Jewish Genes as Time Machines
A lonely Jew reassembles her vanished family through a combination of genealogical sleuthing, genetic testing and cousin-fishing
by Nadine Epstein
I inherited my familial loneliness syndrome from my mother. Ruth Goldberg was the beloved only child of Jewish immigrants who raised her in an aging Victorian on a steep street in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I knew my mother’s mother, Dora, only from stories—she rarely left the house except to go to the family furniture store—and from photographs, particularly the ones in which she holds the infant me, her first grandchild, on her lap. A few months after those photos were taken, Dora clasped them to her ample chest, fell asleep and never awoke. Not long after, my amiable grandfather Max died, too, leaving my mother parentless. When she was “blue,” as my mother called the melancholy that came over her on yahrzeits and Yom Kippur, I could hear her lament, even when no words escaped her lips. Except for Max’s brother and his wife and their children and a couple of elderly half-aunts—all scattered around the United States and nowhere near our ranch house on the Jersey Shore—she was alone. The rest of her family had been swallowed by the cataclysms of Eastern Europe, their existence shrouded by distance and the passage of time.
I inherited a different variety of familial angst from my father. Seymour Epstein wasn’t an only child, his parents lived to ripe old ages, and he never pined for lost family. Nevertheless, his father, my Grandpa Charlie, had left behind a sister in his hometown of Buchach in Galicia, the southeastern part of Poland that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was discussed so little that my father never even learned her name. When he was 16, a postcard arrived at his family’s apartment in Brooklyn, depicting his aunt with her husband and two grown daughters. With their serious expressions, they seemed cognizant of the fate awaiting them: being mowed down by Nazi gunfire on the banks of the Bug River, their blood intermingling with that of their fellow Jews on one of the days that locals say the river turned red. I prefer to think that they were just following the photographer’s instructions—it wasn’t the custom for people to smile in photos in those days. My father always spoke of this postcard in an uncharacteristic hushed tone. Years later, I showed it to a woman who had survived this massacre as a child in hiding, and she translated the words on the back for me: “Remember. To my dear Aunt and Uncle from Sara and Abraham. Buchach. November 8, 1937.” Sara was one of the daughters of the nameless aunt, and Abraham was her husband. These words were interpreted as asking for help, or at least implying the need for it. Whether it was requested or not, help from Brooklyn never arrived, leaving an uneasy sense of guilt steeped in helplessness to be passed on.
All family members in Europe on both sides were assumed dead at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. Not that anyone ever talked about this—silence ruled. My grandparents were young when they fled poverty, conscription and anti-Semitism for the New World around the turn of the 20th century. They carried with them few heirlooms or photographs, and what family history they knew they largely kept to themselves. As a result, the chasm between life in Eastern Europe and my childhood some 50 miles south of Manhattan was unspoken and vast. With collective memory strained past the breaking point and no facts to work with, my overactive imagination constructed a fantasy world populated by wise-folk ancestors who dwelled in whitewashed cottages and wandered the sun-dappled paths of pastoral villages where people knew one another and were untroubled by changes wrought by modern existence.
I was a lonely kid, and these imaginary shtetls—though I did not know this word at the time—were places where people weren’t lonely. I never thought about the difficulties of those lives—the muddy streets, the impoverished living conditions, the dead-end economies, the social claustrophobia, the class and religious strictures, and all the customs I would have felt stifled by. I had no grasp of what it was like to fear one’s neighbors. It wasn’t until I was 18 and living in Israel that my father’s cousin, Israeli cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, took me aside and confided the dark secret—the pogrom in which my maternal grandmother Rose’s parents had been murdered. He speculated that the secrecy surrounding this tragedy was the cause of much family dysfunction.
I took this to heart, and a few months after this conversation I struck out on my own for Eastern Europe. I didn’t dare dream that I could travel through the Soviet Union, and so I went north from Istanbul through Bulgaria into Romania and Hungary in an effort to touch the past. I began my journey on the Orient Express, and then, feeling too isolated, got off and hitchhiked. In retrospect, I must have been a startling sight: a young American woman with long blonde hair wearing a jean skirt, carrying an orange backpack, standing at the side of sparsely traveled narrow roads. My rides were in Skodas and Trabants or pickup trucks loaded with straw. Outside the cities, I was propelled back in time: When I encountered babushka- and apron-clad women gossiping over stiles, I could barely contain my joy.
At a shop in Bucharest, I purchased a map of 19th-century Galicia, the last known Old World address of both of my grandfathers. This was pre-Internet, and all I had to go on was that my maternal grandfather, Max, had been born in Bialykamien—a shtetl near Lvov—and that my paternal grandfather, Charlie, was from the town of Buchach. My heart beat faster as I found Lvov on the map and located the town 37 miles east on the Bug River. When I traced the Bug south, my finger unexpectedly bumped into Buchach. My parents had met at a dance at Temple Rodeph Sholom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, completely unaware that their fathers were born 75 miles apart on the same river.
All family members left behind on both sides were assumed dead at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. Not that anyone ever talked about this—silence ruled.
That map moved around the United States with me as I conducted my postmodern life throughout my 20s and 30s. As self-appointed family historian, I interviewed elderly family members and survivors, amassing anecdotes and the names of people and places. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the lifting of the Iron Curtain collided with the dawn of the Internet, that I joined thousands of other Ashkenazi Jews starved for knowledge about their roots and ready to pry open the past. It didn’t happen overnight, but every day more Yizkor (memorial) books for destroyed towns, birth and death records, and archival databases became accessible, produced by online communities dedicated to sharing information.
I had immediate luck with Bialykamien. As part of their efforts to wipe out Jewish history, the Nazis destroyed the shtetl’s Jewish registry, but a pioneering group called Gesher Galicia tracked down surviving fragments of birth and death records. I mailed in a few dollars to support their translation, and when they arrived a few months later an unexpected story unfolded. My mother’s paternal grandmother, Ruchel Leah Gerber, had grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces. I was absolutely delighted to discover this complex web of souls that included second, third and fourth cousins, and young widows and widowers who had remarried and had second and third families. I stayed up nights combing the available years of records for names I recognized, which wasn’t easy given the fluidity of surnames among 19th-century Jews and the many variations of German, Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew first appellations. Still, it was very satisfying. Even today, revisiting these pages gives me the sense that I am doing something meaningful. Their very tangibility is soothing.
I learned that Ruchel Leah had up to six children by two husbands; died in Bialykamien in 1890 at age 38 from tuberculosis not long after giving birth; and was survived by her parents, who owned a tanning factory (Gerber means tanner in German). Along the way, I developed a full-blown crush on my great-grand-mother. To this day, I have no idea what she looked like—there are no photos—but I fancied Ruchel Leah to be a woman of external and inner beauty. At the very least, she was a beloved sister: Her siblings began naming their daughters for her immediately after her death.
I was overtaken by a longing to find all the descendants of my newly discovered family. My first stops were two of my mother’s first cousins. The eldest, Arthur Rupe shared my passion for unraveling our family’s past, and recounted his memories of his and my mother’s grandfather, Ruchel Leah’s second husband, Saloman Hershel Rupp—who renamed himself Harry Goldberg when he arrived at Ellis Island. From Arthur’s sister, Rosamond (Ruchel) Goldberg Weisman, I learned that Ruchel Leah’s son from her first marriage, Louis, also had a daughter named for Ruchel Leah. Rosamond scribbled an old New York City address for a Rose Wieder on a scrap of paper, but it was a dead end, as were census and Social Security records.
I stumbled into a lot of dead ends, so in 2008, I flew to Ukraine to visit Bialykamien and my other grandparents’ ancestral towns. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and subsequent redrawing of Poland and Ukraine’s borders after World War II meant that all four were now in Ukraine. I brought along my precious printouts of the birth and death records and a 1930 Bialykamien business directory listing a Markus Gerber as tanning “factory director.” I couldn’t get to Bialykamien fast enough, and when I finally did, I was so excited that while I did remember to switch the video camera on, I mostly managed to film my feet.
The more I learned, the lonelier I felt. I did not yet know that my research would become the foundation for a genetic adventure that would finally cure my familial loneliness syndrome.
At first, all I could see was desolation. The center of town had burned to the ground in 1902 and was now a large grassy expanse on which the Soviets had erected a handful of ugly concrete buildings. But once I knocked on the door of a house and found someone to show me around, I could begin to see the town as it once was. My guide was in his early 80s and lived next door to what had been the tanning factory, now a vacant lot along the narrow brown waters of the Bug. He walked me around town to see various wooden homes, many quite sweet, which he said had been owned by my family. He had gone to school with some of my Gerbers and told me a story of how he had cared for and fattened the ritual “surprise” cow slaughtered for one of their weddings. He made it clear that he couldn’t speak to the fate of any of Bialykamien’s Jews. During the war, he had been conscripted into the army, and no Jews were there when he returned.
During Ruchel Leah’s lifetime, 2,000 Jews lived in Bialykamien; by 1930 there were 202. I don’t know how many of them remained in 1942, when the Jews were transported to the ghetto in nearby Złoczów. Some were loaded onto cattle cars bound for Dachau, Auschwitz or Belzec; other unfortunate souls were murdered before the trains arrived. The more I learned, the lonelier I felt. I did not yet know that my research would become the foundation for a genetic adventure that would finally cure my familial loneliness syndrome.
I spent my childhood wondering if I could really be a Jew. My Dad, a physicist and a vocal proponent of gene-centered evolution or “selfish gene” theory, often hypothesized that we were “mongrels”—or suggested we were descended from Khazars, the medieval converts to Judaism whom Arthur Koestler wrote about in The Thirteenth Tribe. I am fair with blue eyes, one of my brothers and my sister were towheads, and we didn’t resemble most of the Ashkenazi and Syrian Jews in our hometown of Deal, New Jersey. I always thought that my mother, the devoted executive director of the countywide Jewish Community Center, looked more like a Nordic queen than a Jewish princess.
Around 1999, I was introduced to medical geneticist Harry Ostrer at a genealogical conference. Ostrer was then director of the Human Genetics Program at the New York University School of Medicine, interested in the disease and population genetics of diaspora Jews. Both of us were enthralled by the knowledge that a tiny fraction of chromosomal markers could unravel millennia of Jewish history. Like all humans, Jews share 99.5 percent of the genetic code, but what can be learned from variations within the remaining 0.5 percent is amazing. The study of population genetics was still young in those years—and largely traced via patrilineal descent through the Y chromosome, which, like a woman’s mitochondria, generally passes intact through the generations. The breaking news was the 1997 study that used variations of the Y chromosome known as haplotypes to trace the Jewish priestly Kohanim tribe to one “founder” male who may have been Moses’s brother Aaron. Conducted by Karl Skorecki at the Technion in Israel, Michael F. Hammer of the University of Arizona and others, the study showed that nearly half of Ashkenazi men and nearly 60 percent of Sephardi men who identified as Kohanim shared a haplotype designated as J1.
Ashkenazi Jews, in particular, are excellent study material. We are the products of the great ten-century endogamous mix of Jews trapped in Eastern Europe, which grew from a couple of dozen people and was winnowed again and again by “bottlenecks”—the euphemism population geneticists use to describe catastrophes such as massacres and the plague. Ostrer and his fellow Jewish identity seekers were now turning their test tubes toward other Jewish populations. He and I were working on a book project together at the time, and I brought him to Deal to test the DNA of Syrian Jews who had resided in Aleppo from ancient times to the mid-20th century. During his visit, he also collected saliva from my father and other males in my family.
The results disproved my dad’s mongrel theory. My father was descended from the second-largest group of Ashkenazi Jewish men, which originated in the Middle East before the time of the kingdom of Judea. It was great fun to call my dad and tell him he was wrong, but I also found myself troubled by this new human science that allowed us to see into our past—in particular, the thought that it could fuel the traditional Jewish obsession with prestigious lineage, or yiches. The status that yiches confers is not limited to religious circles, where it remains an important marriage consideration. I once met a man who immediately asked me if I, like him, was one of the Benveniste Epsteins, members of the Levite tribe (the priestly assistants in Jerusalem’s ancient Temple) who migrated from Spain to Germany, where a Count von Epstein is said to have given them his name. When I said I didn’t know, he replied dismissively, “You would know if you were, so you are not.” I didn’t bother to tell him that most people are unaware of their ancestry, and that yiches is no guarantee of a more potent genetic cocktail—or wisdom. Despite this predilection, I have concluded that the positive outcomes of DNA research outweigh the possible negative ones and in fact provide a powerful tool for the reconstruction of Jewish history. There is no hiding from DNA: It is one of the defining forces of our times.
As editor of Moment, I oversaw many stories about Jewish genetic traits and diseases over the next decade. I remained curious about prominent dynasties—Jewish and not—who claim connection with great rabbinical and biblical figures, an interest that led me to spend months disentangling the often convoluted genealogical threads that Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Syrian families use to tie themselves to King David. Genes come into play because some of these families have sought a DNA link: After all, if they are all related to the same royal progenitor, then the males should share the same Y chromosome haplotype, assuming the line goes through the male. But they don’t, and even if they did, it would be hard to say what it means: Millions of people around the world would be descended from King David, if indeed there was such a historical person.
In 2011, when my mother was diagnosed with a Parkinson’s-like neurological disorder, I reentered the genetic testing world. By now its universe had expanded dramatically. Full genome testing was available, and moreover, several companies offered affordable online testing based on specific markers they identified among the 22 pairs of chromosomes we each have in addition to our sex chromosome. Through a dear friend who has Parkinson’s, I learned about the genetic testing company 23andMe, which was conducting a Parkinson’s Disease study. My mom agreed to spit into a test tube, and I sent her sample off.
Luckily for her kids, my mother did not carry any of the known Parkinson’s mutations for which 23andMe tested. But while exploring her genetic profile, I came across a feature called Relative Finder, which listed 1,000 people with whom my mother shared DNA. Most of them were Ashkenazi Jews, who make up an outsized percentage of 23andMe’s database, as they do in those of similar companies such as Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA. I had rather belatedly stumbled upon the new world of genetic genealogy, in which people use DNA analysis to supplement traditional genealogical research to determine how they are related.
Matches are based on centimorgans (cM)—the unit of gene measurement. The relationships work like this: Every person receives half—approximately 3,700 centimorgans—from each of their parent’s genomes in the form of long strands of identical DNA. About a quarter of each person’s genome is inherited from each grandparent and about one-eighth from each great-grandparent. As the distance between family members widens, the number of identical strands decreases, and measurement becomes less accurate thanks to the randomness of DNA transmission across generations. But, generally, if two people share DNA, it is likely that they share at least one ancestor within the last eight to ten generations.
I was inspired! I’d been following Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots television program, and my first thought was to conduct a Moment genetic study, which I gave the tongue-in-cheek title of The Great Moment DNA Experiment. In partnership with 23andMe, I planned to test 15 Jews to see if they were related and, if so, how closely. We chose a mix of friends and acquaintances to throw into our genetic pot. All had two Ashkenazi parents except for writer Ruth Behar, whose father was a Turkish Jew of Sephardi origin, and violinist Joshua Bell and columnist David Brooks, who each had Ashkenazi mothers and non-Jewish fathers. Only one had no obvious Ashkenazi roots at all: Political analyst Linda Chavez was a descendant of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Bialykamien Gerbers and my Moment Great DNA Experiment cousins have turned out to be my Jewish journey—my connection to my larger family, to my people.
For the most part, we found zero degrees of separation between members of our test cohort, in contrast to the normal three degrees of separation found between most Americans. In other words, 14 out of 15 of us (the outlier being Chavez) were directly related to one another. Oddly enough, I was the only one to find two third cousins. I shared more than 50 centimorgans with NPR senior host Robert Siegel and media entrepreneur Laurel Touby. I was also related to actress Mayim Bialik (32cM), businessman Tad Taube (31cM), actor Tovah Feldshuh (28cM), psychologist Steven Pinker (27cM), law professor Alan Dershowitz (24cM), journalist Esther Wojcicki (22cM), writer A.J. Jacobs (21cM), Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner (12cM) and Joshua Bell (9cM).
After the testing was completed, I interviewed each participant about their ancestral surnames and towns to see if I could come up with any genealogical connections. Nothing jumped out, but I did find quite a bit of geographic overlap. And although our experiment was meant to be illustrative and was not a competition, A.J. Jacobs was the most connected of our group in terms of total centimorgans, and also had the longest pedigree: He was descended from the Gaon of Vilna, a preeminent 18th-century rabbi. Mayim Bialik came in second and had a family tree that included the poet Haim Nahman Bialik.
For me, The Great Moment DNA Experiment affirmed a sense of tribe, something I had never personally felt, and it had the effect of drawing many of us closer and making us feel like family. It had another effect: Our results were now also searchable in worldwide databases, and for a while, my new late-night obsession was to troll for DNA matches, my own as well as my mother’s and father’s, whom I also had tested. (My parents, by the way, show up as distant cousins—not a shock given the proximity of their grandfathers’ hometowns.) I combed through centimorgan relationships, surnames and place origins, and contacted promising leads. It’s called cousin-fishing, and I can attest that it is habit-forming.
By 2013, 2.5 million people around the world had submitted their DNA for analysis, according to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. As more people were added to the databases, I met more genetic relatives. With some newfound cousins, a connection wasn’t visible at all, and with others it was cloudy. For example, Stephan Parnes, a retired rabbi and former magazine editor, found me through Family Tree DNA. We show a 108.66cM connection, and both have family from Bialykamien and surrounding towns. But we have not yet figured out which ancestor we have in common.
Then there is Doug Brown, a Texas lawyer who contacted me in 2014 through 23andMe. He and I also shared a significant amount of DNA, but it was immediately clear that he is the great-great-grandson of Ruchel Leah through her son from her first marriage. Rose Wieder, whom I had once looked for, was his great-aunt. Doug introduced me by email to Rose’s son, Bob Wieder, who it turned out lived a mere 30 miles from me. Doug traveled to Washington, DC, where the three of us met for dinner to compare notes. That night, I learned that the Ruchel Leah namesake chain is still going strong. Bob has granddaughters named for Ruchel Leah. He calls them his Ruchel Leahs. I also learned that we are related to Naftali Herz Imber, who wrote the lyrics for Hatikvah, and heard about the First Bialekamen Aid Association, established in New York in 1898, which sent money to family members left behind and functioned as a New World burial society. Every year Bob makes a Yom Kippur pilgrimage from Virginia to New York’s Montefiore Cemetery, where family members are buried.
My spreading tree, of course, has not been entirely fed by cousin-fishing. One sleepless night I came across records that Yad Vashem had posted online: In 1955, a Moshe Gerber in Israel registered the deaths of his parents and his siblings and their children. This was the first hard evidence I had that some of my Gerbers had been killed in the Holocaust and that at least one had survived—and cared enough—to record their memories. In 2014 and 2015, while I was in Warsaw, I visited the Jewish Genealogy & Family Heritage Center, which is supported by my Great DNA Experiment cousin Tad Taube. A genealogist there located one of Moshe Gerber’s children, Haim Gerber, a professor of Ottoman history at Hebrew University. Last November, I met Haim and his wife for dinner in Jerusalem. We drew what we knew of our family trees on a placemat and connected the dots. He and his brother Dov and sister Ayala are descended from one of Ruchel Leah’s brothers who stayed in Bialykamien to run the tanning factory. Just the other day, Dov’s son, who wasn’t aware I had met with his uncle, found me on his own through the genealogy website Ancestry.com, and emailed me a photograph of his great-grandparents that was taken in Bialykamien.
The miracle that is social media led me to another Gerber line. I noticed Yitti Gerber Sternfeld from New York on the Jewish Genealogy Portal. Only the lords of algorithms know why, but her post about Gerbers in Bialykamien appeared in my Facebook feed. Yitti’s sizable Gerber clan is directly descended from another of Ruchel Leah’s brothers. Its family tree fits like a missing puzzle piece into mine.
The Bialykamien Gerbers have been the easiest branch of my family to find—and I am sure I could go on reassembling it for decades, since there are clearly many more descendants out there. As the rest of us once did, they likely assume that their line alone survived. How fascinating that it has taken us nearly a century to discover otherwise—and that we care. Here we are in 2016, emailing and friending, Skyping and chatting on WhatsApp and occasionally meeting each other for dinner.
All sorts of unanswered questions remain. Some of our more religious family members have asked if we are Levites or Kohanim. (Cohen is the most popular surname in my relative finder profile.) I personally am more intrigued by our Spanish and Italian Jewish roots, since I, like my mother and at least one of her first cousins, am a carrier of Familial Mediterranean Fever, a disease generally associated with Sephardi Jews. And after my visit to Bialykamien, I also can’t help wondering why the old man I met there had the same piercing shade of cornflower blue eyes as my mother and some of her cousins.
There are clearly many more family members out there. As the rest of us once did, they likely assume that their line alone survived. How fascinating that it has taken us nearly a century to discover otherwise.
Actually, I probably know the answer to this last question. Now that I have a more complete view of both of my parents’ genes, I realize that my dad’s mongrel hypothesis was not completely unfounded. He is 98.1 percent Ashkenazi (99.7 percent European with the remainder Middle Eastern and North African), while my mother was only 96.4 percent Ashkenazi (although 99.8 percent European), the remainder a mix of southern and northwestern European, including a smidgen of Scandinavian. But we now know that that such a blend is not unique. Recent studies suggest that Ashkenazi Jews are likely descended from Jewish men and European women who converted to Judaism.
Beyond Ruchel Leah, I know little about my other great-grandparents. Dora fled an awful stepmother in Sudilkov, the same town that Steven Spielberg’s family is from. There are no records to go on, just my mom’s genes, and I recently received an email from a woman who may be descended from Dora’s maternal aunt. My father’s grandparents—Abraham David Epstein and his wife Lena Freedberg—lived in Buchach where records are also scant, so I’m waiting for a DNA breakthrough.
The tableau has almost completely gone dark on my father’s mother, Rose Bronstein from Skvira, south of Kiev. Was her father related to Lev Davidovich Bronstein, a.k.a. Leon Trotsky? As a 13-year-old who favored berets, I often pretended he was. I recently discovered that my cousin Helen did this as well, and we had a good laugh. Again, records are scarce, and without a historical trail to follow, I’ve asked Trotsky’s great-granddaughter to test her DNA so we can compare centimorgans. But these are tales for another day.
Throughout my genealogical and genetic adventures, I’ve come across some compelling characters—wildly creative writers and artists and musicians, scientists and lawyers, as well as well-known atheists and devout Orthodox Jews. They, along with the thousands of as yet undiscovered genetic cousins, have turned out to be my Jewish journey—my connection to my larger family, to my people. They are also the antidote to my familial loneliness syndrome. When I gaze into databases of genetic relatives, I know I’ll never be able to contact all of them. I am content knowing that our ancestors intermarried and once lived in the same or neighboring villages, then moved away and had their own families, the way humans have for generations. I am at one with the fact that the past is only partly visible—and rejoice at what I can see.