This story could start in so many places.
It could start with the letter that Robert Kanter has had on the sideboard in his Upper West Side dining room for years now.
It could start with Inna Vayner of Fair Lawn realizing that she could have found her mother’s cousin in Brooklyn had she looked in time, but now she’d waited for too long, and it was too late.
It could start with Nissan Ruppo, the jolly Chabad rabbi from Kostroma, outside Moscow, with the Russian Orthodox half-sister.
It could even start with a meeting at a sidewalk tent outside the Kasbah Grill, a Chabad-run restaurant on the Upper West Side — “The coming of the MOSHIACH is imminent and the redemption will come as well,” its website tells us — when two long-lost cousins and a Jewish genealogist met for the first time one evening, with a Jewish journalist (yes, that was me) along to watch. It included a long conversation, in Russian, between the man we assumed to be the owner, charismatic, with a long dark beard and warm eyes, who said he comes from Baku, and Rabbi Ruppo.
But maybe the best way to start it is by thinking about all those teenagers — who later, many years later, became many of our grandparents or great- or even great-great grandparents — who got on trains or horse-drawn carriages, or even at times hidden in the straw or in a trunk as they crossed borders, and then packed themselves into steerage on ships for a miserable ocean crossing to an unimaginably foreign new world, and who had started out those journeys reasonably certain that they’d never see their parents or their homes again.
Think about those young people, driven by hope or fear or hunger or despair or adventure.
And think about how they’d feel if they’d known that generations later, their descendants could find each other around the world, by using the internet (what’s that?) and DNA (what on earth is THAT???) as well as determination, patience, and resourcefulness (okay, so now you’re talking…).
So let’s start with Ms. Vayner, who was born in Moldova in 1974 and came to the United States with her family in 2002. By then, immigration from the former Soviet Union was easier than it had been; “We came directly to the United States,” she said. “We didn’t have to go through Austria or Italy. We just flew in.” The Vayners went to Brooklyn, where “two of my uncles, a maternal and a paternal, already were there. We were very lucky. They helped us tremendously. They were there every time we needed them.”
Her parents, Berta and Shika, still live in Bensonhurst, where the Vayners began their American life. Inna’s first job was as a cashier, but she went to college, became an accountant — “I love math,” she said — “got a job right away,” and has been working at IBM for 15 years now. She’s married, with two children. As she says, she’s been very lucky. It’s a good life.
Years ago, her mother asked her help in finding a relative she believed was living somewhere not too far away, Ms. Vayner said. She kept putting off that task, which didn’t interest her particularly, but eventually she undertook it, quickly found the cousin, who had lived in Brooklyn — and who recently had died. She found him, but it was too late.
During that search, she also found a relative in New Jersey. “She had come to the United States as a young child, 5 or 6 years old, but she taught herself to read Russian handwriting, and she was working with JewishGen, translating records from Russian to English,” Ms. Vayner said. JewishGen is a nonprofit organization, affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan, that provides free online resources to people searching for their roots.
“I wanted to help too,” Ms. Vayner said. “I’m a native Russian speaker, so I volunteered. And then JewishGen gave me a unique opportunity to start a project of my own.”
Ms. Vayner, who has a full-time day job as an accountant, remember, set up her own search firm, called findyourcousins.com; she uses all the resources at her disposal, including both databases and human connections, to research people’s records, find their pasts, unite them with relatives, and allow them to know their stories.
She uses genetic research, she said, but “I prefer to have followed a paper trail. To me, it’s more interesting, when you look at records that are 100 years old. It feels like an opportunity to touch the history. It gives the backstory; it gives more character, more flavor to the ancestors we’re looking for. It’s not only vital records of births and deaths — it’s when you find articles in newspaper where it mentions that someone broke into a store and stole everything, and you find out that there were Cossacks in the store that were making their way through the town. There is history, right in front of your eyes.”
She doesn’t travel for this work; instead, “I have researchers, who can request records directly from some archives, and from some libraries. And thank God, we live in a time when we have the internet. A lot of the material I use has been digitized and indexed, so I can try to request it, or send someone to copy it or to look through the records.”
Some countries are easier to deal with than others, she said. “Russia is easier. They are trying to digitize everything. Moldova is one of the more difficult archives to deal with, but thankfully I have someone I can work with there. And Belarus has opened and is now relatively easier to work with. Ukraine? It depends on what town. Some of them are pretty open, and some of them, not so much.”
She does use DNA reports at times too. “If there are no records — and in many places there are no records, after the Nazis saw to that — so sometimes DNA is the only way to go.
“And sometimes people come to me and say, ‘I have this paper trail, and also someone gifted me with a DNA test, but what I see from the DNA test has nothing to do with my paper trail.
“In those kinds of situations, obviously we go with the DNA, because DNA doesn’t lie.” What she left unspoken is the clear truth that often people do lie.
“In the majority of the time when there are such delicate situations, it’s not easy,” she confirmed. “Sometimes people are shaken by the discoveries. Many of them are in denial. They say, ‘Let’s test with a different DNA company.’ ‘Let’s do something else.’ ‘Anything else!’ ‘Can it be this?’ ‘Can it be that?’
“And then you have to stop them, and say listen, it’s not the end of the world. I understand that it’s hard, if you’re in your 60s or 70s, or even if you’re younger, to find out that what you’ve believed about your family all your life isn’t the case, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve felt love from your parents and your grandparents all your life. They gave you your life. So we try to look positively at whatever situation they end up in.”
Do such surprises — finding out that, say, you’re not related by DNA to the man who’s always been your grandfather, or even your father — happen a lot?
“More frequently than you’d expect,” Ms. Vayner said. “Maybe it just seems that way to me because I deal with it more frequently, because I’m the person they go to when they discover it, when they’re trying to disprove it.”
Enter Mr. Kanter, who had heard about Ms. Vayner — she’s vaguely related to someone he knows, he said — looked her up online, and asked her for help.
Mr. Kanter is an Emmy-award-winning film and television producer, whose many works include “Voices of the Children,” about three children who survived imprisonment at a concentration camp, Terezin, during World War II. He’s now working on a film about John Steinbeck’s “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”
He doesn’t remember exactly when his father found the letter that started his search, he said, “but what I do remember is that at some point my father flew down to Miami Beach to go through his father’s papers.”
Mr. Kanter’s father’s name was Aaron Kanter, and his grandfather was Abraham Kanter, but before that he had been Abraham Pukhovitzky. “I don’t know where Kanter came from,” Bob Kanter said. “I have heard stories that I don’t think are true, but I think they picked it out of the sky, because they liked it.
“My grandfather came as Pukhovitzky, in 1910, but by the time the census has him and his wife, whose name was Rose Mashitir, in Brooklyn, they were Kanters.”
The family knew very little about Abraham Kanter’s family back in Europe; he didn’t talk about them. “So when my father found the letter, he was astonished.”
The letter, written 42 years before Aaron Kanter found it, safeguarded among Abraham Kanter’s legal documents, the only such missive there among the will and the passport and other such papers, was from a sister about whose existence the family had never heard.
They knew absolutely nothing about her, yet their father and grandfather, who never mentioned her name, as far as they knew, ever, saved a letter from her.
“My father understood Yiddish, and he could read it, and he was dumbfounded,” Mr. Kanter said.
It’s a sad letter, begging for an answer, not asking for anything more substantial than a piece of paper, like the one she’d gotten just once. “My dearest one, if you could know how impatient I am to receive another letter…” Gita Leah Puchavitsky wrote. (There are many ways to transliterate the last name; this is the one the letter’s translator chose.) “Every day, when I awake in the morning, I take your letter and read it many times. I can’t tear myself away from it. When I read the letter, I imagine that I am talking to you. But when I finish reading, I see that I am mistaken…”
It’s written in Yiddish, but it’s signed in Cyrillic. There’s an address on it, next to the signature, and that too is in Cyrillic. “My understanding is that the address is in care of some other people in Moscow, which is not where my grandfather was from and not where she was born,” Bob said.
When his father died, Bob asked his mother if he could take the letter, and she said of course he could. So he framed it, put it in his dining room, and “for many years, people would ask me about it, and I’d tell them the story of the mystery letter.
“Until August, when I reached out to Inna. I had done a lot of research, but I never found anything. But she’s Russian-born, so I thought that maybe she could help. At least it couldn’t hurt to call.
“So I did. I reached out to her. I sent her the letter, and the translation, and I sent her my grandfather’s immigration papers.
“And she called me three days later, and said that she thought she found the grandson of my grandfather’s sister.
“I also remember her saying, ‘Do you want to talk to him?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’
“And then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, he’s a Chabad rabbi.’ Which is amazing to me, the fact that he’s even still practicing the Jewish faith is amazing, since he had been born in communist era. But not only is he practicing, he’s ultra-Orthodox.”
Ms. Vayner began her work by telling Mr. Kanter that she didn’t know if she could find anything, with just a letter, a name, and an address, but “I can try to look into address books from that time, and go from there.”
“There wasn’t much information in the letter, but I was able to use the name and the address of the place where she was staying. Every area in Russia had an address book where you could look people up by name.” Those books were like telephone books, she explained, except that back then, very few people had phones, and so they did not have phone numbers. “I was briefly working on a case for a client whose relative did have a phone number,” she said. “He was really well off.”
In her work for Mr. Kanter, “I was looking into different databases, and really nothing was popping up about the address in the letter. At the same time, I was looking for any mention of the last name of the woman who wrote the letter.” She found traces of Rabbi Ruppo having looked for the same person, but at a different shtetl, and when she found him, she was confused by the name Ruppo; it had been changed during his father’s lifetime, it seems. “So I reached out to Nissan, and kept looking for more about his father.” Eventually, she found “a mention of his father’s mother. The last name was right, and the Russified version of her name and patronymic name fit well with what I knew from the Yiddish letter.
“So I reached out to Nissan on Facebook, and we started talking about his grandmother, who wrote the letter, and he told me that his grandmother didn’t have any relatives in the United States. And we were talking and talking, and I showed him the letter.”
It turns out that his grandmother had a highly unusual way of writing a Russian letter; he had an example of it, and it matched that letter in Bob’s document.
Later, DNA confirmed the match.
Rabbi Ruppo, who is 43, has had a fascinating life, which he talked about that evening at Kasbah. He’s in the United States now visiting relatives, who are scattered throughout the country, it turns out, although most of them are not related to Bob. Rabbi Ruppo was born in Russia, and grew up secular, although eventually he was brought to religion by Chabad. Like the Kanters, his family name had been changed, to sound less Jewish. In his heavily accented English, he told us how he’d been circumcised — in Russia, at a Chabad summer camp, when he was 14, on a table, as were his friends. (He did not dwell on the specifics of the experience, which made the rest of us happy.) He spent some of his adolescence and young adulthood in Israel, but went back to Russia to lead a congregation there.
When he talks about Russia, it is without love. It’s not a great place to live, he said; freedoms, such as they had been, are vanishing. But it’s where his community, as well as his wife and children are, so it is where he will stay.
The relationship between Bob Kanter and Nissan Ruppo makes for a complicated family tree because “the theory is that my great grandfather had a first wife who gave birth to my grandfather, and we think that then she died,” Bob said. “Then he married a second wife and moved down the road to the next shtetl, where she, the second wife, gave birth to my grandfather’s three half siblings.” DNA tests confirm that Mr. Kanter and Rabbi Ruppo are second cousins, descended from half siblings.
“The towns were in Belarus, northeast of Minsk. We know my grandfather left from there, I believe that he sailed from Antwerp, and we know that he never saw anyone from his family again.
“He was 17.”
Mr. Kanter and Rabbi Ruppo’s grandfather wasn’t the only relative to have had more than one wife, Rabbi Ruppo said. His father’s first wife wasn’t Jewish, so his half-sister comes by her devout Russian Orthodoxy directly. The fact that they both are so deeply committed to their own faiths does not get in the way of their love for each other, Rabbi Ruppo said.
“I continue to marvel that 111 years after my grandfather came here, I finally have met someone who is a close blood relative of my father’s,” Mr. Kanter said. “I think it’s incredible. My grandfather wouldn’t talk about ‘the old country.’ I went to Russia when my grandfather was alive, and I didn’t hear one word about anything or anybody.
“My theory about the letter is that it’s probably the last one he got from her. It must have made him sad. He must have missed her.”
As for Rabbi Ruppo, who is active on Facebook and responds to everyone quickly and enthusiastically, Mr. Kanter said, “he is very sweet and very outgoing.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but when we parted as he left to get on the subway” — he was going, logically enough, to Crown Heights — “he gave me a big hug.
“We all have stereotypes of people we think we know, and we categorize them, but I found him very open; open, among other things, to having dinner with two women he is not married to.
“He has a vibrant community and posts a little newsletter every Shabbat about what’s going on.” Despite their many differences, “there are so many commonalities between us. There’s a lot about us that’s the same, and that’s amazing.”
Ms. Vayner continues her work; she’s already connected relatives in eastern Europe, the United States, Canada, Israel, and Argentina. She confines her work to Jewish genealogy because that’s the community she knows and understands, she says, but she assumes that she will find Jews in other, increasingly far-flung places.
“The most rewarding part of this work is that people keep in touch. It makes me feel so good to see that.
“You can feel the excitement when people meet,” she added. “It’s what keeps you going. You crave the feeling of people’s happiness, the joy of giving people the gift of knowing something about their heritage. I know how important it can be for someone who has no knowledge of their family history to know where they came from.”
Are there often physical resemblances, or other kinds of obvious similarities? “It depends,” Ms. Vayner said. “Sometimes it seems like people have nothing at all in common, but when they start talking they realize that they have common habits, common interests, and sometimes you look at them and you can’t even tell which is which, they look so similar.”
She’s not tempted to make relative-searching a full-time job, though. “I love accounting,” she said. “I love what I do. I love math. I am really passionate about it.” And the kind of focus on detail that accounting demands is what genealogy needs as well, so in a way the fields are connected, she said.
“When I was doing my research on my own family, I found an excerpt from a book written by one of my relatives, and it mentioned that my great grandfather was really good at math,” she said. “He could multiply large numbers in his head, and everyone went to him for help.
“So I was like, ‘There we go! Now I know where my love for math is coming from.’”