Family stories

Family stories

I hate to see friends fight, especially when they are friends of the Jewish News. Bennett Muraskin of Parsippany is an author of a bibliography of Yiddish short stories, the adult education director of the Jewish Cultural School and Society, and an occasional contributor to NJJN. Novelist Dara Horn, who grew up in Short Hills and still lives in Essex County, is a winner of a slew of awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, for highly regarded novels like In the Image, All Other Nights, and, most recently, A Guide for the Perplexed.

In recent weeks, “Jewish Surnames Explained,” an article by Muraskin first published in Jewish Currents magazine, gained wide popularity on the Internet when it was republished by Slate. Offering capsule histories of various Jewish last names, the article has been “shared” on Facebook over 80,000 times and has generated almost 2,000 tweets.

Great news for Bennett, not so much for Dara. Horn, who studied Yiddish and Hebrew toward her PhD in comparative literature at Harvard University, worries that Muraskin’s article is riddled with mistakes. “Kagan” comes from “Cohen,” not the Central Asian kingdom of Khazar; “Berliner” derives from the city of Berlin, not “husband of Berl”; “Lieberman” doesn’t mean “loverman,” but something closer to the salutation “dear sir.”

Horn, writing for the on-line magazine Mosaic, is especially perturbed by Muraskin’s suggestion, somewhat qualified, that “there may have been Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors.” Horn writes that this is a myth: Immigration officers at Ellis Island “never wrote down immigrants’ names. They obtained those names from ships’ manifests, compiled at the port of origin.” If immigrants chose new names, they probably did so voluntarily, she writes, and after they left Ellis Island.

Why does this matter to Horn, who wrote a 1,800-word response to Muraskin’s 1,700-word article? Because, she writes, the Internet has become a “toxic sea” of anti-Semitic misinformation, and “that makes it all the more important to get Jewish history right.”

Horn’s points are well taken, although Muraskin is taking it on the chin for a well-intentioned article that he probably never expected would go viral. Even Horn admits that attacking Muraskin’s popular piece feels a “bit like clubbing a baby seal” — after all, its popularity suggests that American Jews “are still fascinated to learn where they came from.”

I’m one of those Jews, even more so in recent weeks. My dad recently gave me a trove of family documents, some dating to the 19th century, and I’ve learned more about my family history since December than I had since childhood.

For example, I found out what our family name was before a great-uncle changed it to “Carroll” when he immigrated to America. My father’s parents moved from Russia to Paris before coming to the United States. Among the papers is a yellowed French immigration document signed by my grandfather on March 13, 1913; there he spells his last name “Karoltchouk.” On my grandmother’s “Permis de sejour a un etranger,” issued in Paris in 1914, it’s spelled “Karolchouk.” A cursory web search locates Jews with variations like Korolczuk and Karolchuk, which I am told is a common Polish last name.

I haven’t had a chance to delve deeper into this, and I know there is a wealth of genealogical resources out there. But after years of not paying much attention to my family history, or passing on half-remembered bits of lore and legend, these old documents have cracked open a door I assumed was closed forever. I knew that my grandparents lived in Paris for a time; my late uncle’s birth certificate tells me the name of the street. I knew my father had a brother who died in infancy; now I have both his birth certificate from August 1925 and the receipt to his cemetery plot signed 56 days later. I knew the outlines of my family origins story, but every document tells me a little bit more.

There is still so much I don’t know, and only so much documents can tell you. What was it like to arrive in the teeming Jewish quarter of Paris from a small town in Russia, pregnant with your first child? Or end up once again in a village, this time in upstate New York, the only Jewish family for miles around? That’s why every genealogist tells you to learn as much as you can from relatives before it’s too late. The popularity of Muraskin’s article reminds us that we are hungry for this connection to this Jewish past — perhaps because our present-day connections are growing weaker, or because we have a growing fear that time is running out. Horn also reminds us that if we are going to tell our family history — ours or someone else’s — we owe it to each other to get these stories right.

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