-Passover substitute from the humble beet. Eta, who arrived in Israel after the Holocaust, is happy to share her recipe. “A day or two after Purim, you peel your beets and cut them into quarters,” she spelled out. “Then you layer the quarters in a wide-mouthed jar and you add water up to the rim. After you cover the jar with cheesecloth, you stand it on a sunny windowsill. Then you wait.” Two weeks later, she said, when a telltale white moldy layer begins to inch its way across its rosy surface, you can rest easy. Your beets are fermenting nicely. Exactly one month after Purim, it will be good, sour, and ready to use. Passover rossel. So how does Eta use rossel? Wiping her hands on her apron, she explained. After grating some of the rossel beets, she mixes them with chopped meat, beaten eggs, and fried onion. Then she shapes the mixture into rosy-hued patties and fries them. Red rossel patties are not only beautiful to behold but also meltingly tender, reports Aizic, a Bessarabian rossel maven. “In our house,” he confided, “the rossel patties were always much lighter than our matzoh balls. Just remembering them makes my mouth water.” If, after making the red patties, any rossel beets remain, Eta adds more water to her beet jar. Naturally, it ferments further. A few days later, she uses this prized soured beet juice to flavor yet another seasonal treat: A holiday version of that well-loved Russian staple, borscht. Eyes shining, Eta declares that her rossel borscht, garnished with a few sprigs of fresh dill and a dollop of sour cream, hits the spot. Preparing rossel for Passover is second nature to Eta. After all, she’s made it for nearly a century. But tastes change as time goes by. Last year, because some of her guests demurred, she ended up throwing some away. So this year, for the first time, Eta is not making rossel at all. And her nieces, though they know how, are not making it either. So even in Israel, rosy rossel will soon be just a memory. Eta–May Your Memory Be For A Blessing

Dust Storm


A gigantic dust storm is covering all of Israel.  Reminds me of my years in Beersheva, in the Negev.  Dust storms were fairly frequent, and because our house was old, its doors and windows were not air-tight.  So every day of dust, I  washed all the clothes we wore, washed our hair, changed all the linens, dusted, dusted, dusted, and scrubbed the floors.  If it was 5 days, I did this 5 days in a row.  But it didn’t help much. The minute we went outside, we breathed dust, our hair and our eyes crusted over, and breathing became disgusting.

One particular Beersheva dust storm will always stay with me, the one when my kids were outside alone. Later, N. described it:

whoosh! a terrible and fierceful wind knocked us down.  With terror we rose to see one huge wave of sand and dust that was lifted immediately, blocking all sight. Hard of breathing, we fought to stay standing…the sun was cm;etely blocked by the great amount of dust in the air.  We were almost mad with terror as we found we could not see our own hands before our eyes–at 4:00 pm.  WE were absolutely petrified-  couldn’t believe what was happening….I thought it was the end of the world,  Judgement Day or some other catastrophe. For two long moments we stood motionless, too scared to go on walking in this complete darkness. … then the rain fell, turning the dust to mud. Light was seen again, only to reveal black clouds. The storm came from Egypt- where it destructed and killed 500 people, leaving thousands homeless….Everything is fine now, a little rain and hailstones…..

And us?  We’re still waiting for  rain, the rain that rains mud as it hits the dusty air.   Bringing fresh air in its wake.

Then we’ll all  wash our clothes, wash our hair, change the linens, dust, dust, dust, and scrub the floors.

Until the next time.



Eight Chanukas…. חג שמח!

 Candle Box 5

  When I was a child, Chanuka offered  a wonder of light and excitement, but now, Chanuka is an old friend come to visit, come to mark my days.     After fifty-odd years, my preparations are quick and matter-of-fact. I’ve already polished our menorah, purchased the candles, and stocked up on applesauce for the latkes.  But when I pulled out my mother’s old potato grater, I   paused.   Memories of special Chanukas past washed over me.    We kids grew up on a New Jersey farm without knowing a word of Hebrew.    We recited   the blessings over the Chanuka candles by reading the English   transliteration printed on those small, blue boxes miraculously spirited from Eretz Yisroel.   Then came the gifts.   Four children times eight nights of Chanuka is thirty-two gifts a year, a lot of love.   Though so much time has passed, one still   warms my heart.

It was the year we   almost lost my little brother to pneumonia. We girls   received the usual  books and games, but not David.   His present was three in one, a  set of shiny fire-engine-red   fire engines.  Everything worked, the doors, the hoses, even the ladders. When he played with the hook and ladder truck, which was longer than he was, he needed a second person to help steer its far end, just like in real life.

Year after year, a beloved aunt organized Chanuka parties that cast us kids as entertainers as well as guests.   One look at the towering pile of gifts that awaited us and we were ready to do anything– tell jokes, perform feats of musical virtuosity, or sing for our supper, to earn  our prize.  Books, the tower was built of books, each lovingly chosen and wrapped, literary gems.   These Chanuka gifts of poetry helped shape my life.

My grandfather, handy with a penknife,   entranced   us by peeling apples and oranges in continuous strips and transforming tree branches into   natty diamond-patterned carved walking sticks.   The Chanuka before I immigrated to Israel, he made his final journey– to a nursing home. As we parted, he pressed a homemade wooden   dreydl into my hand, a final gift.   Although my grandfather never got to Israel, his dreydl did.

Dreydl 1

I celebrated my first Israeli Chanuka with Spanish-Moroccan friends.   In their world, latkes were garnished with onions instead of   apple sauce, and yeast dough billowed into doughnuts, a surprising treat.   An outsized plastic syringe stood at the ready, prepped with raspberry jelly, the filling that gilds the lily. New and strange, but for all the strangeness, when I sang the Chanuka blessings, I finally understood the words.

For months after the Yom Kippur War, though the sirens and blackouts were behind us, our soldiers had not yet returned home.   With Chanuka fast approaching,   I found myself, for some crazy reason, making towering piles of jelly doughnuts– far more than I actually needed.   Just as  I deep fried the last batch, I heard familiar voices approaching.   There on my doorstep stood my mother and  sisters, who had heeded their rabbi’s call to visit Israel in her time of darkness. And I had doughnuts enough for all.

My three-year-old and I hurried through the rain to her first Chanuka party, expecting to find her nursery school   bathed in warmth and light. Instead, her classroom, though full of youngsters, was utterly dark.   Suddenly, a lifesize   dreydl-like being whirled in, and with cries of “Darkness, Begone!”   distributed candles to one and all. As the candles were lit, their soft glow   warmed the room: Chanuka, the Festival of   Lights.

That December, our orchestra arrived in Lyons, France  exactly at midnight, its blackness tempered by a gentle flurry of snowflakes.   Before we left our tour bus, Yaki, the only observant member among us, rose and unfolded his hands to reveal a  miniature   menorah.   The first night of Chanuka, how had we forgotten?     As we sang the blessings, Yaki shielded   the tiny flames with his hands.   Though we were strangers in a strange land, at that moment, once again, we were home.