About 2½ years ago, I got the first email. It had a lot of “maternal” and “paternal” in it, and a string of family relations I could not follow. The writer told me that he’s been looking for me since he believes we are second cousins. What in the world are “second cousins”?? It was exactly the kind of email that could be followed with something like – ‘and now that my family and I are stranded in Nigeria / Cyprus / Buenos Aires, we need a loan of…’
I am embarrassed to say, I didn’t even make it to the end. Clearly – spam. I clicked ‘delete’ and went on my day. Then another email came. And another. What was that?? If anyone in my immediate family would have known about anything like this, it would have been me! and I knew for sure that there were no unknown relatives on that side of the family.
But, wait, aren’t “unknown relatives” by definition, unknown until known??
By the third or fourth email, I gave in and actually read the whole message, still struggling to understand what was going on. No, it did not make any sense. As a child, I always wanted a bigger family, a noisier dinner table, a busier play area. I envied my friends who had more siblings and who on Shabbat had aunts and uncles and swarms of cousins from all sides, all different versions of each other, making their own neighborhood soccer teams, while my brother and I walked over to the field, just the two of us and the ball’s bounce echoing in the empty street. I could never figure out, why there are pages of pages in the Haifa phone book of “Kahana”‘s and none of them, none! is in any way, shape of form, my relative.
My cousins on my mother’s side lived in another town; we went to see them on vacations and there got a taste of the “real things”, but close family gatherings were comprised mostly of the same people: my grandmother, my uncle, my aunt. Sometimes, another uncle and another aunt. Everyone was an adult. Everyone was serious. Everyone had a story. No one talked much, because whatever it was, wasn’t anybody’s business anyway. Gossip was out of the question. The past was nothing new; the present was shared. Eating was done with one’s mouth closed, focused, chewing quietly. And if I asked one too many questions, they said, nu be’emet, which roughly means, ‘really, you got to be kidding, how dare you, don’t you have homework’ (and I know it’s hard to believe that two words could say all that, but, well, in their own way, they did).
Sometime in the early 1970’s this guy showed up in our house. Alexander. He had, what my mother would call, a “Slavic face”, broad and reddish, with thick glasses in a black frame, and disheveled, silver curls. His buttoned, often stained, shirt, exploded over his bulging belly. He had a loud laughter. He loved chocolates. And vodka. And he had an accent – not the “appropriate” yeke (German) accent, but a heavy, Russian accent. Worst of all: he said he was my father’s cousin.
He was a regular guest in our home until he died about 20 years later, and I don’t think I ever seriously explored, how in the world were we related??
“A cousin of some sorts”, my mother would say of her late husband’s family, “give me a break, please, nu be’emet!” Only in the last 2-3 years I learned that my grandfather was one of 7 siblings. And while not everyone survived WWII, and not everyone went on to have children and grandchildren, enough of us did. One of these children was Alexander, and one of the grandchildren is the one who insisted on finding me, Michael, funny how names get recycled in the family. Somewhere in Germany of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and then in Israel of the 1930’s, 40’s – our parents were each other’s cousins. A World War, other wars, thousands of ocean miles and life, separated them and we all lost touch. Almost. Until now.
We organize a whole weekend which starts with a Shabbat dinner here. My kids are a little reluctant: ‘do we have to?’ I shuffle between the kitchen and dining area, giving orders: get another chair, from there, no, from there; wait, the soup, oh no, did I forget the fish, what if the challah, did we get enough…
I light candles. Last touch ups. The house quiets down. We wait. Are you sure it’s ok? What do I wear? Do they have the address? Did we set the right seats?
Then the door bell. They start in: Hi, I am… I have a rough chart printed out, and we show each other our branch on the family tree. Some old photos are on the table too: yes, that’s my father and his father, your grandmother’s brother… oh yes, here’s a picture of her…
The evening flows as if we’ve been doing this every week. So does the next day. And the next eve. We share, ask questions, tease, joke around, speak sincerely. When someone asks if I’m “really religious”, I have to smile, for I know my father was asked some of the same questions in another lifetime. So it goes. We search for resemblances, looking for ourselves in each other’s faces, likes, movements, manners, preferences, skills, tastes. In some strange way, everybody seems familiar. We are someone’s tomorrow, and someone else’s yesterday. I realize how family helps shape a person, learn where one begins and where another one ends.
Much has been said about Spotlight, the incredible movie that is now up for six academy awards nominations. And while I too am touched by the story like the rest of the audience, I also watch it completely selfishly. There is Liev Schreiber, playing editor Marty Baron, hunched over the paper, the light still on in his office long after everybody has gone home as he brings new meaning to investigative journalism, and all I can think of is, someone else in this family writes!! It’s the first time in my life that my passion has company. I walk out amazed, inspired and proud to be part of this newly found greater “us”.