LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Even before my ketubah was signed my soon-to-be mother-in-law, Shirley, calmly but proudly told me, "Edmon, my mother’s family, the Sheinbeins, are descendants of the Vilna Gaon."
Maybe I was marrying into Jewish royalty, of a sort.
The Vilna Gaon, who lived from 1720 to 1797, was a Talmudic scholar, author and the major non-Chasidic Jewish leader of his age. Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman was so learned a rabbinic authority that he was known as "gaon," a title meaning genius.
Many claim to be his descendants. It’s a common claim of yichus, of lineage, and an uncommonly difficult one to back up.
So at the weeklong 30th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy earlier this month in Los Angeles, I was among a thousand Jews who gathered desperately seeking not only Susan but Esther, Yankel and Morris. I went seeking Moishe.
Sheinbein, that is, the first person on a family tree created by Shirley’s cousin, Fred Sheinbein, and his wife, Judy.
"It’s a family story passed down from generation to generation," Fred Sheinbein said of the Vilna Gaon descendancy. "We have a silver kiddish cup that we think belonged to the Gaon that has been passed down in our family from eldest son to eldest son. On Passover we use it as Elijah’s cup."
To begin, I checked out the Gaon’s portrait. Looks can be deceiving, but staring back at me over the centuries were the same eyes, brows and nose familiar to me from our wedding photos of my wife’s grandmother, Sylvia Bierman, nee Sheinbein.
The family tree was several generations short of the Gaon’s lifetime. Moishe, also known as Morris, was probably born sometime in the mid-19th century and lived in Osova, Ukraine. He would be my starting point in finding a Gaon connection.
When looking for a Jew, consult with the Mormons. While seeking the unbaptized dead in their family trees, they have a branch up on genealogical research.
In the conference’s vendor room, I found Dan Schylter, a researcher with the Latter-day Saints research site, FamilySearch.com who specializes in Jewish genealogy.
"Start with researching the generations of your family, and maybe then you’ll bump into someone famous," Schylter suggested. "Start with the town."
Told Moishe was from Ukraine, Schylter pulled his lip.
"We don’t have good records from there," he said.
As I learned, tracing a family’s lineage can depend on many things: readable records, geography, spelling and luck. The conference appeared to be a virtual hotbed of genealogical serendipity.
As a result of computer searches, sessions like "Social Networking: New Horizons for Genealogists" and even genetic tests, the conventions foyer was filled with plenty of newly found cousins talking and hugging.
"I just found a relative I never knew I had," said Ellen Mark, the conference’s translator coordinator, who discovered that her maternal grandmother had a sister through a recent translation of a Russian letter she had long kept.
She and others suggested I dig deeper into the conference’s resource room.
I found a room where every computer was searching for someone — lost in the Holocaust or missing from the family tree. I turned to research expert Ina Getzoff of Delray Beach, Fla., for help.
In a search on Ancestry.com, I typed in Moishe Sheinbein. The site, an industry leader, was an example of how big a business genealogy had become. In 2009, Ancestry.com raised more than $100 million with an IPO.
"You never know what you’re going to find," Gerzoff said as the results of the search came up.
Suddenly I was awash in Sheinbeins: Fred and his wife, other family members from the family’s base in the Midwest. Now there were too many Sheinbeins.
Adding Osova and a second place from the Sheinbein family tree, Kolki, also in Ukraine, produced nothing further.
Computer searches weren’t working. Sheinbein literally means something like "nice bones," and I didn’t have enough to make a skeleton. Perhaps there was a book.
In the vendor room on a table staring me in the face was a huge book titled "Eliyahu’s Branches, The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon," by Chaim Freedman. Excitedly I flipped to the back and found a cross index of more than 20,000 names of all known descendants. There was a Sheinfeld and a Sheingold, but no Sheinbein.
I sought other methods of proof.
"With changes in DNA testing and computer technology, Jewish genealogical research is more accessible than ever," said Andrea Massion, a member of the convention’s organizing Los Angeles chapter.
Unknowingly, Massion pointed me toward a company that might hold the final chromosome of my search.
"All your relative would have to do is a cheek scraping and mail it in," said Max Blankfeld, partner and vice president of FamilyTreeDNA. "In four weeks she has her results."
The service, which costs $289, shows the quantity of shared DNA between two people and, using an algorithm, also would also show the degree to which
they are related, he said. The service provides a match’s name, too.
"Then my mother-in-law could look up the known surnames of Gaon relatives for a possible match?" I suggested hopefully.
"Yes, that might work, and new names are constantly being added," Blankfeld said, adding that she could also leave a message on the site with the hope that someone might contact her.
I was just one swab away, yet I found myself leaving the conference without having the big-find moment so many others had experienced.
Walking down the hotel’s sunlit foyer, I stopped to examine a series of standing displays of early Los Angeles Jewish businessman researched by
the Los Angeles Jewish Historical Society.
A black-and-white photo of a truck caught my eye. Painted on the truck’s side was the name Hasson — my wife’s Sephardic maiden name. The 1928 vintage photograph showed Victor Hasson seated in a 1920s era open-air flower delivery truck.
An e-mail to my wife’s uncle, Lou Hasson, revealed, "Yes, Victor’s a relative, I remember him."
For the moment, the search for the Gaon was gone, replaced with a bouquet from the past.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at email@example.com.)