Old school: Finding family through the phone book


BALTIMORE (JTA) – While visiting Israel in 2009 to watch his son Bruce coach the U.S. basketball team to the gold medal at the Maccabiah Games, Bernie Pearl perused local phone books.

He spent an hour calling people with the last name Showstack but came up empty. Unable to locate his relative during his stay, he gave up.

In March, Pearl mentioned the search to “Seeking Kin.” A retiree living with his wife, Barbara, in Boynton Beach, Fla., Pearl, 80, still hoped to find his third cousin, Gerry Stowstack. He knew Showstack was younger than Bruce and had red hair. He also knew he had two sisters and had taught at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa after making aliyah from their native Boston.

“Seeking Kin” pursued the Technion lead with contacts there. Oren Kaplan, a Maryland native who works in the library, checked an employee directory but didn’t find Showstack’s name. However, he did see a telephone listing: Showstack resided in Omer, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Beersheva.

Gerry Showstack, right, is shown with his family at home in Israel. (Courtesy Gerry Showstack)

Gerry Showstack, right, is shown with his family at home in Israel. (Courtesy Gerry Showstack)

Turns out he’s lived in Israel since 1982 — precisely the time frame Pearl remembered — and is the father of four, with a first grandchild due this fall. For the past decade, Showstack told “Seeking Kin,” he has worked for nonprofit organizations to develop their branding and fundraise. He had taught sociology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

But Showstack, who at 66 is actually 12 years older than Bruce Pearl, said he had never been affiliated with the Technion or even lived in Haifa.

In fact, Showstack estimated that he has not seen Bernie Pearl’s branch of the family in 50 years. Knowing he was the object of the search is interesting, and “it’s nice to maintain a family connection,” he said, but “I’m not sure it has real meaning.”

The branches had been close, but ties frayed with the passage of time. Pearl recalled that his father’s extended family, all living in and around Boston, had held monthly get-togethers on Friday nights at the homes of rotating hosts – a “cousins’ circle.”

Among the participants were Showstack’s parents — Louis, a lawyer, and Helen, who worked at the Home Savings Bank. Also, Pearl’s father, Jack Pearlmutter (Bernie shortened the surname many decades ago), an immigrant from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire who worked as a peddler and later a plumber, who was the second cousin of Helen.

Pearl said the Showstacks attended his bar mitzvah and wedding, both at the Aperion Plaza, a hall on Roxbury’s Warren Avenue popular among Jewish families. They also attended Bruce’s bar mitzvah.

Neither Showstack nor Pearl could pinpoint their precise connection, only that it was through their respective grandfathers, Sam and Louis Pearlmutter.

Both said that while they’ve been strangers for several generations, being in touch and even meeting would be welcome.

“There’s some value in knowing family history and staying connected,” Showstack said.

“As a child, I remember seders where there were several tens of [relatives] on that side. It was a family circle, and my family generally got together frequently. In my generation, that happened with much less frequency; in my kids’ generation, interacting frequently, unfortunately, has become more the exception than the rule.”

Pearl said he would like to help improve the situation.

Asked why he had tried in 2009 to locate Showstack, he answered, “I like family. It’s important to know family.”

If he’d uncovered his cousin during that Israel visit, “I would’ve given him a hug and a kiss and told him I remembered his parents,” he said.

Speaking by telephone from Knoxville, Tenn., where he had just attended the high school graduation of his grandson Michael, Pearl said, “Family is my life. I get emotional just thinking about it.”

He added, speaking of Showstack, “It’s a good feeling knowing there is someone I knew a long time ago who’s still family and still there. I think it’d make Lou and Helen, wherever they are, happy and smile that we remember each other.”

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends. Please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.)

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