Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passover and Jewish History

Every year at Passover I write a diary focused on the origins of Jews. This is largely what I wrote last year, including a discussion of threads of evidence that influences from Egypt were part of the origin of Judaism, just like the Passover story goes.

Passover celebrates, supposedly, the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. This escape is considered one of the defining moments in Judaism, perhaps THE defining moment. Into this event is placed the entirety of the ancient Jewish identity, supposedly divided into "12 tribes," as well as the defining of Jewish religious law. That is a lot to put into one holiday! But there is a more general theme, that of the struggle for freedom that many cultures can relate to.

The problem is that the bible account is internally inconsistent and is clearly a mixture of several traditions and myths. That does not mean that there aren't kernels of truth in it, but it is not clear how many events are covered by the Exodus story and what times those various events took place, or if any of the characters involved were real people. What is clear is that the story was written LONG after the events it claims to describe took place, which is common for ancient legends. The bible cannot be taken literally because it is often internally contradictory. That is odd if it is the revealed word of God, but it is very understandable if it is the collected lore of a small group of semi-nomadic people (Hapiru? Shasu Bedouins?) who eventually established a small state or collection of tiny states and were desperately trying to define their identity in relation to their often much stronger and very aggressive neighbors.

Most of the bible was never written down anywhere close to the events that are described. Much of the Torah (the first five books of the bible) did not form a coherent text until much later, probably the reigns of King Hezikiah or Josiah when the single Kingdom of Judah was trying to lay claim to the entirety of Jewish tradition at the expense of the then conquered and exiled Israel (which was probably the origin of the biblical and modern Samaritans). So the bible has about as much historical merit as, say, the Iliad or the story of Jason and the Argonauts or the Hindu Bagavad Gita. It cannot be ignored because historical people, places and events are there in the background, but it must be taken with Lot's wife's weight in salt.

The bible account of Exodus is now thought to conflate at least two (and maybe many) separate stories: one about an escape from Egypt (or, as I will mention later, maybe from Egyptian control rather than from the state of Egypt per se), and one about a forced expulsion from Egyptian territory. Neither of these events is recorded in Egyptian records, but the structure and narrative of the biblical story clearly involves both an escape and a forced expulsion. This suggests that two groups of proto-Jews came from an Egyptian background of some sort.

I have read about a dozen books on the subject, but I find that the two most convincing are Jonathan N. Tubb's book Canaanites (1998) and Israel Finkelstein's book The Bible Unearthed. Both use primarily archaeology and only occasionally try to fit biblical stories to the archaeological facts. Most other books start from the bible and try to smoosh in archaeology to make sense of the biblical chronology. Needless to say, as a scientist, I prefer an approach that gets facts on the ground first and only afterwards tries to fit in the bible. To these two main sources I also add a casual observation from the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky.

In the bible, the Hebrews are a coherent group of about 12 tribes (really the number and the names vary) who often look to a single leader (something that probably never happened until the Maccabees if even then) and who migrated from Babylon to Canaan to Egypt then back to Canaan. Archaeologically, the Hebrews were a group that evolved in situ from the native Canaanite population. There is almost no archaeological evidence for a Babylonian or Egyptian origin, yet it is interesting that these two empires played a powerful role in the early history of the Jews, so influences and even people from both of these empires clearly helped shape Judaism.

Passover celebrates a man named Moses leading "his people" out of Egypt against the wishes of the very powerful king of Egypt followed by the reception of "THE LAW" and the entry into the "promised land." This is the foundation myth of Judaism. It is, quite simply, a myth with many false leads and dead ends...but it also hints at historical facts.

So just who was this "Moses?" He is the central character of the Passover myth, but who was he? Was he real? There is no corroborating evidence that any such person existed. But the name is intriguing. It is NOT a Jewish...or even a Canaanite name. In fact it is only half a name and it is clearly Egyptian. The nature of the name may give a hint at the origin of the Jewish religion.

There is no question that "Moses" is the same as the Egyptian "Mose" which means "born of" as in the names of the Pharaohs "Ahmose" (born of the moon) or "Tuthmose" (born of Thoth). The entire story of Moses, including his partially recorded name, suggests Moses was an Egyptian or an acculturated foreigner, fully integrated not just into Egyptian society, but into the Egyptian royal family. He was buddies with a royal prince (of which there often were many) and may well have been brought up educated within the royal sphere (as many Egyptian nobles and foreign princes were). Moses may or may not have had foreign origins, but he was culturally Egyptian and had an Egyptian name. So when we look into his beliefs, we have to look to Egypt and the situation in Egypt to understand him.

What was his full name? The most common names based on "Mose" were Ahmose and Tuthmose, neither of which would fit with Jewish ideas of who their leaders should be since both imply Polytheism. Either one is a possible real name for Moses, though I favor another somewhat more far-fetched possibility. Maybe something like "Atmose," a name I essentially make up based on what had recently happened in Egypt. His name probably was NOT Atmose, but it might have been and it would really explain a great deal about Jewish origins. But more on that later.

Let's start with three solid facts, really about the only solid facts there are regarding the Jews at this early stage. These three things are the ONLY things we can be sure of:

1. Genetic studies show that almost all modern Jews are descended from a population that lived in the area of ancient Canaan, quite closely related to modern Palestinians. Jews and Palestinians (as well as Lebanese, most likely) are modern day Canaanites and are probably escended from the earliest inhabitants of the region. There may well have been groups who came from Babylon or Egypt who mixed with the Canaanite natives to form the Hebrew culture. And there probably were Greeks who mixed with the Canaanite natives to form the Palestinian culture. But there is no genetic evidence for this to date. Y-chromosomal studies indicate that modern Jews, including Sephardim, Ashkinazim and Sabra and to a lesser degree even Ethiopian Jews and the South African Lemba, are a very genetically homogenous group (compared with most populations which show more genetic diversity) that originated in the area of Israel and Palestine. Modern Jews and modern Palestinians show remarkable genetic relatedness, indicating both populations derive from the same ancient stock in the Levant. The genetic evidence puts Jewish origins precisely where the bible puts it at about the time the bible puts the formative years (the same time Phillistines/Palestinians are becoming an ethnicity). As a side note I should mention some recent evidence that shows that links between Jews and other populations can be two ways. A recent study shows that about 20% of the modern populations of Spain and Portugal also are genetic descendents of ancient Jews. This shows either that there was considerable intermarriage between the Sephardic Jews and the Iberians prior to the expulsion of the Jews or, more likely, that the Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spanish became a significant part of the population of Spain.

2. The very first historical mention of "Israel" was during the Egyptian 19th dynasty, in the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (the son of Ramesses II and hence soon after the Exodus supposedly took place). This inscription refers to the complete destruction of a group of people (not an organized nation or city) called "Israel." This earliest written mention of "Israel" gives us an almost unique fixed point in which to place ancient Jewish history. Whatever the origins of the Jews, a unique people who were the genetic ancestors of modern Jews existed in Canaan by the reign of Merneptah and got their collective ass kicked by Merneptah's armies. Again, they were a group of people or ethnicity, not a nation, at this time, based on the grammer used in the inscription. I should also note that the first mentions of Phillistines (and/or related groups, collectively called "Sea Peoples") occurs at about the same time.

3. The archaeological evidence for this period (as outlined in Israel Finkelstein's book The Bible Unearthed) is also interesting. In the region that became the earliest core of the Israelites, what is now the highlands of Israel and the West Bank, archaeology shows us there was a very typical, if somewhat impoverished, Canaanite population. This population has typical Canaanite pottery, typical Canaanite religion (with many deities including El (same as Elohim), Yahweh and Astarte, names seen in the bible being worshipped by the Jews), and almost a typical Canaanite diet. This Canaanite archaeology is not interrupted by any invasions. There is no obvious new influence from either Babylon or Egypt. But there is one, and only one, change in the archaeology of this region during this period: pig bones disappear from their garbage dumps. At the point when Israel is supposed to first be forming according to the bible, and jsut when Merneptah kicked some proto-Jewish ass, the future Jews still worshipped many gods and were in every way Canaanites, but they gave up eating pork. For a long time I found this fascinating, but not a critical aspect of the search for the origin of Jewish beliefs. It is evidence that confirms the genetic evidence that modern Jews are descended from Canaanites, but I never realized that it could also help determine the origin of Jewish beliefs. But later I will show why this really is a key bit of evidence, along with the name "Moses" pointing to an Egyptian origin of Jewish beliefs. Jewish Monotheism and pork aversion may really come from Egypt as the Passover myth suggests.

So we have an ethnic group called "Israel" that gave up eating pork in the exact place and time that the Israelites were forming an ethnic identity according to the bible. And this population seems to be the true genetic ancestors of most modern Jews. And they were definitely Canaanites.

The bible story from Joseph to the Exodus, whatever truth there is in it, took place during one of the most interesting periods of Egyptian history, spanning the so-called 15th through 19th dynasties of Pharaohs.

The 15th dynasty was considered a huge disaster and embarassment by the proud Egyptians, because it was a dynasty of foreigners. In fact, this dynasty, the so-called Hyksos, were primarily Canaanites (probably with some non-Canaanite elements). So Canaanite rule in Northern Egypt predates the Exodus and somewhat corresponds with the period that Joseph was supposed to be entering Egypt. This Canaanite dynasty was ousted by the native Egyptian 17th dynasty, which then became the famous 18th dynasty once it reconquered all Egypt. Also predating the Exodus, during the late 18th dynasty, was a brief and controversial period of official monotheism in Egypt, the period many people know because it was founded by the Pharaoh Akhnaten and ended during the reign of Tutankhamun, the Pharaoh perhaps best known by the world because his rather hastily and shoddily assembled tomb goods were discovered almost intact. The Exodus, whatever it was, is thought to have taken place during the early 19th dynasty, during the long and glorious reign of Ramesses II. And the first ever reference to "Israel" (see below) occurs during the 19th dynasty reign of Ramesses II's son, Merneptah. This is the general historical outline. Now lets look at details.

Some time before the Exodus, during Egypt's so-called Middle Kingdom in the Middle Bronze Age, Egypt saw a large influx of Canaanites into it's Northern area (the Delta). Entire settlements are Canaanite, rather than Egyptian, in character. At some point either this foreign element destabilized Egypt, or took advantage of existing instability due to other causes, and the Egyptian Delta was taken over by a group of people known as the Hyksos. The meaning of Hyksos is debated, but may mean "foreign kings." Archaeologically, the Hyksos are clearly Canaanites with a hint of other non-Semitic influences. But in essence, the Hyskos rule over Egypt was a Canaanite dynasty and Canaan and Egypt became far more closely linked than ever before. Some think that this might be the time that Joseph entered Egypt, if there ever was such a single event. It does fit the timing suggested by the bible for when Joseph lived and it was a time when Canaanite advisors would certainly have risen to great power. At some point, though, the southern, native Egyptians expelled the Hyksos and re-established not only native control over Egypt, but Egyptian control over Canaan.

One possible theory, though not well accepted, is that the expulsion story in Exodus may just possibly be an echo of the expulsion of the Canaanite Hyksos rulers out of Egypt. I tend to see this as unlikely. However, Canaanite domination of the Superpower Egypt would certainly have made a lasting impression on all Canaanites, including the people who became the Hebrews, and could easily have influenced later myths. If Haiti took over the United States for awhile and then was expelled, you can be sure that Hatians would remember that period of dominance for centuries to come! It would become legendary. So a Hyksos/Hebrew link, though tenuous, may have some validity and just might form the basis for the expulsion story within Exodus.

At all times of Egyptian history the population was diverse and there was room for advancement even for prisoners of war. Three different groups were always part of the Egyptian melting pot (with other groups appearing more sporadically): Native Egyptians (probably related to the Berbers), Nubians/Kushites from what is now the Sudan, and "Asiatics," who were essentially Canaanites of various sorts. The life of a man named Urhiya and his son Yupa illustrate how "Asiatics" (in their case maybe Hurrians, not Canaanites, though both groups mixed during the Hyksos period) could attain the highest ranks of Egyptian society (described in Lives of the Ancient Egyptians by Toby Wilkinson). Urhiya was a first generation immigrant to Egypt with a foreign name, yet he rose to the rank of Army General and High Steward to Ramesses II, the Pharaoh most often thought to be the one reigning during the Exodus. Urhiya's son, Yupa, rose to even greater rank, in the full confidence of the Pharaoh.

The story of Joseph can be considered in the context of two known aspects of Egyptian history: the ability of foreigners to rise to the top ranks of Egyptian society, and the period of Canaanite rule in the Egyptian delta, the 15th "Hyksos" dynasty. At about the right time according to the bible for Joseph to have lived you had the Canaanite rulers of Egypt. And you have the fact that even when native Egyptians ruled you had ample chances for Canaanites to reach the highest ranks of Egyptian society, you have very real precedents for people like Joshua. I think it is very likely that a group of Canaanites linked to a major advisor to pharaohs (Hyksos or native or both) may have been part of Jewish origins.

There is then a gap in the biblical story that spans exactly the period between the Hyksos and the 19th dynasty. From Joseph to Moses and then Joshua, there is nothing much mentioned. And this is supposed to cover precisely (almost too precisely!) the period that separates the Hyksos from Ramesses II. We have no idea from any source what might have happened in this period. To me this suggests that Joseph had nothing to do with the Hyksos, but rather was a 19th dynasty Canaanite who, like Urhiya, made it big in Egypt among a group of Canaanites who later left under an Egyptian or Egyptianized Canaanite named SomethingMose (Moses). If so, Joshua probably SHOULD be among Egyptian records and so could be part of Urhiya's family...maybe. If Joshua was a real person and really was powerful in Egypt, his tomb should be out there. On the other hand, there currently is no existing evidence for a high ranking Canaanite named Joseph and that suggests he may well have been rememberd from Hyksos times, a period that later Egyptians preferred to forget and expunge from the records. OR...and here is a key thing, maybe he was a Canaanite who made it big during the 18th dynasty reign of Akhnaten who was caught up in Egyptian monotheism and spread it to his Canaanite relatives and followers. Such a person would DEFINITELY be wiped from the Egyptian records. There is no evidence for this, but it would explain the lack of evidence for someone who SHOULD be attested in the archaeological and historical records (which were well kept) and WOULD have stood out. So Joseph might have been a high ranking Canaanite during the Hyksos dynasty (the lack of reference to him and the bibilical time scale support this...weak evidence), or he was an 18th dynasty Canaanite close to the Akhnaten monotheism (no evidence, other than the lack of reference to a Joseph who should be referred to, and the possible influence of Akhnaten's monotheism on Judaism) or he was a 19th dynasty Canaanite, just possibly in the family of Urhiya, who made it big just before someone named SomethingMose (Moses) led an Exodus.

There seems no direct connection between Joseph and Moses. So the Joseph line may be one thread of Canaanite/Egyptian history that contributed to the origin of the Jews, and the Moses line might be a separate thread. And both might be peripheral to the main thread of Jewish history which, according to archaeology and genetics, is almost exclusively Canaanite.

After the expulsion of the Hyksos, Egypt reached the pinnacle of its power under the 18th and 19th dynasties, and even into the more troubled 20th dynasty. These three dynasties are the most important for Jewish identity because it is in this period that entities that were Hebrew and/or Israeli began to take form. Again, the very first reference to both Israel and to groups related to the Philistines (ancient Palestinians?) come in a single 19th dynasty Egyptian text that mentions the destruction of both. In this text, both Israel and the "Sea People" (among whom the Philistines were later included; the name "Sea People" could mean either people from across the sea or people from the coast or people from the islands...all of which points to Greek and Anatolian origins) are groups of people, not nations, and are clearly bit players, simply ruffians to be beaten up by the Egyptian military power or, in the case of some "Sea People" (specifically the Sherden) they were also mercenaries in the Egyptian Army. Specific reference to the Philistine branch of the "Sea People" came about 75 years later. These very first references to Philistines and Israelis clearly come after any Exodus.

Turning back to the 18th dynasty, this is the Egypt most people know something about because it included Akhenaten and Tutankhamen. Akhenaten is interesting because he is the first person in recorded history to be monotheistic. He tried to reform all Egyptian religion to focus on a single god, the visible sun disk, the Aten. If the theory that Jews had already entered Egypt by this point is true, and if they had not yet left, then they would have experienced the tumultuous time of Akhenaten's religious reforms. Many people think that Akhenaten may have been the inspiration for Jewish monotheism. I have problems with this. Akhenaten's religion was not a widespread religion. It was rather HIS religion with HIMSELF as the ONLY link between the one god and humans. It was not very much like later Jewish monotheism, though there are definitely some common themes. Furthermore, there is no evidence at all for Jewish monotheism at this time or for centuries afterwards. And yet, some see close parallels between some of Akhenaten's own writings and later biblical passages (particularly certain psalms). Could some small group of Canaanites have taken to Akhenaten's religion and preserved a memory of his writings that later got incorporated into the bible? Maybe, but as with the Hyksos/Hebrew connection, this is very tenuous. However, one new piece of information I recently came across strongly suggests that some of the earliest uniquely Jewish beliefs may well have come from Egypt, not evolving in situ.

Remember that I said above that the very first archaeological difference in what is now the highlands of the West Bank and Israel that shows a new group was evolving in what became the core of ancient Israel and Judah was the disappearance of pig bones from their garbage dumps, indicating that a ban on pork was the first defining feature of what became Judaism. This change is unique among the Canaanites and unique in the whole region. To many it seems so distinctive as to be difficult to explain. Some, including myself, have envisioned a local strongman who got sick after eating pork or a whole group that got sick after eating pork, leading to a prohibition on pork. I should note that the claim that this aversion to pork grew out of an avoidance of parasites doesn't hold up because the effects of such parasites would happen well after consuming the meat, so wouldn't be obviouly linked to the meat, and cows, sheep and goats are also subject to parasites. Others have hypothesized that the fact that all Canaanites ate pork might mean that the proto-Jews were specifically distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by abandoning pork. To me this would only make sense if a Canaanite religious ceremony of considerable importance involved pork, and emerging monotheists rejecting that ceremony threw the pork baby out with the polytheist bathwater.

But all of this speculation ignores one basic fact. Rejection of pork, though unique among the Canaanites, was NOT unique at that time, but was actually a characteristic of one of the region's major Empires...Egypt. This is something I picked up re-reading the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky. In this book there is an offhand reference to the fact that ham would have probably been invented by a culture as into the salt-curing as the ancient Egyptians had they not been averse to eating pork. The religious leadership of ancient Egypt considered pigs carriers of leprosy and considered pig farmers social outcasts. This is a critical piece of evidence in considering the origin of Jewish beliefs! The very first archaeologically attested characteristics of the proto-Jews was the adoption of an Egyptian aversion to pork shortly after the Exodus was supposed to have happened.

Getting back to the Egyptian historical contex, Akhenaten, busy with religious turmoil, neglected his empire in Canaan. This period is extremely well documented because we have extensive archives of diplomatic correspondence from this time. Canaan was a mess, with small cities fighting it out and with groups of semi-tribal/semi-bandit groups roaming the countryside and occasionally even taking over cities. These semi-tribal group were of mixed origins, but the term used for them, Hapiru, is thought by some to be the earliest form of the word "Hebrew." The Hapiru/Hebrew link was once thought to be exact. More recently, it has been largely rejected. However, it is hard for me to ignore and it seems to be coming back into vogue (as evidenced by the book Ramses II by Christiane Desroches Noblecourt published in 2007). The word is similar (particularly taking into account the lack of written vowels in Semetic languages), it refers to a group that seems very much like the bands of roving Hebrews under Joshua, and they occur before and at the time of the Egyptian reference to a people (not a nation) called "Israel". The current theory can be summed up as: Not all Hapiru were Hebrews, but all Hebrews were Hapiru. The group of Canaanites (perhaps fresh from Egypt?) that became Hebrews and Israel, may have just been one band of bandit Hapiru, and that rather derogatory name may have stuck...or even been proudly adopted the way many Australians are proud of their convict ancestry. It should be noted, though, that the name "Hebrew" was applied much later than the name "Israel." "Hapiru" predates both. It would be odd if the earlier Hapiru came back into vogue after a period of being called "Israel," but not unheard of.

After Akhenaten, a series of warrior Pharaohs ruled Egypt, and retook Canaan. Various groups of Hapiru were subdued, others served as mercenaries under Egyptian rule, and some served as laborers. It is quite possible that the group that became Hebrews were a group of Hapiru that served as mercenaries and/or laborers under the Pharaohs Seti I, Ramesses II and Merneptah. This was a period of Egyptian domination, but there were Canaanite rebellions as well. In fact, this was also a period of uncertainty within Canaan as the Egyptians and their main rivals, the Hittites of what is now Turkey, fought it out for domination of the region. Some, including Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, believe that the Exodus occurred in the context of Ramesses II's military expiditions into Canaan and the Hittite control of various regions in Canaan in opposition to Egypt. Hittite control of parts of Canaan would give an opportunity for dissident groups like the Hapiru to escape Egyptian domination.

Did one group of Hapiru, possibly including some people influenced by Akhenaten's religious reforms (now being suppressed by the reestablished Egyptian priestly authorities) and serving as mercenaries and laborers in Egypt, suddenly make a bid for freedom and escape into the wilderness east of Canaan, perhaps aided by the newly established Hittite control of part of the region? This is a perfectly plausible scenario that fits reasonably both the archaeology and the bible, but it is just a story and is supported by little more than circumstantial evidence. But that text I mention that is the first reference to Israel and to Philistines was written during the reign of Merneptah. Based on place names and general events, many place the biblical Exodus story as referring to the reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II, or of Ramesses II and Merneptah.

One thing that strikes me is that around this time Egypt controlled most of Canaan, in fierce competition with the Hittites, another empire I love to read about and I have visited the ruins of their capital city. In fact this is the period where the famous battle of Kadesh took place, claimed by Ramesses II as a great victory, but in reality an embarassing stalemate for both empires. This battle eventually led to the world's first documented peace treaty, but there was a considerable gap between the battle and the treaty during which things were very much in flux in Canaan.

One of my pet theories is that the Exodus is not at all about Jews leaving Egypt proper. Maybe it is about Jews throwing off Egyptian imperial control at one of the periods of declining Egyptian rule. That would place the Exodus story either right after Kadesh, or at a later date than I suggest above and would turn the story on its head somewhat. But Canaanites did gain independence from Egypt at a slightly later date that is traditionally thought for the Exodus, and certainly the Jews would have been one of the communities that would have gained and celebrated freedom from Egyptian control. It all could have happened right in Canaan rather than in Egypt. But that is just one of my pet theories. I am not aware of any archaeologists or biblical scholars who see it that way. But it would simplify the story a great deal.

So we see Canaanites entering Egypt and even ruling before the 18th dynasty expelled them. We have a period of Canaanites being split between urban, pro-Egypt but squabbling and sometimes rebellious city-states (the hated Canaanites of the bible would fit this description), and non-urban troublemakers called Hapiru, a name similar to Hebrew. During the 19th dynasty we even have an outright reference to Israel. Then, during the 20th dynasty, there was a sharp decline of Egyptian control, and there were cataclysmic events that included either invasions and/or native uprisings and/or uprisings by former mercenaries that brought down several Empires (e.g. the Hittite and Mycenaean nations) and weakened others (Egypt). The Iliad may date to these events since the same wave of unrest and instability engulfed the Greek world and was a time when Troy itself (another city I have visited) was destroyed. In this period of massive unrest (around 1200-1140 BC range) the Philistine city states developed. It is at this time that the bible places the rise of a unified Kingdom of Israel that then split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The biblical story of the rise of Israel is not well supported at this point. It is only during the period of the divided kingdom that we get historical references to kings like Omri, Ahab, Jehoram and others. So there is about a 200-year gap in the written references from the first mention of "Israel" during Merneptah's reign, to Moabite references to king Omri (of Israel, then only one of two Jewish kingdoms). And archaeology does not support any great united Kingdom of David and Solomon but rather suggests the Hebrews were little more than bandit groups akin to Hapiru. However, there is little question that the Hebrews/Israelis did indeed exist at this time, eschewing pork, just like Egyptians, but not otherwise different from other Canaanites, who emerged in the Hill Country (a backwater) of Canaan and eventually, in the times of Omri and Ahab, became a major local force. Judah, though it is more important in the bible, was the minor partner with only Israel (the denegrated partner in the bible) ever fielding a large army and conquering neighboring lands. In fact the second historical reference to Israel is a Moabite reference to king Omri of Israel kicking Moabite ass! After that, though, most references are Assyrian and Egyptian references of tribute from Israel and Judah, or conquest of various cities in Israel and Judah. Of course eventually Assyria destroyed Israel and Babylon destroyed Judah, though there always was a population that remained in Canaan, eventually forming the Jewish people that exist today.

So there it is. The echoes of the Passover myth that exist in historical and archaeological evidence are few. But they are there. To me the name "Moses" is so un-Jewish that it must reflect a real Egyptian name that got modified later and so reflects a real person. The Pharaohs are real and the cities the Jews were supposed to have labored on were real and did involve Hapiru labor. And soon after, Merneptah defeated a tiny group of people called "Israel." Somewhere in that thin evidence is a real Passover story. But we may never know what it is. Yet that story still resonates even beyond the Jewish community to become something of a human story of freedom.

So to all, a Gut Pesach.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meeting Jews: Purim in Brooklyn

This last Purim was a special one for my 4 year old son, Jacob. Last year we introduced him to Purim, but he had only a vague idea of it. Though he did develop a slight fear of the holiday because he remembered it as the one who had the "bad person" as part of it (I guess he remembered Hamen!). This year, thanks to a diversity of Jews in our neighborhood, Jacob now has a much better sense of the holiday.

As I was on my way to pick Jacob up from his day care center, I ran into a neighbor named Jesse. Jesse was just coming from synagogue and he had a fruit leather treat he had been given there as a Purim gift. He knew I had a 4 year old son, so he asked if he could give the fruit leather to Jacob, in the spirit of giving on Purim. Of course I said yes and put the fruit leather in my pocket for Jacob.

Jesse is as secular as I am. Neither of us wear kippehs regularly. But he went to synagogue on Purim while I was simply rushing from a long day at work to pick up my son from childcare.

When I entered his classroom, as usual and, wonderfully as always, Jacob came running up to me to give me a big hug. "Daddy!" he called. I hugged him then dressed him for the still-winter cold.

As we left I took out the fruit leather and offered it to him, explaining that today was Purim and our neighbor, Jesse, had given it to me to give to him for Purim. Jacob was curious and tried it. He loved it. He now wants me to find them and buy them for him.

As we walked home, my son and I ran into some Chabad Jews (Lubavitchers). I have to admit that sometimes I avoid the Lubavitchers. I am a their ideal target: a secular Jew who knows the history and details of the religion and who values our traditions even if I seldom practice them. And I have found they know I am their perfect target, so I sometimes avoid them. But since my son was born, I am more interested in talking with them and performing a mitzveh or two with them. Why?

I am secular in most ways, but I have always, since birth, considered myself Jewish. The Lubavitchers meet me on my own terms. They know on sight I am Jewish. On the rare occasions I have told them I am not because I am in a hurry, they look at me with a knowing look. They KNOW I am Jewish and my denials don't fool them. When I say I am Jewish and I participate in a mitzveh or two with them, I do so with a full understanding of what it means, and they recognize that. And they appreciate it. We come from very different branches of Judaism. I strongly suspect that even in the old country my family were Mitnagdim, and we followed the path of the Haskalah. When we came to America we followed the path of assimilation. So when I meet a Lubavitcher, there is a long history of difference between us dating back as far as the Vilna Gaon's opposition to Hasidism. And yet I am drawn to them, particularly when I am with my son. They are the keepers of tradition for me and, when they offer, I like to share that tradition with them even though the meaning of that sharing is different for us.

My son and I approached the Lubavitcher and he saw immediately we were Jewish and moved to meet us. In the spirit of Purim he gave us great gifts including the biggest Hamentashen I have ever seen. It was the size of my head! And in the spirit of Purim I agreed to doing the tefillin, a religious ceremony I have seldom done. And in the spirit of Purim the Luvavitchers gave me some booze to drink (others were given wine, but the Lubavitchers liked me and Jacob enough they gave me the hard stuff they were drinking). Jacob and I spent about half an hour with them, and we all enjoyed it and we said many a "Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu..."

Chabad reaches out to all Jews. I do not agree with all they believe in, and I am sure they look at me with some indulgence, as they might look on a child. But I appreciate their preservation of tradition and their sharing of Jewish tradition with all Jews, religious or not, who want to share in it. For them it is a mitvot to share these traditions. For me it helps me, secular Jew that I am, share our traditions with Jacob. Together we continue a long-standing contradiction: both a conflict between assimilation and uniqueness, and a shared tradition we can all cherish.

The Hamentashen they gave us was more than enough for my family. It had a prune filling, which I normally don't like (preferring the tradutional poppyseed filling). But in this case not only was it huge, but it was delicious. My family shared it and loved it.

Jacob expressed our sentiments very well as he drank some grape juice and ate some chocolate the Lubavitchers gave us: "Thank you Lubavitchers!" He seemed to love saying the word "Lubavitchers," repeating it several times with gusto.

When Jews meet on the street anywhere in the world, no matter how different they are, there is a shared tradition and understanding that even a child can recognize. No matter that their respective branches of Judaism may share a grudge going back to the 18th century. They know they share as much or more than they dispute. My son was also drawn to the Abayudaya children singing when I introduced him to their CD. Within our diversity we still share a commonality that is important to us all. We cannot always agree what it means to be a Jew (and that is a topic I will discuss later). But somehow when we meet on a street anywhere in the world, we share more than we differ.

About three weeks later, out of the blue, Jacob asked me, "Did Jesse give you anything for me tonight."

This last Purim, Jacob was touched by the wider Jewish world.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Saving Heritage: Jewish Roots and a Small Synagogue in Latvia

This is one of many adaptations I have made from a talk I gave to the Latvia Special Interest Group luncheon at the Jewish Genealigical Conference in NYC in 2006. My personal story began when I started exploring my ancestry in 2003, both my non-Jewish father's side and my Jewish mother's side. I was able to make some pretty major connections on both sides. This is the story of my mother's side, particularly the Luban family from Rezekne, Latvia, and a synagogue that they would have known that still, barely, survives in 2009. To me that synagogue and my desire to save it are the symbols of what Jewish identity means to me, and so, in answer to the qustion of why I am so interested in this one synagogue, I explore the question of heritage in general, and Jewish identity in particular.

BEING JEWISH: It all began with the pork

"Your origin and your birth are of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite...your mother a Hittite."-- (Ezekiel 16:3)

Genetic evidence confirms the belief that most, though not all, mainstream Jews are closely related, and that ultimately we have roots in the land of Israel or at least its general region. Even an isolated black South African tribe that claims Jewish descent, the Lemba, have genetic traits suggests a common Jewish ancestry. Archaeology shows that the original Jews, if I can use that term for people living so long ago, lived in a small group of poor and isolated villages from around 1200 BCE in what is now the highlands of Israel and the West Bank and whose only unique characteristic we can detect archaeologically is that they didn't eat pork. In all other ways these original Jews were typical Canaanites archaeologically. But they gave up pork. All the surrounding Canaanite trash piles included pig bones. In the highland villages those bones suddenly disappear from the archaeological record. No one knows why those Canaanites gave up pork, the meat that all other Canaanites loved. Some, including myself, have envisioned a local strongman who got sick after eating pork, or a whole group that got sick after eating pork, leading to a prohibition on pork. Others have hypothesized that the fact that all Canaanites ate pork might mean that the proto-Jews were specifically distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by abandoning pork. To me this would only make sense if a Canaanite religious ceremony of considerable importance involved pork, and emerging monotheists rejecting that ceremony threw the pork baby out with the polytheist bathwater. But I recently, in a single offhand, but perhaps critical, fact mentioned in the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky, may have found the key to why pork bones disappeared from the trash piles of those villages right about the time when the bible suggests Judaism was forming as a national identity.

The truth is, rejection of pork was NOT unique at that time, even if it was unique among the Canaanites. It was a characteristic of one of the region's major Empires...Egypt, according to Salt by Mark Kurlansky. In this book there is an offhand reference to the fact that ham would have probably been invented by the salt-cured fanatics, the ancient Egyptians, had they not been averse to eating pork. Egyptians apparantly salt cured everything...but not pork. The religious leadership of ancient Egypt considered pigs carriers of leprosy and considered pig farmers social outcasts. This is a critical piece of evidence in considering the origin of Jewish beliefs! The very first archaeologically attested characteristics of the proto-Jews was abandonment of pork. The biblically attested founder of the Jewish identity and law was supposedly someone with an Egyptian name, ending in "Moses." And ancient Egyptians rejected pork and invented monotheism (though then rejected it) in the century prior to the Exodus. This starts to be too much evidence to be ignored. It seems that there really was an Egyptian origin to at least some of Jewish beliefs even if the current genetic evidence points to a strictly Canaanite origin.

In those tiny, pork-shunning villages we all probably have distant ancestors.

But genetic, biblical, historical and archaeological evidence show that we all are also probably of some mixed origins. At least since the first Diaspora, and even from the earliest passages in the bible, mixed marriage and mixing with local populations have been major issues for Jews. Archaeologically, those earliest Jews were Canaanites. But some of the 12 tribes described in the bible seem to have different origins. Did some people come from Egypt? Did some come from Haran or Babylon? Did the tribe of Dan, as some think, come from a people who were related to the Philistines and hence may ultimately have been Greeks? The bible, genetics and archaeology give us tiny hints at a mixed origin as well as common roots. And of course each Diaspora that we suffered brought up anew the controversies of mixed marriage, assimilation and the fundamental question of what does it mean to be a "Jew."� Is our identity primarily genetic, religious, national or cultural? This is not a new question but can be found throughout the bible. In some ways being Jewish seems bound up in this identity crisis of just who we are and how we define ourselves.

What is the core of Jewish identity?

And why is this question one of such vital importance?


There is a politician in Brooklyn named Bill Batson. He is a good guy, running for office not out of ambition but because he is concerned about what is happening to Brooklyn. He fears that modern development is destroying the soul of Brooklyn in very real ways. Historic neighborhoods are being uprooted to make room for skyscrapers. Families who have lived in Brooklyn for generations are being forced out. And, the heritage of Brooklyn, particularly, in his view, the heritage of the black community in Brooklyn, is being destroyed. He points to an old graveyard where black veterans were buried. He points to the Harriet Tubman museum. He points to buildings that were stopping points along the Underground Railroad. These are among many sites of cultural importance that are the first places to be lost to modern development. As I write this in Spring 2009, despite years of trying to save it, one of those Underground Railroad sites (231 Duffiel St. in Brooklyn) has just been demolished to build a hotel. Cultural sites are lost first, then the rest of the community withers away.

Bill Batson fears this process because he fears that a loss of heritage means a loss of identity. He says it this way:

"If you take away a person's heritage, you can do anything you want to them."

This phrase struck me. He was referring to black heritage in Brooklyn. But it made a huge impression on me. Why? Because in that phrase you have the history of Judaism in a nutshell. From the Babylonian exile to Nazi Germany, you have an attempt to destroy our identity by destroying not just our lives but also our heritage.

What does it mean to be a Jew? Genetics, religion, culture, nationality...More recently, through the organization Kulanu, I have learned about people in Uganada and Ghana who have chosen on their own to be Jews, in many ways recreating the development of Judaism on their own, initially in isolation. These people reach Judaism through a completely different path than I have. It is my genetics, on my mother's side, and my culture. And, if I chose to accept Israel's open invitation, it could be my nationality. For the Abayudaya of Uganda, they chose Judaism as their religion because it made sense to them as a religion, and have negotiated ever since to be included in the wider cultural sea of Judaism and to be accepted by Israel as natioanlly Jewish even though they do not share the genetic link many of us do. By contrast, another Brooklyn politician, Brand Lander, who does share that genetic link, accepts the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism while rejecting the nationalist aspects. Where in all this is the core of Judaism? To me, ALL of these threads are legitimate, if contradictary, aspects of Judaism.

My wife once put it most starkly. My wife and I are both only half Jewish with Jewish mothers and Christian fathers. We are not very religious. Yet we define ourselves very consciously as Jews. Why? I am still in the process of answering this question for myself, but my wife once put it this way:

"We are Jewish because there are people out there who would kill us because of it."

To the average American, my wife and I just look like white Americans. But many Jews and many Eastern Europeans and everyone in Israel took one look at us and knew we were Jewish. We were glared at and jeered at in St. Petersburg and in Latvia by people who saw us and knew immediately we were Jewish. We need our heritage because, without it, those who hate us for who we are have that much more power over us. Our heritage, anyone's heritage, is what helps define our identity and that identity helps us survive in a hostile world. Heritage gives us the roots to stand up to society's sometimes very violent storms.

That is why s small, condemned synagogue in Latvia means something to me. It is part of my family heritage and a part of the heritage of all Eastern European Jews. Hitler tried to destroy that heritage and his attempts still echo to this very day. That also struck me when I visited Latvia: the events that Hitler set in motion are still playing out for many small, dying Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. If we let this and similar synagogues go, it is one more success by Hitler, though long dead, to destroy our heritage and thus our identity. My wanting to preserve this synagogue is an effort to connect with and preserve my personal identity as well as our collective identity as Jews. And it is my personal act of defiance against Hitler and all who would destroy our identity.

What is the core of Jewish identity?


--Harry "the Horse" Danning, Cousin and Major League Baseball Player

This is a question I never thought much about until about six years ago. In this I am typical of my family. My distant cousin was Harry Danning, a famous baseball player in the 1930's. His father was the brother of my great-grandmother. I talked to him about a year before he died when I had just started getting into my genealogy. I was hoping that he, as one of the oldest surviving relatives at the time, would remember things about our past. He remembered very little. What he said to me in that phone call was this:

"When I was a kid I was never interested in that stuff. I was only interested in playing baseball. Ya follow me?"�

Often, American Jews don't care about their heritage until they are adults, often only when they have children, if even then.

For me a simple question asked by a professor I worked with got me on the track of my genealogy. He simply wanted to know if there was a website I knew where he could look up biographies of historical individuals. He knew I was competent on the Internet, so he asked me to find him some sites. I did a quick search, found him some sites that met his needs. But also noticed something called the Social Security Death Index. I was curious so I clicked on the link.

I found I could look up any dead person who had a SSN and get a little info on that person. On a whim, I entered my father's name. My parents divorced when I was a year old and I never knew my real father other than knowing that he wasn't Jewish and that my original last name was Kunkel, a German name. I entered my father's name and found that he had died.

I never knew my father, so this had only a vague emotional impact on me. But the thought that I could use the Internet to find out about my origins fascinated me. From there, and from my mother's memory, I not only tracked my father's lineage back to the 16th century, thanks to the fact that German Lutherans keep perfect church records, but I also traced my maternal grandmother's ancestry back a couple of generations to two towns in Latvia: Daugavpils, also known as Dvinsk, where my great-grandmother Dora was born, and Rezekne, also known as Rezhitzka, where my great grandfather Solomon was born.


--Dora (Dviera) and Solomon (Sawel) Luban

And I found our addresses in the 1897 "All Russia Census" and was able to visit our homes in Rezekne.

Luban, Sawel, Father: Jankel; Occupation: Joiner; Age: 28; Birthplace: Rezekne; address: Rezenke, Volkov lane 11-2

Luban, Dwiera, Father: Awsey; Age 26; Birthplace: Daugavpils (same as Dvinsk); address: Rezenke, Volkov Lane 11-2. Comment: wife of Sawel.

I found where their home used to is now mostly an empty lot:

Sawel Luban's parents also lived in Rezene at the time:

LUBAN, Schmuila Jankel, Age: 76; Birthplace: Rezenke, address Plekshenskaya 24-2

LUBAN, Kreine, Age: 55; Birthplace: Rezenke, address same as Jankel; comment: wife of Schmuila Jankel

Eslewhere I found a record indicating that Kreine was Jankel's second wife. I have no idea whether there were children from his previous marriage.

I found near these sites a condemned, run-down synagogue that just might have been the synagogue my family used.

For a few years after finding this synagogue, I spent a great deal of time trying to raise the needed funds to save and restore that synagogue. I have only partly been successful. My decision to do this was purely an emotional one. I wasn't really sure why I wanted to at the time. But somehow I knew it had to do with my identity, with both my family's past and the past of Eastern European Jews. Now I know that it has to do with Bill Batson's comment: I want to preserve our heritage so that we have one more deep root to help us withstand those who hate us for what we are.

In 1845, the small East Latvian town of Rezekne (or Rezhitsa in Russian) was part of the massive Russian Empire that stretched from Poland to Siberia. In that year, a small wooden synagogue was built in Rezekne. This synagogue was one of about a dozen synagogues in the city of Rezekne in the middle years of the 19th century, synagogues that served a large Jewish population, about half the total population of Rezekne at that time. This particular synagogue was painted green, and hence the building has been known ever since, rather prosaically, as the "Green Synagogue." The Green Synagogue is the only synagogue in Rezekne to survive World War II, and even now it stands, though only as an empty, condemned building. Like the Jewish population in many corners of Eastern Europe today, the Green Synagogue is in danger of being forgotten and lost.

Rezekne is a city that was shaped by an interaction of cultures: native Latvian, German, Russian and Jewish cultures mixing both peacefully and violently. Rezekne was originally a castle town and the ruins of its castle, possibly dating as far back as the 9th century, remain today. This castle was one of the first buildings built in Rezekne. But signs of a Jewish presence are just as old since right next to the ruined castle is another old building that is thought to have been the town's first inn, and this inn was thought to be run by Jews from very early on.

This was a very common pattern in Eastern Europe, with Jews running local inns and taverns next to the local castle. The Jewish population of Rezekne grew as the city grew until half the city was Jewish.

This was no little shetl, but neither was it a big city. Above I show an example of the beautiful brick architecture that made up the center of Rezekne in the 19th Century. This building was once a pharmacy in the main area of old Rezekne, very near the synagogue. Here is a picture down the same street showing the same pharmacy on the left:

Jews participated fully in city life, including sitting on the city council. This building used to be a Jewish bank just across the street from the synagogue:

Jews were an integral part of Rezekne's life until World War II. Though of course most Jews remained poor, living in wooden houses like this:

The records I can find indicate that the Green Synagogue was built in 1845. I recently came across another reference to the Green Synagogue on someone else's website. There is a document that links a Rabbi of the Green Synagogue to Yehudah ben Bezalel Levai, the Talmudic scholar from Prague also known as the MaHaRaL, known for the golem story. Here is the text and the description from the website I found it on:

A page from a book on Latvia Jewry citing the scripture from Green Synagogue

Ziska born in Resekne in 1919, survived the war in Russia and lived in Resekne until 70s, in 70s moved to Israel, where he lives now with a big family. Ziska speaks Yiddish, Russian and some Hebrew. Ziska is a great grandson of Aaron Azriel Jafet. Garav Aaron Azriel JAFET (1810 (appr.) -1861) was the head of the Resekne rabbinic court and the Rabbi in Green Synagogue in Resekne, and was the father of another Ziska (Zisl) JAFET (appr. 1830-appr.1880), who was the father of Azriel JAFET (1880-1937), the director of school, who was the father of .Ziska (Zisl, Alex) JAFET (b. appr. 1919). Ziska grew up in pre-war Rezekne and was fully immersed in Jewish life before the war. Both Ziska and his father Azriel, the respected director of Rezekne school attended Green Synagogue. The Green Synagogue was known to be build some time before by their respected relative Yimyanitov, who had houses along the street where Green Synagogue is located. The old books of Gemar in the Sinagogue also belonged to Yimyanitov. One of the Gemar Books had a handwritten inscription that was tracing genealogy of Rabbi Aaron Azriel JAFET to Maharal of Prague. Every new generation added their record to this inscription. Ziska's father copied the inscription and gave it to the author of the book on history of Jews in Latvia. A friend of Ziska found this page (above) and made a copy for Ziska.

Here is the line connecting Jafet line to Maharal as described in Hebrew text.

* MaHaRaL of Prague
* daughter married Rabbie Yosif Yoska the head of the (Dubno or Lublin?) rabbinic court, Rabbi of all Diaspora.
* Reb Tsvi Sabal (or Tsvi Hersh?) the kabbalist
* Gaon, tsadik Moshe
* Gaon Kabbalist Yudul, the head of Kael (Kayuk?)court and region
* Head of Rabbinic Court and of Yeshiva of Minsk - Galil Shmilevich of shtetl Pierda
* Moisha ZE'EV VOLF the head of Minsk and Smolensk Region, later of Fiod. region
* Akiva the head of the Borisov rabbinic court.
* Shlomo
* Menachem Nohum
* Abraham Itsak KATZ
* Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel YAFET [Rabbi in Rezekne]

I checked the available information on Internet and found that some connections are mentioned elsewhere. I also tried to reconstruct the years in this line to see if they make sense.

* Yehuda LOEW, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) married Perla Shmelkes. For genealogy, see N'tiv Hoalom. Children: Rabbi Betzalel Loewe, Vogele Bezalel, Rachel Lowe.
* Tila LOEW, the 5th Maharal's daughter married Rabbie Yosif Yoska (b. appr. 1540), the head of the Dubno rabbinic court.
* Reb Tsvi Sabal (b. appr. 1570), the kabbalist
* Gaon, tsadik Moshe (b. appr. 1600)
* Yehuda Yudul (b. appr. 1630), the head of Kael court and region
* Moisha ZE'EV VOLF (b. appr. 1660) - the Jewish head of Minsk and Smolensk Region, later of Fiod. reg.
* Akiva (b. appr. 1685), the head of the Borisov rabbinic court.
* Shlomo (b. appr. 1710)
* Menachem Nohum
* Abraham Itsak KATZ (b. appr. 1780)
* Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel YAFET (1810 (appr.) -1861), the head of the Resekne rabbinic court.

Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel Yafet would have been the main rabbi of Rezenke during the time my great-great grandfather was around.

My great-great grandfather, Schmuila Jankel Luban (born in 1820), was 24 years old when the Green Synagogue was built by Yimyanitov, the relative of Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel Yafet, descendent of the MaHaRaL. Jankel's last name, Luban, was probably only recently adopted by the family, since it was only around that time that Jews of the lower classes commonly took last names in Eastern Europe. "Luban" indicates that the family was originally from a shtetl near Lake Lubanas in Eastern Latvia. The Lubans were a family of craftsmen, not well off, but not so poor either. They lived mostly in the brick buildings in central Rezenke, not in the run-down wooden homes of the poorer class. Jankel married a woman named Kreine and they lived not too far from the Green Synagogue.

Until recently, Jankel was the earliest Jewish ancestor of mine I can trace. In his honor, my wife and I named our son "Jacob," linking my son with his Latvian-Jewish heritage. We soon discovered that little Jacob sometimes looked very much like a cranky old Jewish man, living up to the name "Jankel":

Of course now a days he is older and has taken on a more modern NYC attitude:

More recently I found an entry for an older brother of Schmuila Jankel Luban named Abram Luban (born in 1814), married to a woman named Golda with a son named David Luban (born in 1852), married to a woman named Sora Zipa. The father of Abram and Schmuila Jankel Luban was named Genuch, which is the same as Henoch/Henry, a name I will come across later.

We don't know when Schmuila Jankel and his wife, Kreine, died but there is no record that they ever left Rezekne. They almost certainly are buried in the run-down Jewish cemetery just outside Rezekne that I show here:

The last record of their existence is their entry in the 1897 "All Russia" census where I was able to learn of their existence and the address where they lived.

But two of their sons, Sawel and Henach (same as Genuch, presumably named for his grandfather Genuch discussed above), fled Russia for America with their families by 1905, fleeing political unrest, military conscription and pogroms. Henach had been forced to serve in the Russian army in the ill-fated Russo-Japanese war, and when on leave he fled Russia rather than being sent back to the front. Both Sawel and Henach had married and had children by the time they fled Russia. In fact, my grandmother, Celia, was the last member of these two families to be born in Rezekne.

--Celia Jacobson, my grandmother and daughter of Dora and Solomon Luban (picture taken in 1987)


Since both families lived near the Green Synagogue, it is very likely that when they married, Sawel and Henach had their weddings at the Green Synagogue. Both families settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where some of my distant relatives still live. Sawel became Solomon Luban in America and was my great grandfather.

--The Statendam (from Rootsweb)

There is a ship’s manifest (from the Ellis Island database, which can be accessed through that might document Solomon’s entry into US. Hard to say. The ship is the Statendam out of Rotterdam, leaving Feb. 6 1904, arriving Feb 17, 1904. The entry reads something like:

Schlime Lewin, age 37, married, Russian-Hebrew, Occupaation: Joiner, Last residence looks like something like Swislocs (???) and the destination seems to be New York.

The age and occupation are correct, but we have no record of the Lubans being in New York (though Lubans from Jekapils did indeed settle in New York) and I have no clue where “Swislocs” might be. This is the only entry I can find for someone with the initials S.L. entering the US in 1904 who has a name remotely like “Solomon Luban” who also is a joiner/carpenter. Other entries may be more similar in name (e.g. Samuel Lewin…) but don’t match occupation at all.

--Kroonland (from Rootsweb)

Even more tenuous is a ship’s manifest that might indicate Henry Luban’s family, Esther, Belle and Sarah’s, entry into the US. The manifest for the ship Kroonland from Antwerp (Aug. 20, 1904 arriving Aug. 29, 1904, has the following entries:

Rachel Liebstein, age 37, married, Russian-Hebrew, from “Mosty?” Russia, going to join her husband, Ephraim (?) Liebstein in Brooklyn, NY. If Solomon was on his way to New York (see above) sailing from Holland, maybe Esther would have followed a similar path. Problem is, “Rachel” isn’t “Esther” and Esther would have been more like 26-27. BUT notice the last two children, below:

Rachel was sailing with her children:

Moische, age 9; Feiwel age 7; Leib age 3; Beile age 2; and Sore, age 11 months.

In the 1920 census record, Henry and Esther’s elsdest kids were Belle and Sarah. They would have been age 2 and about 1 in 1904. No elder brothers are listed in 1920. No older brothers are mentioned by Henry Luban’s family. So this makes it unlikely that this record is of Esther and her family. Considering this entry to be referring to Henry’s family is based only on the names Belle and Sarah with about the right ages. Note also that Ephraim could well have been anglicized to Henry. I can find no better candidate entry for their immigration, though we certainly know they came. I can also find no evidence for Henry’s entry to the US. Remember, he was fleeing Russia to escape returning to the Russo-Japanese war. Did he come via the Pacific rather than the Atlantic? Was his immigration comlpetely above board? Interestingly, we remember moving to Milwaukee because we already had relatives there...I assumed Henry and his family. But one of his family told me they had moved to Milwaukee because Solomon's family (mine) were already there. Muddled stories.

There are two ship’s manifests that might document the arrival of Dora, Dora’s three oldest children and Ida to Ellis Island. The first manifest contains appropriate first names and mostly appropriate ages, but the names are crossed out. A latter manifest for a second ship has the same names, but the ages are different (and less appropriate). In either case it takes some imagination.

Manifest for the Corina, leaving Liverpool, England, November 17, 1906, arriving in New York November 26, 1906. There is no record of how they got from Russia to Liverpool.

Transcribed from this manifest (though on the real manifest the place of residence is hard to read):

Name Gender Age Married Ethnicity Place of Residence

0005. Lande, Bassje D. F 46y M Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0006. Lande, Ente B. F 23y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0007. Lande, Simon M 8y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0008. Lande, Sara F 7y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0009. Lande, Chaje F 2y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

The “D” in Bassje D Lande could be Dvora/Dwieva, though she SHOULD be 36 in 1906. Bassje may be a version of Basya/Batyah. Ente could be Ida (who is not a Luban, but probably traveled with Dora and her family from Russia and hence would have used the same name for easier immigration) and she would have been about 23 in 1906. Simon and Sara are the correct names and ages. Chaje could be Celia, who would have been about 2 in 1906. Her real name may well have been Chaya (the feminine of Chayim, “life”). Oddly, their destination is Chicago, IL, where they are joining Bassje’s husband. Chicago is quite close to Milwaukee, of course, but I have never heard that we were in Chicago at any point. Bassje’s hair is listed as black and eyes as blue, unusual for a Jew but not uncommon in our family. She is 5’ even. Their place of origin on the original manifest looks to me more like “Sherpoli, Russia” rather than Kanislow which is shown in the transcript.

These names are crossed out, along with the three above them, on the manifest. The Corina is not even listed as a ship that went to Ellis Island on the Rootsweb Ship list. They show up again on a manifest for the Campania, leaving Liverpool November 24, 1906 and arriving in New York December 6, 1906. Perhaps for some reason they switched ships.

--Campania (from Rootsweb)

On the manifest for the Campania they are listed:
Name Gender Age Married Ethnicity Place of Residence

0024. Lande, Bassin F 46y M Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0025. Lande, Ente F 28y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0026. Lande, Sura F 8y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0027. Lande, Simon M 6y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0028. Lande, Chaja M 3y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

These are clearly the same people as on the manifest above but Bassin’s age is still wrong, but now all the other ages are also off. Simon and Sara’s relative ages are reversed. Chaja is now male. On this manifest, Bassin is listed as being from something like “Therpole” (could this be Daugavpils?) and Ida from “Charnovsky” or something like that. Ida’s occupation is listed as “tailoress.”

Such is the mess that are immigration records for the early 20th century.

Henach became Henry Luban in America, and many of his children, grandchildren and further descendents are still alive. I found the 1920 American census records for both families in Milwaukee, WI: (Sorry...the pictures I have are readable but didn't upload well)

--Solomon Luban household, 1920 U.S. census, Milwakee, Milwakee County, Wisconsin, page 35A, sheet 8 A, lines 24-30; T625-1999. Listed with wife, Dora; daughters Sarah, Celia, and Norma; and sons Simon and Jacob

--Henry Luban household, 1920 U.S. census, Milwakee, Milwakee County, Wisconsin, page 201, sheet 10 B, lines 28-35; T625-2000. Listed with wife, Ester; daughters Belle, Sarah, Minnie, Sophia and Helen; and son John.

They lived in a German Catholic neighborhood, according to my grandmother. So they did face some anti-Semitism, but because they were all fair skinned and green or blue eyed, and many had red hair, they were considered "almost one of us" by the Germans.

One descendent of Henry Luban's is his great-grandson Henry Garfield, better known to many of us as the punk rocker Henry Rollins, shown on the right in the picture below. I also show on the left the Maltinskies, the family Henach's wife, Esther (Menucha), came from.

I think of this as the epitome of "before" and "after" coming to America pictures.

There are other branches of the Luban family in the same records for Rezenke and Jakobpils, Latvia, and the names "Jankel" and "Schmuila" repeat within them, suggesting a possible link among these families in earlier generations. But I have no data direcly linking them and no idea what became of them. Among the last records is a store owner named "Berko Luban" in Rezekne in 1911. His father was a Jankel Luban, but not the same as Shmuila Jankel Luban.


While my family was thriving in America and forgetting about Rezekne, the Jewish population left behind suffered terribly. Emigration, starvation, pogroms and forced relocation reduced the Jewish population of Rezkne considerably by the time World War II started. But the Green Synagogue survived. It was even renovated in the 1930's. When the Germans came, in one single day, 5000 Jews and the Latvians who tried to help them were machine-gunned just outside of town.

I visited this place, the only actual Holocaust site I have ever visited. Walking along the grassy space that is the mass grave, walking for a very, very long time along that grave, the impact of "5000 killed in one day" hit me very hard and I had tears in my eyes and a great deal of anger in my heart.

The Jewish population of Rezekne was almost wiped out on that single day. Only a handful survived, protected by some local Latvians. By the time many members of my family were returning to Europe as soldiers in the US military fighting the Nazis, those Nazis had all but wiped out any of our relatives who had remained in Rezekne.

Even the graves in the Jewish cemetery were shot by the Nazis. But somehow, the Green Synagogue survived. All other synagogues in Rezekne were destroyed. But the Green Synagogue still stands.


Some remember that the Green Synagogue survived because it was used as a holding pen for Jews on their way to death camps and that this is why it survived. Rezekne is on the major railroad route between St. Petersburg and Warsaw, so Jews from all over the region were brought into town to await transport to the camps. Rezekne was one small node on a massive railroad network feeding the death camps. The Green Synagogue may have been the last synagogue many of those people would ever see.

In 2003, after I had rediscovered my family's past and found the addresses where we had lived in 1897 Rezekne, I went to visit the city of my great-great grandfather to see where we had come from. I took my wife and stepdaughter and we met with Rashel, the head of the Jewish community of Rezekne, to see the city and to learn what it was like when my family had lived there:

--Rashel, Joy, Sarah and myself before the Green Synagogue

Some of the buildings where we lived are long gone (like the building where Sawel and Dwiera lived, shown as a largely empty lot earlier in this article)

But some, like the brick apartment building where Henry Rollin's great grandmother's family (the Maltinskys and Galbraichs) lived, still stand (see below). And many of those addresses are near the Green Synagogue, suggesting to me that the Green Synagogue was our family's synagogue.

The city itself is beautiful, though we saw some remnants of lingering anti-Semitism. But overall our brief stay in Rezekne was very pleasant. The countryside is beautiful, the town small and quiet. It is a part of Latvia that is more Russian than Latvian, and most restaurants had Russian menus and served Russian food.

Some of the best Russian food I have ever tasted was in a restaurant (shown in the above picture) just down the street from where Henry Rollins' great grandmother's family, the Maltinskies and Galbraiths, had lived:

(shown above as the street looked in the 1920's across from the pharmacy I showed earlier)

And this is the building where the Maltinsky and Galbraith ancestors of Henry Rollins lived as it looked when I visited in 2003.

Today only about 50 Jews remain in Rezekne. They have no proper synagogue since the Green Synagogue was condemned in the 1990's due to severe water damage.

Their shul is a handful of rooms in an office building in another part of town.

Our tour of Jewish Rezekne ended at the Synagogue and it was there that Rashel told me much of what I have told you today.

We saw the synagogue by candlelight. The inside is dusty and water damaged with many windows boarded up and parts of the ceiling falling down. It was a very sad building, but some old painted decoration from the 1930's, if not earlier:

and even a few fragments of the original stained glass still remain.

30. I stood there that day in the condemned Green Synagogue and imagined the wedding of my great grandparents. My ancestors had probably stood in that same synagogue more than 100 years before I did. And then I imagined thousands of terrified Jews in the 1940's spending one night in that same synagogue before being sent to almost certain death.

31. The joys of weddings and the fear of death surrounded me in that dark, sad building. It was at that moment that I decided that I would try and save the Green Synagogue. As a monument to the Jews who had helped shape Rezekne from its early days as a castle town to its later days as a stop along a major Russian rail line, I wanted to save that synagogue.

32. As a place for my family to return to see where we came from, I wanted to save that synagogue.

33. As an act of defiance against the Nazis who practically wiped out the Jews of Rezekne, I wanted to save that synagogue. And as a symbol of hope for the surviving Jews of Latvia, I wanted to save that synagogue.

I had never undertaken this kind of project before and had no idea how to go about it. I still have only a vague idea of how to complete the project. But I was very lucky that the local government of Rezekne had already taken an interest in restoring the Green Synagogue.

One of the adjacent streets was renamed "Israel Street" in honor of the synagogue and they had looked into what it would take to restore.

Sadly, they dropped the plan due to lack of funds. So I decided that maybe I could help find at least some of the funds needed to restore the Green Synagogue and so, soon after returning to the US after my trip to Rezekne, I went online to find funding agencies that might be interested and to find descendents of Rezekne Jews who might be able to help me. I was able to find some two-dozen descendents of Rezekne Jews who were interested in helping restore the Green Synagogue and without their help and advice, I would never have even been able to begin. And it is through this network of Jewish descendents of Rezekne Jews that I was able to get the ball rolling.

35. About a year after returning from Rezekne, I was able to get a small grant (about $14,000) from the World Monuments Fund's Jewish Heritage Grant Program that would cover the cost of hiring an architect to survey the site of the Green Synagogue and determine what work needed to be done and how much a full restoration would cost.

36. Here is a sample page of the plans the architect made:

That phase of the project has recently been completed and now the real work can begin. The local government in Latvia, inspired by the interest that I and the World Monuments Fund were showing, was able to find more than $40,000 to repair the roof, so that no further water damage will occur, and to repair the timbers that have been most damaged. But this is only the beginning. The site survey that the World Monuments Fund supported has found that nearly $200,000 worth of repairs will be needed to restore the synagogue to the way it was in the 1930's.


I am hoping to find people who are interested in preserving this small piece of Eastern European heritage, in defying the Nazi attempts to eradicate all signs of Judaism in Europe and in giving hope to the surviving Jews of Latvia.

38. I invite anyone who can help raise money or interest in this project to contact me so that the Green Synagogue, which has stood for 160 years of both joy and despair, can continue to stand for the Jews of Rezekne and as part of our surviving heritage. Thank you.

All photographs of the Green Synagogue of Rezekne, Latvia, photographed either by Joy Romanski in 2003, by Lavi Soloway November 27, 2003, or on October 31, 2005, by AIG ("Arhitektoniskās izpētes grupa" Ltd.) Architectural firm (Riga, Latvia). US Census information thanks to Patricia Liebham. A great deal of this info comes from and Some information and pictures from the Rezekne civic website.