Friday, November 23, 2018

Rejection? A Stein Family History/Story (and, A Whole New Family!)

Okay, I am officially weirdly obsessed with my extended family on the Stein side - the one I didn't know existed till about a few weeks ago. The one my family intentionally (I think) decided to ignore after the war (we are talking siblings, aunts/uncles, and first cousins, who at times lived within walking distance), because, well they weren't Hasidic or religious anymore. Almost shocked.

Read on if you want the full story (with some links...) - stop reading if you think I am just a genealogical nerd.
Great-grandfather's grave

The story starts with my great-grandfather, Rabbi Israel A. Stein (1916-1989 - He was born in Vyzhnytsia, Modern Ukraine, the same place where his father and mother were born. As far as my family is concerned today, the only Steins that are part of our family are his descendants. More precisely, the kids of his 3 sons, one of which is my paternal grandfather. Of my great-grandfather's relatively big family before the Holocaust in Ukraine, only one sister survived ( She has a son who lives in Jerusalem, and we have a relatively close family relationship with him.
That was the extent of the living family we had, so I was told. And, my family, just like me, is quite obsessed with extended family - hell, my father considered every Twersky, some of which we only shared a direct ancestor with ~150 years ago, to be a cousin.
On the Stein side of the family, I was told that my great-grandfather had 2 first cousins (Leo and Hery, sons of his uncle Meir: who lived in the UK, and had no living kids; end of story. That usually came attached with an assertion, that if there was any additional family, even distant ones, we would know about it, because "we care about family;" and, that after the holocaust, even 3rd cousins were a big deal.
For years I had no reason to doubt this narrative, or to challenge it. Even when the assertion that "we care about family" went out the window the day I came out as transgender. Although, that should've been a sign. If an entire family can reject me for who I am today, what would've prevented them from having done that in the past as well? After all, some Hasidic families have quite strict "guidelines" of who can be part of the "family."
Then, I found them. Not one single far fetched cousin, not some 4th or 5th cousins - but a whole branch of aunts and uncles, first cousins, and an entire family of living 2nd and 3rd cousins, mostly living in Israel!
Only catch? they are ALL secular (as far as I can tell).
It all started a few months ago, when I decided to look up my great-great-grandfather, whose name was Efroim Stein (my brother Efroim's namesake), on ( I knew that his father's name was Joseph (and that his father was Eliezer Stein from Vyzhnytsia), and his mother's name was Chaya. We knew a few more details about this grandpa Joseph: we knew that he lived between Romania/Ukraine, and Mannheim, Germany (something quite unique in the 19th century, when people didn't just casually move from Ukraine back to Germany - although the Stein family is indeed originally German). We knew that he is buried in Mannheim, which meant that he lived there towards the end of his life (he passed away in 1915).
With all the above info, I set out to do some research.
I found another Efroim Stein on Geni - unique but still possible. I quickly realized that the same Efroim, was also the son of Joseph and Chaya. He was also from Ukraine/Romania. He was born in 1872 - all in line with my great-great-grandfather. It was clear that this is him, in a different family's tree!
Most interesting, he had a whole bunch of siblings, 5 full and 3 half to be exact. The names of his brothers, Pinchas, Leizer, and Moshe - are all names that I knew we had in the family (Ashkenazi Jews almost always name their kids after deceased grandparents - so names can tell a lot about a family's history). Out of the 8, 6 have living families. Another telling detail was the fact that Grandpa Josef's grandkids' birth places - where listed - was split between Romania and Mannheim.
Turns out that Grandpa Joseph got remarried when he arrived in Germany (to Pesia;, had 3 more kids, and some of his kids from his first wife, Chaya (Who passed away in Ukraine, and is buried there) also ended up with him in Mannheim. Turns out that the last of his kids passed away in 1961 in Israel, and the last of his grandkids, as far as I can tell, in 2004 (
What that means is as follows (just a few examples): My great-grandfather's mother, Rachel Stein (née Fogel), who passed away in 1958 (and is buried on Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem), and lived in Jerusalem her last years, had a BROTHER-in-law, who lived just a few miles from her, and as far as I am aware, they had no relationship (sounds familiar?). My grandparents, who got married in Jerusalem in 1959, had a living great-uncle in the SAME CITY, that was not invited to the wedding (and he was one of literally a handful of family alive after the war). My great-grandfather, the one I was told was so close with his family, visited multiple times - till the mid 80's - cities where he had FIRST-COUSINS (his only living family); as far as I know, he had no relationship with them.
My grandfather, who always said he would love to know more about the Stein side of the family, has many living 2nd cousins, especially in Israel (where he visits almost annually), and ignores their existence (though he might not be aware of them).
Very long story short: it's good to know I am not the first person in the family to be rejected for living a self-determined life…
I managed to find multiple cousins on Facebook, and if only I was a bit braver (or weirder...) I would've tagged them on FB. For now, I am secretly hoping to run into them one day!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

An Early Morning Reflection: Not Coming Full Circle, But Creating My Own Circle

(Note: this started out as an early morning FB post rant, but became longer so I am uploading it here)
If anyone would've told me 6 years ago - you know, during the time I first joined Footsteps, and was trying to find my footing in the world outside the cult-ure I grew up in - that I would wake up one morning in Jerusalem, and be excited to join 150+ rabbis from all over the world for 10 days of studying:
I would've either laughed at your bad attempt at impossible humor, or would've seen it as a failed Kiruv attempt...
Well, it's 6 years later, add "Modern/Progressive/Liberal" to the titles of the 150 rabbis, and I am awake early in the morning, in Jerusalem - the same City where my grandfather was ordained 55 years ago, the same City where my great-grandfather was a Hasidic Rebbe (spiritual supreme leader) for 40 years - and I am super excited to start the Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar (RTS) 2018, at the Shalom Hartman Institute!
Today, I am joining 150 colleagues (damn, never thought I will ever again call other rabbis "colleagues"), to explore, challenge, and learn from each other. No, I am not Religious (okay, in an Orthodox sense) again. Heck, if you ask if I believe in the Monotheistic-Abrahamic traditional concept of God, I am a bigger Atheist than ever before.
But I am excited.
I am excited because I love our tradition.
I am excited because I see a world where I can cherry-pick my spiritual and traditional practices, and that is not just okay, but beautiful.
I am excited because I reached a point in my life where I am comfortable enough in my own skin, to look back and embrace what I love about my childhood and Yeshiva (Rabbinical School) years and rejoice with it.
I am excited because frankly, the next 10 days are going to be fun.
Signing off,
An ex-Orthodox girl, former Rabbinical student, current proud radical progressive-liberal, LGBTQ worrier, and a woman of trans experience who couldn't care less about not fitting into anyone's box,
With 💖,
Abby C. Stein

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Re-post: Holocaust Remembrance Day: Personal Reflection

I wrote this last year on the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the response was really positive, mostly. I love genealogy, and it felt like an opportunity to “say their names” - remember. One unexpected result, was a slew of Nazis/Anti-Semites/haters Holocaust deniers trying to attack me on Twitter, I guess feeling triggered by a list of actual people, most of my direct grandparents that kinda contradicted their hateful or ignorant world view.

So, I decided to share it again, and this time to update links for each name to Geni, because when we say Never Again, we mean it (and add their hate in the bottom, because, well, know thy enemy).

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew), remembering one of the biggest, and the most brutal genocide in human history. Between 1938 and 1945, and even more so with the roll-out of the infamous Final Solution in 1942, a fascist regime - by fueling the hate, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism in one of the world's most ‘enlightened’ cultures - killed over a third of the Jewish people. At the same time they carried out a less discussed genocide against other minorities, such as the Romani People, people of lesser physical ability, and the LGBTQ Community.
As a Jew - three of my four grandparents are holocaust survivors. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and trans woman - the Nazis killed thousands of my fellow community members, and set back medical transgender research by a few decades. They shut down Magnus Hirschfeld’s “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft(Institute For Sexology), burned all his research, and killed most of its members. The Holocaust formed, and is still forming parts of who I am, in ways that I want it to, and in ways that I would prefer it stays out. It is who I am.
Mass grave of Jews killed during the
Holocaust, in Kopaygorod, Ukraine
Today, I wanna share with you all a list I compiled two years ago when I spoke at the Holocaust Remembrance day ceremony at the Columbia Hillel (center for Jewish student life at Columbia). In the past years, as I have been speaking for more and more diverse communities around the world, I have mentioned a few times that over 25 of my ‘direct’ ancestors (not family - cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. that number is way too high for me to count) went through the holocaust - some survived, some were killed. Often I am met with disbelief; so here is an exact list, with some details I remembered offhand. And while I am at it, why not give you all a crash course in my genealogy.
3 grandparents:
  1. Rabbi Mordechai Stein - born 1940 in Fălticeni, Romania, survived in Fălticeni. Currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Rabbi Yosef Moshe Meisels - born 1924 in Galicia, Poland, survived in Hungary. Died 2015 in Brooklyn NY.
  3. Malka Meisels (née Schnek) - born in the 1920’s in Kanjiža, Yugoslavia (modern Serbia), survived Auschwitz and other death camps. Died 2013 in Brooklyn NY.
6 great-grandparents:
  1. Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Stein - born 1916 in Vyzhnytsia, Chernivtsi Oblast, Ukraine, survived in Fălticeni, Romania. Died 1989 in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Sarah Stein (née Twersky) - born ca. 1910 in Suceava, Bukovina (modern Romania), survived  in Fălticeni, Romania. Died 1997 in Brooklyn, NY.
  3. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels - born 1902 in Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary, survived several death camps, and became Chief-Rabbi of the British DP Camps. Lived in Chicago IL after the war, died in 1974.
  4. Henna Zissel Meisels (née Teitelbaum) - born ca 1900 in Bobowa, Galicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  5. Moshe Schnek - lived in Kanjiža, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  6. Esther Schnek (née Mentzer) born in Kanjiža, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
15 great-great-grandparents
  1. Efroim Aaron Stein - born 1872 in Vyzhnytsia, Chernivtsi Oblast, Ukraine, died in Nazi exile in Kopaygorod, Transnistria (modern Ukraine) in 1943.
  2. Rachel Stein (née Fogel) - born in Vyzhnytsia, Chernivtsi Oblast, Ukraine, survived Nazi exile in Transnistria. Died 1957 in Israel.
  3. Rabbi Eluzer Twersky - born 1893 in Belz, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine,  survived in Bucharest, Romania. Died 1976 in Brooklyn NY.
  4. Rivka Rachel Twersky (née Moskovitz) - born in Suceava, Bukovina (modern Romania),  survived in Bucharest, Romania. Died 1960 in Brooklyn NY.
  5. Rabbi Dovid Dov Meisels - born 1865 in Tarnów, Glicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  6. Roiza Beluma Meisels (née Teitelbaum) - born 1876 in Sighetu Marmație, Maramureș (modern Romania), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  7. Chaya Sheindel Teitelbaum (née Halberstam) - born in Bobowa, Galicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  8. Gitel Mentzer (née Goldberger) -  born ca 1847 in Kanjiža, killed by the Nazis in 1944.
  9. Mordecai Aaron Mentzer - lived in Kanjiža pre war, killed by the Nazis in 1944.
  10. Faige Twersky (née Rokeach) - born 1861 in Belz, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine, died in Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.
  11. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kahana - born in Săpânța, Maramureș (modern Romania), killed in 1944.
  12. Mirl Geula Kahana (née Rubin) - born in Berezdivtsi, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine, killed in 1944.
  13. Rabbi Yitzchak Teitelbaum - born 1869 in Drohobycz, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine, killed in 1944.
  14. Hanya Teitelbaum (née Langenauer) - Born in Hussaków, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  15. Eliezer Schnek, killed in 1944.
  16. Rachel Schnek, killed in 1944.
In total, 25 of my direct grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents went through the Holocaust. 9 survived, 16 perished.
Last year's responses on Twitter
When we say “Never Forget” we mean it. When we say “Never Again” we mean it. When you see us scream “We have seen this before” believe us and take action.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"The Most Wonderful Night": A Christmas/Nittel Jewish Story

Holidays are always a time that people think about family, and for those of us that have no relationship with most family members for whichever reason - a time that can quickly get sad and lonely. Fortunately for myself, I only have to struggle with these feeling during Jewish holidays, as for most Secular/American holidays, there is nothing to miss. Not only does my family not celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but growing up, we were barely aware that these days exist as holidays.
Christmas (or as we called it, Kratzmakh, literally: Scratch-Me in Yiddish, a pun, usually seen as degrading: see the Forward article) however, was different. Not only were we aware of the day’s existence, but in an interesting turn of events, even celebrated it. Not just the Western Christmas on the Eve of December 24th (as in tonight), but also the Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. In fact, for most of us teenagers studying in religious school in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, these two nights where in some ways ‘the most wonderful time of the year’.
Okay now, enough with the build up. Most of you who are unaware of what I am referring to are probably having a hard time believing that the cult-ish Jewish community that believes the outside world is evil, celebrated a Christian holiday that most secular Jews don’t celebrate, any more than having family time and eating Chinese food.
Well okay, we didn’t do Christmas, or Kratzmakh, we celebrated “Nittel Nacht.” Nittel was the only night of the year, that not only weren't we driven to feel guilty if we ‘wasted’ our time doing anything else besides studying holy scriptures, we were forbidden from doing so. As a result it was the only time of the year, that we were playing games ‘guilt-free’ to some extend. Different Hasidic communities have different times of when they “observed” with the dates being between December 24th, January 7th, or one sect, January 6th - all depending mostly on where they come from. Some did from sunset to midnight, 6 pm to midnight, or noon to midnight. In my sect, we did sunset to midnight on the 24th, and noon to midnight on the 7th.
In my childhood, “Nittel” was a ‘special’ fun day. As a pre-teen, it was the only night my father allowed us free, non-guilt-driven, access to watch videos on his home computer (that obviously had no internet access). Mostly that consisted of videos of family weddings, speeches and events where my late great-grandfather was the keynote speaker, recorded gatherings of Hasidic Rebbes (mostly my great-uncle, the Bobov’er Rebbe, and at times, National Geographic films he deemed ‘kosher’. Later on, in rabbinical seminary, the two Nittels were the only two days in the year that we were allowed to play board games in the main study hall, and during a year long prohibition on listening to any and all tapes and CD’s (a story for another time), we were allowed to listen to these devices on Nittel. In true Hasidic fashion, they turned playing chess on Nittel into a whole custom, with supposed deep meanings. In my sect, the Rebbe (Supreme Leader) himself used to play chess publicly on Nittel.
If that is not ‘celebrating’ Christmas, I don’t know what is…
What is most interesting to me, and the reason I set down to write this post - which was supposed to be a short one paragraph quest for all of your thoughts, before I turned it into a storytelling rant - is the interesting part of a twisted acceptance and almost blind belief in the “Power of Christ” so to speak. Most Jews, Muslims, and followers of other faiths that don’t do Christmas, that I know today, don’t celebrate it, because, well, they don’t think there is anything divine or holy with this day/or with Christ. It is not any kind of disrespect, but merely a difference in belief/spiritual practice, something that is as old as the time the first human looked on nature and perceived the sun as a God. Hasidic Jews however, see Christ and Christmas as a powerful time, a night in which the devil reigns. They are different historical reasons for Nittel, but at least what I was told as a child, was that the evil powers are so strong on Christmas Eve, that if you study holy scriptures, it will be stolen by the ‘other side’ - metaphor for the devil and demons.
In short, a total acceptance of the powers of Christianity, a weird (and almost only) adoption of the Gregorian Calendar as having a real spiritual power, though evil. Something really weird, considering that otherwise they considered every other religion and practice as being utterly ‘wrong’ and ‘misguided’.
Pardon my rant, as I am not writing this to say that I am in a the slightest way missing my families hangout on this day, I will enjoy the party I am going to tonight way more...
What I am curious is if anyone else is aware of a similar concept in other religions - where there is a total disregard theologically to other religious/spiritual practices (so not talking about traditions that have a strong multi-faith/tradition respect), yet they are a few unique examples, where they suddenly adopt a hated religion’s beliefs in a twisted way?
(Not asking for a historical explanation of the origins of Nittel, I am referring to the way they see it today)