Sunday, April 29, 2012


Last week, there was a reunion of students of the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, for alumni of eighth and twelfth grades covering about a dozen classes. I was a student there for seventh through tenth grades.

The entire high school,
when I was in tenth grade
The program was at the school, but Sunday we were being Skyped in for a few hours from Faygie Butler Posy's house here in Jerusalem. Morris Kinast was the organizer who coordinated with us and he had asked me to speak for a few minutes about what I have done over the years and reminiscences of Hillel.

Most of what I had to say about what I have done was on the Reunion's Facebook page and in the Power Point that Morris had prepared, but I agreed to complement what I had already written.

We had a nice turnout here on the Jerusalem end - twenty-one Pittsburghers, plus a few spouses. The Skype connection was not good enough to have any meaningful interaction, so I scrapped what I had planned to say. At the suggestion of Shanen Bloom Werber, I am fleshing out my notes here. (I always do what Shanen tells me to do.)

Hodesh Tov.

On behalf of everyone here, I want to thank Morris for getting us all together and Faygie and Carl for opening their home to the assembled. Morris asked me to speak about what has happened to me over the years, and to recall my experience at Hillel. Most of what I can say about myself is on the Facebook page and the Power Point, but I'll add a few things.

For those of you who remember me, I am very much as I always was. I was a chronic under-achiever and I still am. I was incurably optimistic and I still am. I was always losing the battle of the waistline and I still am. And I was insufferably full of myself and I still am - but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Of course like with most of you, the age is showing. I cannot read without glasses and I am constantly telling my grandkids to speak up - when I am not pleading with them to quiet down.

Back when I was thirty-seven or thirty-eight, I read a book about ADD and I recognized everything in it. Suddenly the world made sense. And I have been grateful ever since that they hadn't yet invented Ritalin when I was young.

For me, life's big game-changer came from Hillel, but not from the school or any of the teachers. It was from another student. Marc Fogel dragged me to Bnei Akiva and everything flowed from there. The idea of aliyah
was never on the radar of the school or the teachers.

So let me say a few things about Hillel, and what is Hillel but the teachers.

In Jewish studies, we had some excellent teachers who really knew their stuff. I expect that everyone who ever attended Hillel, would put Rabbi Nadoff at the top of that list.

We had others who knew their stuff - or at least we can give them the benefit of the doubt - but they couldn't control a class. Or they were simply boring. Or they had strange teaching methods. One in particular taught us a list of four hundred words and promised us that if we learned them, we'd be able to speak Hebrew fluently. Four hundred words. All nouns. I think of that teacher today when I use the words for soup and restaurant.

I learned over the years that Rabbi Rottenberg was right on almost everything, but that on one matter - which he himself defined as very important - he was absolutely wrong.

As far as secular studies go, anyone who ever thought that teachers should not be seriously demanding needs only to poll the Hillel High School students throughout the years about Mr. Tomko. He never felt he had to be anyone's buddy and no one expected any favors. Everyone learned.

There were other excellent teachers, as well as some average and a few who should have been doing something else.

There were two who tried to brainwash us on matters social and political. One did so as a matter of ideology. One did so out of ignorance, not ever considering that anyone might think that Franklin Roosevelt hadn't made the sun shine. Had I taken those particular lessons home, my father would have set me straight PDQ and I would have brought his arguments back to the classroom. It would have gotten ugly.

There were two classes we were never offered and over the years I was sorry for that. One was writing and one was speaking. Mrs. Belle used to have us get up and speak in front of the class frequently, but she never taught us how we should be doing it. As a result, I acquired the confidence to speak in front of a group even when I had neither structure nor style and without much content to offer.

Mr. Mandell hinted once that there was such a thing as a dedicated class in writing, but he never taught it. I went through school thinking that writing was for girls.

Let me leave you with something else, that I have learned over the years that has nothing to do with school. Those of you who still have a parent - or even older aunts and uncles - prompt them to talk and listen to what they say. Ask directed questions about when they were young and about their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, their aunts and uncles. Get names, dates, places. ("Russia" doesn't count as a place. Be specific.) Get them to label the photographs. ("My grandfather" is not an acceptable label.) If you can bring in a professional interviewer and cameraman, do it. We did that with my mother.

You think you know about your grandparents, but life is more than a resume.

I am a genealogist and there are parts of the basic structure of my family that I may never know, yet all I had to do was ask my grandfather's brothers back when I was a teenager, for they surely knew the answers.

Even if you aren't really that interested, eventually someone will ask  "Why don't you know..."

Then talk to your grandkids, independently of their parents. Repeat yourself shamelessly. They may laugh that you do, but "familiar is good." Tell them who and where and when. Make them charts and show them maps. And label your own photographs.

Last summer, I took one of my grandsons to the cemetery at PZ Sheraden. We went to my grandparents and great-grandparents and some aunts and uncles. I showed him the grave of the great-grandfather who was on the building committee of the PZ. He pretended to be interested, but he will remember.

If you talk to your grandchildren about these things, then sixty or seventy years from now, they will talk to their grandchildren and they will say "My grandfather said..." or "My grandmother showed me..." They will be talking about you. And you will know and your soul will be happy.

GO STEELERS                   PARTY ON DUDES          

Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE 17th DAY OF THE OMER - תפארת שבתפארת

or   THE INTERNET AND ME          
or      MY FIRST-BORN SON AND RABBI SHEMUEL                

Computers in the Corporate Office

I had been working there for about a dozen years, this large, well-known (in Israeli terms) industrial corporation with maybe fifteen hundred employees. This was sixteen years ago and the Internet was just beginning to be used in companies such as ours. That's "such as," not ours itself. The head of the computer department had said in no uncertain terms that no one in the company needed Internet and no one would have it.

He had been terribly wrong before, as when he insisted in 1984-85 that no one would ever need a PC and that the two of us who shared one would soon be shown the folly of our ways.
Visicalc - Our computer's
memory was 32 kb
Lotus 1-2-3 version 1A
But I did the budget and cost accounting of the mining division for several years on Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3 1A, while the processing plant economists kept working with pencil and paper, waiting for the expensive new central system to kick in. (It never did.)

I had learned a bit about email and the world wide web when I was in the US for my first-born son Yerachmiel's wedding a few months earlier and I was really interested in bringing those tools into my office. Such confidence that I had was really what you would call today "faith-based."

For some reason, someone overruled the computer guy, and I was told that I would be given my own Internet connection. Perhaps that spreadsheet work had given me some credibility with someone.

Counting the Omer - No Computers Needed
And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall be complete; even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days          (Vayikra 23)
So we count the Omer for forty-nine days, counting each day and each week, from the second night of Pesach ending the night before Shavuot.

The colors show the seven Kabbalistic
terms, by day and by week
Kabbalah assigns one of seven Divine qualities to each of the seven days of the week and then to each of the seven weeks. First is חסד (hessed) kindness, then גבורה (gevurah) strength or fortitude, followed by תפארת (tif'eret) glory or beauty, נצח (netzach) eternity, הוד (hod) majesty, יסוד (yesod) foundation and finally  מלכות (malchut) kingdom. So the first week is hessed and the days of that week are hessed in hessed, gevurah in hessed, tif'eret in hessed etc. That pattern follows throughout the seven weeks and in saying this much, I have reached the outer limits of my understanding of the subject.

My First-born Son

Yerachmiel was born around noon Friday, the second day of Iyyar, thirty-nine years ago, in Chicago. My parents had made aliyah two years earlier and it was already Shabbat for them, so I could not call them with the news. Most of my other close family lived in Pittsburgh, but they were all on the way to Silver Spring Maryland for my cousin Marshal's bar mitzvah. So aside from my then-wife's Chicago family, the only call I could make that day was to Marshal's parents, who reported the news of the first grandson and first great-grandson to the Pittsburghers, including my grandmother.

Today, he and his wonderful wife of sixteen+ years, live in suburban Chicago with their sons. He has been ordained in traditional Jewish jurisprudence ("yadin yadin") which he continues to study and serves as the rabbi of a small, but vibrant shul.

But that is now and I was telling you about sixteen years ago.

So.  Where Is This Leading?

A few days after Pesach sixteen years ago, I was told that the company had ordered me an Internet line, from a soon-to-be-defunct provider called It was to be up and running the following Sunday. So Sunday morning, the day after Rosh Hodesh, I made my way to work as usual - driving to Beer Sheva, going to the 5:40 minyan, then getting the company bus for the half-hour ride to our offices. I would sleep during that ride, usually drifting off before we even left the city.

But that morning, I stayed awake another two or three minutes, enough to see the large billboad near the exit to the city. Some forgettable inspirational message with one of the iconic, ubiquitous pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had died going on three years earlier.

And down at the bottom, it said

And I figured that was as good a way as any to test out my new Internet connection. When I went into the site, I saw that they were offering a daily email called something like "Thought For The Day." I signed up.

They sent me their thought for that day - 2 Iyyar, the seventeenth day of the Omer. I no longer have what they sent, but it made an impression, so I will bring the story from another Habad publication.

My grandfather (the Rebbe Maharash) was born on this day [2 Iyyar] in 5593 (1833).

When he was seven years old he was once tested in his studies by his father, the Tzemach Tzedek. My grandfather did so well in the test that his teacher was enormously impressed. Unable to restrain himself he said to the Tzemach Tzedek, "Well, what do you say? Hasn't he done marvelously?" The Tzemach Tzedek responded: "What is there to be surprised about when tiferet-within-tiferet does well?"
With the footnote:

1. There are seven midot or Divine attributes, the first (and major) three being chessed (kindness), gevura (severity) and tiferet (beauty). Each attribute contains elements of the others, chessed-within-chessed, gevura-within-chessed, etc. 49 combinations in all, corresponding to the 49 days of the omer. The Rebbe Maharash was born on Iyar 2, the day of tiferet-within-tiferet, an extraordinarily high spiritual level.

The Rebbe Maharash, properly known as Rabbi Shemuel, was the fourth leader of Chabad.

"Tiferet within tiferet." My son's birthday.

It was clear that this Internet thing and I were going to be good friends.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


The first attorney who wanted to hire me was a loud New Yorker here in Jerusalem, dealing with an inheritance. The deceased had filled out Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem for five brothers and sisters. Another brother and sister had survived the Holocaust and had predeceased her – one lived in Europe and one in the US.

The latest version of an English Page of Testimony
This week is Yom HaShoah. Do you have family
who have not been memorialized? Go to
The deceased had also filled out Pages of Testimony for her parents, stating that they had nine children. The attorney wanted to know what happened to the ninth. I suggested that there may have been a child who died before the War and he agreed that this was likely the case, but he needed documentation. The family came from a town for which there were no surviving records, so it would be no simple matter to prove the death of a child or young adult in the 1920s or 1930s.

I told him my hourly rate and he refused. He wanted a flat fee based on results only. I wished him luck finding someone on that basis, and he eventually agreed to my terms. He did insist that I was to spend no time on Pages of Testimony, because he himself had checked all the possibilities and the ninth child was not there.

The eight known children had been born during the period 1908-1926, so I expected to find the ninth during that period, or perhaps a bit earlier or a bit later.

The first thing I did was to ignore the attorney's instructions and check the Pages of Testimony. He may have been the know-it-all attorney, but I was the professional. At least, that's what I was trying to be.

The deceased had submitted many Pages of Testimony, not just for her immediate family, but for other relatives and acquaintances, mostly from her home town. One was for the missing sister. She was married, therefore went by a different surname, and she had lived in her husband's town. The odd thing was that she was born in 1900, way before any of the others, and had two very young children who were born when she was in her late thirties. But the hometown and the parents were clearly identified and the deceased had identified her as a sister, so there was no question of accuracy.

I billed the attorney for two hours' work. He was not happy to have missed the Page himself. He shorted me on the check and I sent it back. When he asked me if I could find records of the deceased's cousins, I turned him down.

I should have agreed to a flat fee.

This week is Yom HaShoah. Do you have family who have not been memorialized?

One of my first clients was an Englishman living in Jerusalem. He wanted to know a few things about his grandfather, who had gone to England from eastern Europe around 1900. He had seen his grandfather's grave, so he knew the father's name, but didn't know anything about the mother. He also wanted to know about the grandfather's immigration to England.

I asked about other family members and he told me that the grandfather had two sisters who went to the same city in the US and both married Jews with common surnames, but he didn't know anything about their families and could see no point in going that route.

The immigration was fairly straightforward. I found the grandfather arriving in England several years later than expected, but his name, age and home town identified him unambiguously.

But there was nothing on the mother in any of the sources I could find.

I went after the sisters in the US. In most states, a death certificate has a space for mother's birth name. Of course that does not always mean it actually appears, but it is a reasonable way to check. Another possibility is the application for Social Security (SS-5) which also has a space for mother's birth name. But both the death certificates and the SS-5 forms required an unambiguous identification, and we didn't have that.

So I messed a bit with the US census records for 1910 and 1920 and eventually found someone who could be one of the sisters, with a son named the same as the client's father. The local Jewish community is well-organized and I figured I could get death and burial information from them – for a fee – and that I might find the sister buried in the same place. From there to death certificates would be an easy step.

I brought this plan to the client and he shot it down. "I said I don't want to look there."

I don't think it was just the money. There must have been something else. But he is the client, so that's where it ended.

On 8 February, prospective client – a genealogy researcher whose name I know - writes:
I would like to find in Israel descendants of my family who lived in the tsarist Russia and early USSR in Moldova, Bessarabia and someparts of Ukraine. Could you help me?
On 9 February, I respond:
[T]he answer to this kind of question is "maybe." It depends on so many things.

Tell me what you know, what you want to know and what steps you have already taken. Then I'll have a look.
On 14 March, I follow up:

[I]s there something you wanted to do with this?
On 16 March prospective client writes:
what do you mean by "is there something you wanted to do with this?"

I would like to find in Israel the surname [surname redacted] of those who came from Ukraine, Moldova and Russia proper.I have the census of 1858 in [town name redacted] are 6 males. I know to about 80 per cent their descendants. I would like to find those who came to Palestina and Israel.
So that's the answer to "tell me what you know." I wished her luck.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Jacob meets Joanna
One of the purposes of a family genealogy web site is to serve as a place where unknown family members can find each other. In the case of the Pikholz Project, we occasionally meet a previously unknown branch in exactly this way - someone looks for his grandfather online and finds him on our site.

About nine months ago, I received an email from a young woman in Warsaw named Joanna who told me that her late grandfather Julian was the son of a Polish woman and an older Pikholz man. Joanna didn't know the man's first name, but she knew where he lived and what he did for a living. She continued:

The features of my grandfather Julian, my mother and her brother, and mine have always been perceived as original and Semitic rather than Slavic, which might be accounted for by our origin and the multicultural mixture existing in the borderland area.

Around the year 2000 my mother told me and my son Filip that my grandfather Julian's father was Pikholtz, the administrator of one of the estates where my great grandmother Marta had worked (she had become a wife and a mother by then which means that Julian was a child born out of a romance). My mother told us the situation was very awkward, Marta was Julian's lonely mother so, in an intolerant environment, he was badly treated being a child born out of wedlock, and Jewish to top it all.

I took a long time to associate certain facts of my grandfather's life with his speechlessness. Being Polish and Jewish he had to hide from both the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and from the Germans. Then he had to hide from the Polish being a Jew. His features and his face were unambiguous.

My mother told us that the Pikholtz family were in the ghetto (probably in Podwołoczyska) during the war. Someone saw the Pikholtz sons being brought away, Julian was said to know one of them personally.

I had no problem identifying Julian's putative father as a certain Josef Pikholz who has a single living descendant, a great-grandson Jacob here in Israel, who is one of the prime movers of our research and a Polish speaker to boot. (Well, not "a single living descendant" - Jacob has children and grandchildren - but you get the idea.)

There are other children in some of these families.
If what Joanna tells us is true, then she and Jacob are second cousins. That would be closer than any other relative he has on his mother's side. But how do we prove it?

Well then, despite what I wrote here a few weeks ago, DNA seems to be the way to go. The easiest thing of course would be a Y-chromosome test on all male lines, in this case leading down from Josef. But line from Josef to Jacob includes Jacob's mother. Nor is there an all male line from Josef's father Arie Leib or even from Josef's grandfather Nachman. So although we have a male line from Josef to Julian's sons and grandsons, we have nothing to compare it to.

I spoke with the folks at Family Tree DNA, where I had done my own testing last year, and they suggested a test they call Family Finder which can measure degrees of cousinhood based on the percentage of overlapping DNA, without regard to whether the lines being tested are male, female or mixed. Since we are talking about really close cousins here, that should suffice.

So in the coming days, Jacob will be discussing with Joanna exactly how they will do this test.

The Twenty-two Skalat-area Pikholz Families
But since we are already dipping our toes into this pool, we decided to look at the next step.

We have probably twenty-two Pikholz families of four or more generations from the Skalat area and although we assume they are all related, we have no proof, nor do we have any idea what the full family structure might be. To be sure, some of those families seem to be related to one another, based on patterns of given names, family traditions or other considerations, but that represents only the preliminary stages of proper research.

So the question is, how can we use DNA testing to advance the project.

Here again, the obvious path is that of Y-chromome testing, to see that everyone leads back to some original male Pikholz. Unfortunately, that will not work. Two of the families (marked in blue in the chart above) have no living descendants, so there is no one to test. Five others (marked in red) - include my own line - have women of unknown (or at least unclear) parentage in the first generation, so the male line is meaningless. Of the other fifteen, only seven have a male line that has living descendants, plus there is an eighth which can also be useful. Let's lay them out.

LAOR - This is the family of Jacob and perhaps Joanna that I discussed above. Assuming the connection with Julian proves to be valid, Julian's son is a candidate for testing.

RITA and TONKA - We have living descendants, but no male line.

ROSA and ELIEZER - We have one son in the second generation of ROSA and he married a daughter in the second generation of ELIEZER. Unfortunately the living lines from that marriage are not male-only. We do, however, have one line in ELIEZER which is all male, down to two brothers who live in Israel. Members of that family are interested in their history, so there should be no problem getting one of them tested.

MATI - The man at the top of this family is almost certainly in the second generation of ELIEZER, but there is no male line to test. However, one of the daughters in the next generation married a Pikholz of unknown parentage and we have a male line from there. I am very interested in having that line tested. Contact with the single candidate for testing is sporadic, but it is not hopeless.

VLADIMIR - The top if this very small family is also possibly from the second generation of ELIEZER. There is one person to test, an older Russian-speaker here in Israel. I hope we can secure his cooperation.

ORENSTEIN and DORA - These two families are related, according to family tradition, and there is a marriage between them. We have one male line for DORA in the US, none for ORENSTEIN. Here too, contact with the single candidate for testing is sporadic, at best.

STEVE, IRENE and WELWELE have no male lines and we have no real ideas whom they might be connected to.

GRIMAYLOW - This is a family with no obvious connection to any other, but the one line we have is a male line with two brothers, one about eighty and one over ninety, both living in Israel and both have sons. I have never been in contact with either, but some years ago was in contact with their sisters. This will not be simple, I suspect, but may be doable.

ISRAEL - Of the two brothers in the second generation, one had daughters who went to the US and the other had sons, one of whom has one candidate for Y-chromosome testing. He rebuffed my only attempt at contact  some years ago, but perhaps we will be able to do something this time.

CHONE - This family is from eastern Ukraine, but my guess is they came from Skalat. My contact is with a female descendant in the US, but she has brothers who would qualify for Y-chromosome testing.

So we have eight people we'd like to test, six of whom may need serious convincing. Not to mention that these tests cost $169 each.

Another thing
Four of the five families whose earliest identified Pikholz ancestors are women, have female lines which I would like to test.

PITTSBURGH - This is my family and there is one line that is female all the way down. Perhaps we can get cooperation there.

RISS - There is one very elderly woman in Chicago who qualifies. She has only sons, but the female-line test can be done with a male at the end, as males have mitochondria too.

KCMO - There is one candidate. Maybe. If we can make contact with her. We haven't thusfar.

KHARKOV - My contact person here became invisible six or eight years ago.

Also, there are two sisters here in Israel whose mother was Pikholz from all four grandparents. Their female line goes back to the female half of the top of ORENSTEIN.

All of these are interesting in a "you never know what might turn up" sense.

There are some other possibilities as well, but that's enough for the present.

Perhaps in a few weeks, I'll analyze our Rozdol families in the same way.