Monday, January 14, 2013

Searching for Roots

I have been thinking about my family history lately. Visiting with many family members in Savannah over the winter holidays often does that to me. Plus, my daughter Amanda connected with several of our relatives this week while on a trip to Israel, learning how Israel’s major companies function and the value of conducting business activities with Israelis. Amanda said she also felt a stronger connection to her Jewish identity as a result of her trip to Israel. That’s not hard to understand.

But onto family history, after one more digression. . . .

I recently read a book of essays by Eli Evans entitled The Lonely Days Were Sundays. Evans is a chronicler of Jewish life in the South, especially during the period between 1900 and the 1970s. The title of his book comes from a comment that Evans’s grandmother had made about the difficulties of being Jewish and surrounded by non-Jews in a small Southern community, in this case Durham, North Carolina. Here is the whole quote:

“The lonely days were Sundays—Sundays when I watched the town people going to church, while we stayed upstairs in our apartment. Then I would feel like an outsider in this little community. I would have hunger in my heart for my own people. I would visualize a Utopia—a village like this of all Jews—going to a temple on the Sabbath.”

A few pages into the book, Evans quotes a Jewish scholar and rabbi named Jacob Rader Marcus, who asserts that “no Jew was ever the first person to go anywhere. There was always a cousin or an uncle ahead of him.”  So it has been with my family.

Both my grandfather and his sister, the grandmother of my cousins in Israel, were born in a strong Jewish community in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, in the late 1800s. My grandfather came to America in the early 1900s, where his older brother had already settled. The older brother had entered the country at Ellis Island and had proceeded to Savannah, Georgia, where some cousins were already settled. How and why did they get to Savannah? I just don’t know. My grandfather eventually joined them in Savannah in 1911, bringing his fiancĂ©e (my grandmother) along. They soon married and became Southern Jews, with a Polish accent.

My cousin Yosi (Joseph) in Jerusalem filled in some information about my grandfather’s remaining three siblings, one of whom was his grandmother. They all stayed in Brest until the mid 1920s. His grandmother married and worked with her husband in the family’s farm equipment business. Then, one day in 1926 or 1927, a customer in the store began spouting anti-Semitic remarks. The husband took offense and hit the customer in the head with a piece of farm equipment, injuring but not killing the man. Fearing for their lives, the Jewish couple decided to immigrate to Palestine, of all places. In 1927, that was not an easy decision to make. They became Halutzim (pioneers) and worked to help build what would eventually become the state of Israel. They would also begin a new branch of my family, whose last name was Volovelsky before World War II and was eventually changed to Laor (“the light” in Hebrew) several years after the war and after Israel became an official country in 1948. The delay in changing the name was because my cousin Eli determined not to make the change until he was sure that no relatives remained who might have survived the Nazi occupation of Poland and might come looking to reconnect with him in Israel using the Volovelsky name.

Halutzim from Eastern Europe in the 1930s

Sadly, the two siblings who remained in Brest, and the rest of the family members, were taken to concentration camps and slaughtered during the Holocaust. We know their exact dates of death, thanks to the efficient recordkeeping of the Nazis.

This is what I know about the movement of my mother’s side of my family. My father’s side’s history is a little bit sketchier. I am told that my grandfather and grandmother came into the U.S. via either Galveston or New Orleans. They were from either Odessa in southern Russia or Lebanon (my sources do not all agree on this). The man who sponsored my grandfather was named Goodman, and so he chose that as his American name, too. [The original name was something like Byall, which would probably go over well in the South but be confusing, as y’all can imagine.] 

European Jews enter U.S. at Galveston in 1907
My grandfather, whose name was also Michael, became a peddler—like so many immigrant Jews in both the South and North—and moved from place to place. The family of two adults and 12 children made their home in small towns in the South, where they constituted the entire Jewish population. How strange that must have been for them and for their neighbors! Their homes included such “metropolises” (metropoli?) as Anguilla, Mississippi (pop. <800), where my father was born, and Calion, Arkansas (pop. <Anguilla’s), where my father spent his high school years. I will write more about those places in another blogpost, and about their lives as Jews.

Which takes me back to the Evans book for one more thought. Evans said he is often asked to describe the differences between Jews in the North and Jews in the South.  (I am asked that, too, since I have lived in both worlds.) He notes that, unlike Jews in the New York area in particular, Southern Jews have always existed as a minority in a majority culture. They have generally found the need to bond tightly with each other to establish and maintain an identity as Jews. In Evans’s words, “My generation of Northern Jewish friends were upwardly mobile; we [Southern Jews] wanted roots.”

The desire for roots took my immediate ancestors from their ancestral homes to the United States (North and South) and to Israel. There are no written records of their journeys, so I figure I should take on the task as best I can for now and look for help to fill in the gaps.


  1. I just love your posts. Knowing about family is very comforting. I wish that I had more facts. Didn't ask enough questions and now it is too late!

  2. Hey! I happened upon your blog post while doing some genealogy research and wondering if we might be related and could swap information.

    My great-grandfather Shalom Volovelsky emigrated from Brest to Israel in the 1920s. His father was Aaron Volovelsky. Shalom's siblings Haim and Judith also emigrated to Israel in the 1920s. Please touch base with me at mvalji@gmail.com if you can. Thanks!

  3. Shalom Volovelsky also had two other siblings Moshe and Rivka