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My Mom was always looking for wives for my brothers. She favored people we knew—the O’Leesky girls next door or my best friend Kara. These were girls who were in and out of our house all the time and Mama came to love and trust them. All it took was noticing one of her sons was also friends with one of these girls and that was it. “June and Ronnie should get married,” she would say, noticing how they walked hand in hand at age ten. Then, she wanted Wilan to marry June’s younger sister Kim. Once Kara became a fixture in our house, Mama talked longingly about keeping her close and the best way to do so seemed to be marrying her off to one of her sons. First, she hoped Kara would marry Ronnie. Later, she hoped Kara would marry Chris. After all, they got along so well. Only now, years later, I realize Mama never tried to match me with any of the boys in the neighborhood. She never felt sure about me pairing off with anyone, though she began warm up to my first love—around the time we broke up—and she developed a fondness for my husband. Eventually.

Ron and June hold hands circa 1969. In front, my brothers Wiley and Chris, me, cousin Andrew, and June's sister Kim
Ron and June hold hands circa 1969. In front, my brothers Wiley and Chris, me, cousin Andrew, and June’s sister Kim.

Mama was slow to make room for people in her inner circle, but once she did, she wanted to keep them close for life.

This may well be a holdover from the Jewish family she was distanced from by her mother’s conversion. After all, that family is made up of a crisscross web of Piwko, Walfisz, Kolski, and Winawer ancestors. Her grandfather’s brother married her grandmother’s sister (Hil Majer Piwko married Hinda Walfisz, while Jankel Wolf Piwko married Tema Walfisz). My grandmother’s brother Abraham Jon married Bertha Kolska (the female version of the surname), while her sister Regina married Pinchas Kolski. I don’t know how Bertha and Pinchas were related, but it’s likely they were since they both came from the same town, Kłodawa. When Regina died, another sister, Rachel, married Regina’s widow.

The practice of marrying within these linked families continued even among descendants who moved to Switzerland, Israel, and the United States. A generation later, Pinchas and Rachel’s son Abrash married Jankel Wolf and Tema’s granddaughter Poili. So Abrash and Poili were second cousins twice over—their Walfisz grandmothers were sisters and their Piwko grandfathers were brothers.

Other overlapping relations tie the family web together even more tightly. Two of my grandmother’s other sisters married cousins—Liba married Jacob Winawer and Sarah married Saul Winawer. Sarah and Saul’s son married Sally, whose older sister was married to Sarah’s brother Philip.

It takes a 3-D chart to keep track of it all.

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how another cousin, Arline Jacoby, was related to me. Eventually, I figured out the connection goes back to both sisters of my great grandmother Hinda Walfisz. Arline’s grandmother was Łaja/Leah Walfisz. Arline’s husband Harry was the grandson of Tema Walfisz, or more likely, Tema was his step-grandmother.  After Tema’s first husband Jankel Wolf Piwko died, she remarried Akiva Jakubowicz, who was also a widow and the father of two sons including Harry’s father. It took me a while to piece this all together because in the US, the family name was shortened to Jacoby.

Clearly, the family pattern was to marry within the group—what anthropologists call endogamy. Endogamy was very common among Ashkenazi Jews; they very rarely married non-Jews, and if they did it usually meant that the offspring were not raised Jewish. That’s why it is more common to find traces of Jewish DNA among non-Jewish Slavs than it is to find Slavic DNA within Ashkenazi Jewish populations. I wonder, though. How common was it to seek spouses among families that were already related to via other marriage ties? And what were the reasons for it? Was it akin to my mother’s desire to strengthen emotional links with people she already felt an intimate attachment to? Or was it more related to the pragmatics of religious and business connections?