Laurie and I were invited to a cousin’s wedding in Baltimore and debated whether to go. You know the narrative: we’re so busy; we’ve been doing so much traveling lately. It’s easy to talk yourself into saying no. Then a friend said, “You’d go if this were a funeral. The groom is the grandson of your uncle Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, your mother Elsie’s brother. Go and visit with your family. This is a no-brainer.” The practical voice in my head succumbed to the passionate voice in my heart. We went to the wedding, and I’m so glad we did.
The rewards of going began immediately upon entering the synagogue. Arriving early, I grabbed a visit with Uncle Leonard, an Orthodox Rabbi with 12 kids. I asked: “How many grandkids do you have now?” His answer: “I think it’s 52.” His wife Feigi confirmed the number, but no doubt that number will continue to grow as his kids keep having more kids. Great grandkids were also actively arriving. Every person in this growing multitude is my cousin.
As my dozens of cousins began arriving, I began catching up with them. There were so many meaningful updates, but I’ll share one that really grabs my heart. A first cousin, Eliezer, one of the world’s leading oncologists who is researching early detection of pancreatic cancer at NYU, has an eight-year-old daughter battling cancer in her neck. The family has been consumed with prayer and efforts to save her. Talking with another first cousin, Chaya, the mother of the groom, we learned of her own efforts to pray for her niece’s recovery. Only weeks before her son’s wedding, Chaya donated a kidney to a stranger, praying that G-d would hear her prayers and heal her niece. Soon thereafter, the family received word that the cancer is in remission. Here’s to medical wonders and the power of prayer!
There were so many more stories, including my visit with another first cousin now seven years sober after battling addiction. Every Saturday night he hosts a gathering in his home of men struggling with all forms of addiction, so they can provide each other with some group support.
The wedding was off-the-charts festive. This branch of my family is very religiously observant, preserving the traditions of my grandparents from Eastern Europe. Men and women were seated separately at both the ceremony and the dinner, followed by energetic circle dancing (men dancing with men and, on the other side of a high curtain, women dancing with women).
Upon leaving, my uncle invited us to his home the next morning for bagels and schmears, “immediate family only.” Laurie and I arrived to dozens and dozens of bagels and dozens and dozens of cousins. We spent three hours gathered around the kitchen table with revolving waves of bagel-eating relatives. I huddled with my uncle and learned family heritage stories I’d never heard before.
I knew that all my grandparents came to America before World War II, barely escaping Hitler. What I didn’t know is that Leonard found my grandmother Pauline’s passport and the story it revealed. Pauline’s passport claimed she was a citizen of Poland, even showing her name is Pola to sound more Polish. But Pauline lived in Ukraine; she never lived in Poland. When Ukraine wouldn’t allow them to leave, the family smuggled across the border into Poland and paid bribes to get Polish passports so they could come to America. Moreover, they got in under the wire as one of the last waves of immigration before the borders closed. It’s a miracle my family and I are alive. This heritage of miracles brings me so much perspective and gratitude.
I’ve previously written that author Mitzi Perdue says the number one most important contributor to family connection (and even successful business succession) is family travel. I’m a believer. With my loud internal practical voice, I almost missed out. Yet by going, I came away enriched by strengthened family ties and an expanded awareness of my heritage.
So now my daughter Lizzy is asking Laurie and me to join her family later this month on a trip to Israel to celebrate her son Ollie’s third birthday and first haircut (“upsherin”). The answer is an enthusiastic “yes!” Stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll have some lessons to share.
Marvin E. Blum
Left: Marvin and Laurie Blum with Rabbi Leonard Oberstein (Marvin’s uncle) at the wedding of one of Rabbi Leonard’s grandsons. Right: Rabbi Leonard and Feigi Oberstein with some of their 12 kids, 52 grandkids, and 6 great-grandkids (so far).