If you happen to be Jewish, and at least culturally so, then you are probably already familiar with the concept of “Jewish Geography.”
For those who are puzzled by what this is, you can search the internet for various definitions and examples of this. One example I like, with me having replaced a few words with [factors] is “Jewish Geography, as it’s called, is amongst the greater pastimes of today’s “culturally Jewish” population — a group of people that is at once secular, but has weirdly and proudly maintained their heritage through a strange combination of [factors]. It’s a group that’s very specific, but a group that is all part of one giant inside joke — a joke that gets funnier and funnier the more you play these increasingly predictable mutual friend games.”
Personally, I would change the notion that it is “funnier” to being rather astounding.
Jewish Geography usually starts when you meet someone for the first time. When you are introduced, if their family name seems like one you have heard before, you might ask,
“Are you related to …?”
If you ask them where they are from and the place also rings a bell, you might ask,
“Do you happen to know …?”
There are so many other types of questions, like
“Where did you go to school?”
All of these types of questions might elicit answers that bring on a connectivity. The result might be just a casual recognition of a mutually familiar person or it might lead to a long term friendship, or possibly marriage. The smiles and head-nodding are some sort of confirmation that there is some global plan to bring people together.
Without any research or proof, I’m going to express my opinion that this is a phenomenon that has existed for millennia wherever Jews found themselves in the world. It helped connect people and make them feel comfortable if and when they were forced to pick up and move. However I believe that it grew and matured so much more after the Holocaust, because after the loss of six million Jews, those that remained world-wide were always looking for the possibility of long-lost family, myself included. The joy of finding some connectivity was a spark of light in a world that had become sad and dark.
Toward the end of the 20th century, finding the connections among people is very different. While those who engage in genealogical research are looking for their own families they often encounter other like-minded people. Then their family trees might intersect briefly because of some singular event. Or, with the aid of on-line family trees like MyHeritage™ and Geni people discover relationships that are through marriages and not blood-relationships. With DNA projects, you may discover people who range from being somewhat close relatives, i.e., 2-4th cousins, to those whose relationship is noted as “speculative.”
Social media and networking websites, like Facebook and LinkedIn offer much easier and faster ways of communicating, connecting and sharing worldwide, and not just limited to Jewish people, of course.
However, consider Jewish Geography that is more expansive and goes back in time, spanning some generations, rather than contemporaries. This involves people who have not only done their own genealogical research, but have lived long enough to remember old family names before they were changed legally, or in the case of towns and cities, through wars and regime changes.
Therein lay my problem: How could I easily demonstrate a complicated multi-family connectivity over space (locations) and time (generations)? As I have done before, I considered some modeling tools I had learned and used when working in aerospace. In this case, a process flow diagram (PFD). Part of the problem of course, is that I am working on a two dimensional surface of paper, and that means I have to find a way to deal with the dimension of time.
Figure 1. Sample Jewish Geography Map
I have borrowed from the grid used in a PFD such that horizontal sections represent a single family that I labeled with that family name as it is known and spelled today. I have used vertical lines to separate generations that I have labeled at the bottom as Gen-1, through Gen-5, since I am dealing with five generations, in my example. In the top left, I have labeled this experience as JG (for Jewish Geography) and the date that the triggering incident, in this case, a verbal exchange and the ensuing revelations. Here is my grid, with the vertical sections not equal. The stretching of these Gen-sections is to accommodate how many individuals might be included in each generation, for the sake of this encounter. I will explain in a bit.
For the family names, I have also given a sort of code comprising the first two letters of the family name. This is so that if I want to refer to a particular person in a particular generation, I might say, person YA-Gen-2, and you can readily locate that person in the grid. Each family row is necessarily only an excerpt from a full family tree and is intended to limit the Jewish Geography connections to ONLY specific individuals. In any case, only partial genealogical data may be known, but enough to explain the connectivity.
Despite limiting an individual to a family and generation, sometimes, more than one person in the same generation needs to be included. In that case, in each Gen section, the people can be identified in a top-down, or left-to-right manner, depending on the size of the cell. In the example and explanation I will provide below, this can be observed, especially in the MAIMON family row.
Marriages occur between these families, and I have enclosed the marriage of two people with a red, dashed rectangle. Sometimes this works well when two families are closely located on the page; sometimes this rectangle has to stretch vertically to enclose the couple. Below is the mapping of a complicated Jewish Geography exchange that took place on 4-5th August 2016.
Figure 2 Jewish Geography Mapping of August 4-5, 2016
I don’t want this to seem like a Russian Novel with a hundred characters, but I do need to provide some backdrop events, the “givens,” that have relevance to what came to light in August 2016.
- GR-Gen1, Rabbi Leopold GREENWALD, as he was known in Columbus, OH, was born in Sighet, Romania. He was a prolific writer, mostly in Hebrew, but also in Yiddish. He immigrates to the USA in 1924, and becomes Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Columbus, OH.
- GO-Gen2, Henri Goldstein, was my father. He visited Rabbi L. GREENWALD, and the Rabbi gave him his singular book in Yiddish, that translates as “1000 Years of Jewish Life in Hungary.” He inscribed it, with words to the effect, “To the son of the man with whom I studied in Huncovce, Slovakia,” and dated corresponding to 9 March 1952.
- GR-Gen1 is referring to GO-Gen1, Reb Leopold GOLDSTEIN. In this collection of Gen-1 personalities, he is the only one who never immigrated to the USA. He was a victim of the Holocaust, being killed in Majdanek, Poland in 1942.
- I am GO-Gen3, Madeleine (nee GOLDSTEIN), who marries IS-Gen3, Jerry ISENBERG. I pick up the book mentioned in 2, and try to find out more about GR-GEN1. I locate his son, Jack GREENWALD, identified as GR-Gen2, in 2007. We maintain a correspondence especially as I find more books that have valuable genealogical information about parts of Slovakia in which I am interested.
- IS-Gen1, Zeleg “Joe” ISENBERG, emigrates from Pinsk, Belarus to the USA in 1910. His wife, daughter, and son, Irving (IS-Gen2), arrive in 1912. They settle in Chicago, IL.
- IS-Gen3, Jerrold ISENBERG, is born in Chicago, IL. Attends schools in Chicago until family moves to Los Angeles in 1958. Madeleine and Jerry marry in February 1965 and move to Haifa, Israel for Jerry to study for his PhD. They live in Haifa 1965-1975, and then return to live in Los Angeles, CA.
- YA-Gen3B, Jean YABLOK meets and marries MA-Gen3A, Albert MAIMON in 1964. They live in Seattle, WA, but move to Haifa, Israel in 1970. They stay in Haifa until 1972, and then return to live in Seattle.
- The ISENBERG family meets the MAIMON family in Haifa, and their respective children meet each other when all are very young.
- Because of a business-related trip the ISENBERGs travel to Seattle and re-establish a connection with the MAIMONs, spending a Shabbat with them in 1986.
- IS-Gen4, Daphne ISENBERG, meets Menachem MAIMON at a National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) Shabbaton. Parents later explain how families knew each other in Haifa.
- IS-Gen4, Daphne, marries OR-Gen4, Jonathan ORENSHEIN, in March 1992.
- OR-Gen5, Derek ORENSHEIN becomes a camp counselor in Camp Moshava, in Wild Rose, WI.
This is what we knew before meeting again in August 2016. This time we were traveling to Seattle, WA, to attend the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference (IAJGS 2016) and I would be presenting two talks, based on my on-going research into findings on tombstones. This particular conference had a focus on Sephardic Jewry and knowing that the MAIMON family has been very involved in Seattle’s Sephardic community since the beginning of the 20th century, I was looking forward to clarifying some questions with our friends. Once again, we depended on their hospitality for a Shabbat and arrived Thursday afternoon, August 4.
After settling in, we caught up a bit with current family history and then talked about our hosts’ families. Jean, it turned out was born in Marietta, OH. She and her brother had been working on their family history and in a couple of weeks, she had her husband Al, were going to travel to Tykotin, Poland, to where her grandfather came from. That led to her telling us about her grandfather, Osher Zev YABLOK (YA-Gen1), who had emigrated from that town and eventually made it to Columbus, OH. He had been multi-talented, having been a cantor, a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and a mohel (one who performs circumcisions). Ding Ding! I just had to ask,
“Did your father happen to know Rabbi Leopold Greenwald in Columbus, OH?”
“Know him? Why he had been the cantor in the same synagogue! “
I parried with, well, “I’m in touch with his son Jack, who lives in Denver, CO.”
Hmm, Jean thought for a moment.
“I think I met Jack in 1973. My sister Esther and her family were living in Denver, but she died there at a very young age. I think I met him at her shiva (week of mourning).”
I told Jean I was going to contact Jack and asked him if he remembered her grandfather, Osher Zev Yablok. It was getting late and I figured he would get the e-mail on Friday morning.
In catching up about our children and grandchildren, the Maimons said that two of their granddaughters were currently in a summer camp in Wild Rose, WI.
“Wait a minute,” Jerry and I said, “our grandson Derek is a counselor at the same camp!” We’ll have to call him and ask him if he knows your grand-daughters. That too had to wait until the morning.
On Friday morning, August 5, I found an e-mail from Jack GREENWALD, who likes to sprinkle his e-mails with Yiddish words to challenge my minimal knowledge of that language.
“Yes taaka (indeed) a small world. Yablok was my mohel. And the Wolf girl? I attended minyanim (prayer services) during her shiva and her father was there, also. Yes, a sheinum grus (a warm greeting) to Ms. Maimon. And have a wonderful Shabbos (Sabbath).”
Later Friday morning, we spoke to our grandson Derek, to wish him also a Shabbat Shalom. This was the last weekend of the six-week summer camp in Wisconsin before everyone flew back to their homes. We put him on speaker-phone with the Maimon’s in earshot. We explained that we were in Seattle and asked him if he had met or knew their Maimon’s granddaughters, Lulu and Sophie.
“Well they’re sitting right near me as we speak. They are also counselors.”
We all just had to laugh at the coincidence that these kids had crossed paths at yet another generational level.
This could have ended the episode of multi-generational Jewish Geography, but not quite. Since Al Maimon is descended from Sephardic Jews, i.e., those who are known to have been dispersed after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, we know that Sephardic religious practices vary from those of Ashkenazi Jews (those who are from more northern European countries). While Jean was born into an Ashkenazi family, since marrying she has adopted the Sephardic practices and together they are very involved with Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue that practices the Sephardic customs. We attended with them and experienced and enjoyed the diversity. At lunch, the Maimons had some guests and table-talk included names of people familiar to the Sephardic community. One name we heard made Jerry and me perk up our ears: BENOLIEL.
Since I have become the de facto family historian, I have pieced together Jerry’s family history and his life before we were married. This included his early school years. While Jerry puts me off these days with, “I don’t remember,” one of the incidents that clearly stood out for him was a school yard event that could have been traumatic but wasn’t. We are talking about the early 1950s, some 60 or so years ago, in Chicago, IL. Exactly four years earlier (Aug 4, 2012), I had added the following paragraph to Jerry’s story:
“The neighborhood was a typical mixture of nationalities and religions. Not far from the Jewish Academy was the St. Mel’s private school”. At that time, most of the kids who went there were Italian Catholics. Jerry remembered an incident where for some unknown reason one of the St. Mel’s boys accosted and threatened Jim BENOLIEL with a knife in his hand, just outside of the school. Since school had let out, many kids surrounded this pair. As student body leader of the Academy, Jim said, “Just remember, if you do anything to me, there are a whole lot of witnesses around!” And that was the end of it. What led to the confrontation is long forgotten, but the threatening behavior is part of Jerry’s memory.
As you can see it had been sufficiently memorable. What Jerry and I could not know was that Jim BENOLIEL was – Al Maimon’s first cousin! His aunt Rachel Maimon (MA-Gen-2B) had married Jim’s father. Jim is identified as MA-Gen-3B on the map, and is better known as Rabbi Haim BENOLIEL, who in 1972, established the Yeshivat Mikdash Melech, the first Sephardic Yeshiva Gedolah in the Western Hemisphere.
A few days later, at the IAJGS conference, Al Maimon, who managed an exhibit at the conference, introduced me to his cousin Al BENOLIEL (MA-Gen-3C), who was Jim’s (Haim’s) brother. Al was about to sit down to talk to Adam Brown, who was gathering information and DNA samples for a Sephardic DNA project. I quickly located Jerry and brought him over to meet Al Benoliel.
At this point, possibly I could have included Adam Brown in the mix, because he is also the manager of the avotaynuonline.com. I met him at the previous IAJGS conference in Jerusalem and he has since published some of my writings. This too may appear someday. However, I cannot add Adam to this map, since I have effectively run out of room on this diagram!
In conclusion, I have indicated that this is merely an attempt to convey in a simple manner, complicated interpersonal events that span time and place. Consider it a strawman and perhaps someone will yet devise a better method. I for one, would welcome that.
So, where did you go to summer camp?
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Process_flow_diagram: “A process flow diagram (PFD) is a diagram commonly used in chemical and process engineering to indicate the general flow of plant processes and equipment. The PFD displays the relationship between major equipment of a plant facility and does not show minor details such as piping details and designations. Another commonly used term for a PFD is a flowsheet.”