"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Samuel Abelson–A Jewish Indian

Samuel Abelson was a devout Jew.  He was Orthodox, observant, and a man of the book. He respected Jewish law and tradition, was a part of the closely-knit Orthodox community in Silver Spring, Maryland, and even honored the trades of his forefathers.  He was a furrier as had been his father, grandfather, and his more distant ancestors in the Russian shtetl who bought and sold pelts and who tailored them into warm coats and boots.

Samuel’s kitchen was kosher, of course.  He observed Shabbat, vowed to perform mitzvoth daily, recited the Shema, and studied the Talmud.  His children went to an Orthodox Jewish school, he and his boys wore yarmulkes, and his whole family celebrated the High Holidays with reverence, respect, and deep faith.

In other words, Samuel Abelson was Jewish to the core.  Judaism and the Jewish life described all of him.  Outside his faith and tradition, there was nothing.  He saw no reason to stray from his community, his profession, or the strict Talmudic code of obedience to God and the search for knowledge.

His friends were all Jews, and although they did not practice the segregation of the sexes common in Israel and even in the most orthodox Jewish communities in New York, men tended to do things together while women occupied themselves with the children, their friends, and their own female occupations.

Samuel’s punctiliousness was not simply a matter of family tradition and Jewish history, but one of character and personality.  He saw things in black and white.  There was a right way or a wrong way.  If you were a Jew then you should be a real Jew.  No compromises should ever be made, for giving in to the secular world only leads to the dilution of faith and culture and ultimately to the disappearance of Jewishness altogether.

In other words, Samuel’s choices were as much determined by his own personal obsession as by the potency of his faith. He could not stand irregularity or inconsistency and demanded that his household routine be as well-ordered and disciplined as the lessons of the Torah. While his wife did not share his devotion and unbending affiliation with all things Jewish, she loved him for his rectitude, conviction, and honesty.

One day a close friend of Samuel’s told him about his genealogical research, and suggested that he too might find it interesting.  “Genealogy?”,Samuel sniffed. “Six million Jews were incinerated in the ovens. What are you talking about?”

“No, Shmuel”, replied his friend. “You’d be surprised.  No family is ever totally wiped out.  There are traces.”

Samuel shook his head and wondered why anyone would want to explore their distant past.  He was the son of Abraham and Esther, and they were the children of Isaac, Rebecca, Samuel, and Beulah; so what more was there to know?  Shtetls, business, the camps, and America, that was enough.

“It’s Biblical”, his friend said. “’Adam begat Seth; and Seth, Enos,  Kenan, Mahalaleel, Jered,  Henoch, Methuselah, Lamech,  Noe, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The sons of Japheth were Gomer, Magog, Madai, and Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras…’ Doesn’t that ring a bell?”

Samuel was still diffident.  Tempted, but uninterested.  “Just try it”, his friend said. “I’ll set you up. The Internet makes everything easy.  You just tap in a few names, and you’re off to the races.”

It took Samuel a while to get the hang of web searches, but relying on user-friendly genealogical search sites made for the novice, he found that it was not difficult at all.  In fact he was able to trace his roots well beyond the War, Auschwitz, and the pogroms.

He found nothing particularly interesting, just confirmation of what he knew.  His ancestors did indeed come from a small town in western Siberia and at least one of his paternal ancestors did indeed trade in pelts. Even in the mid-19th century records were kept, and with a little patience one could pore through vital records, civil registries, tax and property files one could piece together quite a bit about Jewish family life 150 years ago.


Although both urban and rural Jewish populations were marginalized and socially isolated, Jewish communities were vibrant and energetic.  Fiddler on the Roof was about one such community; and Samuel had seen the play and the movie many times. The Jews within these communities kept records, and despite continual dislocations and abuse by the Russians, they were passed on from generation to generation.  Many communities had their own Yiddish newspapers, simple affairs printed in only a few copies, but with a hand-to-hand circulation which assured a large readership.

Samuel soon became thoroughly involved in his family search as his friend knew he would. Genealogy, he found, was part sleuthing, part historical investigation, and part  discovery of family and community lore.  He found that he was spending hours of the day trying to recreate the history of his family by piecing together incomplete records; but he never was discouraged at the lost trails, the dead ends, and the dangling reference.

One day he found a strange article in the Yiddish newspaper of his ancestral village which talked about “an Indian squaw” who lived in the village.  Samuel’s Yiddish was imperfect, but with the help of those friends still fluent, he finally understood that indeed an Indian woman from America was living in the village, married to a local man.  It seemed – although it couldn’t be – that the man was his great-great grandfather Shmuel.

Without going into all the details, it turns out that Great-great Grandfather Shmuel had gone to America to investigate the fur trading prospects there, to make his fortune, and then return to Russia.  He apparently stayed for 5-10 years in New York State, traded with the Mohawk Indians, and married a beautiful young woman named Dancing Fawn.  He brought her back with him to Russia, they had a child, Esther; but Dancing Fawn died in childbirth.  Shmuel and Esther made their way back to the United States. He married her to a successful Jewish merchant in Schenectady – without telling him of her Indian ancestry – and the young couple had four children, three of whom survived. 

When Samuel had finally pieced all this together, he could no longer avoid the conclusion that had been peeking out from the pages for months.  He was not Jewish.  Dancing Fawn’s blood was passed on down the matrilineal Jewish line until 1942 when he was born.

Now most Jews would have dismissed this bit of interesting history with a smile and ironic reference to casinos and silent laughing on the trail.  After four generations they were not interested in who in their family was an octoroon, quadroon, or anything else. There was plenty of Christian blood mixed in the Jewish gene pool (Didn’t Shylock’s daughter marry a gentile?), and as long as it didn’t get scrambled too close to the present day, it was an interesting sideshow and anecdote to be shared at bar mitzvahs.

Samuel, however, could not forget it, dismiss it, or let it go.  Talmudic law said that Jewishness was passed on through the matrilineal line, and that was all there was too it. The problem today was because too many Jews were intermarrying, and that this purity of lineage was being lost.  If this Jew-Gentile miscegenation continued, there would be no Jews left in a hundred years.

But what to do?

He met with his Orthodox rabbi who said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but in the eyes of God, you are a redskin”. Samuel was not too surprised because Rabbi Feldman was known as a man without bend. He would not circumcise David Goldstein’s son because his wife’s conversion to Judaism had not been kosher.  She had professed her new faith before a Reformed Rabbi who could not sanctify anything with such spiritual, let alone Biblical implications as a conversion. The rabbi told him to try his luck elsewhere, perhaps with the same charlatan who had presided over the soi–disant conversion.

Goldstein had been somewhat reluctant to go to Rabbi Schnicker in the first place.  He was known all over Silver Spring as the ‘Bon Vivant’ rabbi, scratch handicap, wine connoisseur, and political pundit.  Everyone liked him because he was so liberal in his interpretation of Jewish law and was willing to overlook certain doctrinal and Talmudic intricacies that Rabbi Feldman would not.

“Go”, said Goldstein to Samuel. “He’s a very understanding man.”

Rabbi Schnicker received Samuel warmly, and once he had heard the story, smiled and said, “Samuel.  If anyone is a Jew, you are.  Go home, shtup your wife and be happy.”

Again, Samuel got exactly what he expected which was exactly nothing that could answer this fundamental question. It should not be a matter for debate, he thought to himself.  Either you are or you aren’t.  How could there be such a difference of opinion?

As far as he knew there were no other Jews on the East Coast with an Indian ancestor.  He entered every possible key search word on Google with no definitive answer. Only one name came up, a Jew who claimed that he was one-eighth Mohegan and wanted in on the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino near the Rhode Island line in Connecticut.  The Jewish Daily had a field day with the story, especially the devious but quite ingenious ways he presented his case to the tribal chieftain who reportedly said, “No Indian wampum for kemosabe”.

The guy never gave up, and made the same pitch to Brown University when his daughter was applying.  He insisted that she check the Native American box on the application form.  Brown, the epicenter of Political Correctness, was not sure how to react and danced around the issue very lightly.  They did not want to offend Native American groups by calling out the fraud; and in the unlikely event that the girl was in fact Mohegan, they wanted her to feel comfortable on campus. 

Saner heads prevailed, and the Provost, always brought into the admissions process in thorny cases like this, said, “Bullshit. Let her go to Pine Ridge U”.  He was immediately called on the carpet for this outburst, but the President agreed with him and rightly assumed that the girl’s father was not going to initiate any legal action. 

His wife, increasingly concerned about Samuel who had worked himself up into a state, could not sleep, and gnashed his teeth when he did, suggested that he go to Israel, and meet with a serious Orthodox rabbi.  He agreed, but when the met the rabbi in his austere and cloistered quarters in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, he was met with a blank stare.  The rabbi knew about Seth, Enos, Kenan, Mahalaleel, Jered,  Henoch, Methuselah, Lamech,  Noe, Shem, Ham, and Japheth and all the rest, but could not wrangle the corrupted lineage of a Jew with American Indian blood. “Did the squaw convert?”, the rabbi asked in his thick Hebrew accent. Samuel explained that Dancing Fawn worshipped trees and rocks and that conversion really was not issue.  The rabbi stared at him for a long minute, sighed, and said, “I can’t figure this one out.  If you want to be a Jew, be a Jew.  Otherwise wear feathers”.

Samuel had come to the end of the line.  He could go no further.  The worst possible fate had befallen him – not that he was part Indian, but that he had to decide whether he was or not.  His perfectly-constructed, well-ordered world of black and white, absolutes, and total certainty was no longer. 

When he got back to New York, he ran into Rabbi Schnicker at Zabar’s. “So, what’s the verdict? Is it this…?” Here he did an imitation of a war dance.  “Or this….?”, and he rocked like an old Jew at the Wailing Wall.

As seriously as he had taken his dilemma, the antics of this dumb asshole made him laugh.  Not just a chuckle, but a great big, barking, guffaw.  It was exactly the epiphany that his wife had been hoping for, although when he told her about it, she was a bit surprised that a man of the faith could have acted like that, especially in Zabar’s.  In any case Samuel realized that the world actually did have round edges, that there were more colors in the spectrum than black and white, and most importantly the idea of an Indian Jew was hilarious. Just think of what fun Don Rickles could have had with that one at Grossinger’s!

One year when Samuel was taking his family for drive to see the foliage in western New England, he made a detour to Schenectady to visit the Mohawk Museum there.  He wasn’t exactly looking for a family resemblance in the craggy Indian faces, but he had to admit the thought had crossed his mind.  All he saw were old photos of the Indians that resembled the old dioramas at the Natural History Museum in Washington. Stuffed Indians on stuffed horses riding the plains.  Stuffed squaws pounding corn, etc. He wasn’t even sure why he wanted to see this degrading display of Native Americans, for he had been far less interested in Jewish museums; but he was glad he went.  It meant the final end of an era.

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