Roots

It’s back to work for me, with new students to orient, grants to review, papers to write, seminars to deliver–in short, back to what I enjoy doing. But “back from what?”

My family and I have been living in Omaha, Nebraska, smack in the geographical center of the US for the last 9 years-and we all agree that we’re happy living here. But I wasn’t always so happy living in the geographical center of a country.

I passed my childhood in the tundra of Winnipeg, Canada, a city for which I have preciously few fond memories. And many of those are recent ones from the visit we just undertook–the first one in 8 years.

Being the rather unhappy place where I resided between the ages of 3-18, with a year in the middle (15-16) when I was in Israel, I have been avoiding returns to the city despite the fact that I still have a lot of family, close and more distant, living in this intimidating climate. So close family have come often to visit us in Omaha, rather than the other way around.

Well, it was time for a visit. We got in our Toyota Prius and were amazed to find that it can get almost to Winnipeg from Omaha on a single 10-gallon tank of gas. In fact, we found that following an 18-wheeler semi-trailer for several hours on the road boosted our miles per gallon to an amazing 84 MPG. Awesome science lesson in wind friction and its effects.

In any case, on route we stopped overnight in the town of Fargo, North Dakota, famous for the film by the same name. I should mention that 8 years ago, on a similar trip, I had called my father in Winnipeg from Fargo and of course kidded him with my usual, “Oh no, we forgot the passports, guess we’ll have to go back.” Of course the joke was on me: I actually DID forget them at home–I realized it as I was rambling through my practical joke. Despite a 4th of July holiday weekend, friends of ours in Omaha were able to locate the passports at midnight and ship them to us in Fargo via FedEX, thus saving the day. Was that an unconscious desire of mine not to get to Winnipeg?

This time I did not forget the passports, and the visit was nice–and 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Omaha’s triple digits. I met my nieces and nephews that I had not seen in many years, we had a nice visit to the town of Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park,

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and we visited the remarkable building site of the up and coming Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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One of the things that occurred on this visit was my 10 year old son’s fascination with our family history. While knowing some general details, this has not been a topic that I’ve spent much time thinking about recently. So he set out to obtain all the genealogical information that he could to reconstruct the family tree.

This is still a work in progress, but coming along very well with the aid of many family members, most particularly my father–and I would just like to post 2 photos that are of great interest to me. The first is one of our most ancient traceable ancestors, who apparently went by the name of Dov Caplan in an area that today would be considered Lithuania. Dov would be my father’s great grandfather, or my great-great grandfather, or my son’s great-great-great grandfather–6 generations removed. We are not sure of his age in the photo, but it was likely taken in the late 1850s or early 1860s.

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Dov Caplan- circa 1960? Family resemblance?

The second photo features me, as a baby in 1965, with 4 generations on my mother’s side. Unfortunately, I am the only generation still alive in that photo.

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So the trip was beneficial as well. Just to round things out, we listened again to Bill Bryson’s wonderful audiobook book (read by the author) “A Short History of Nearly Everything” where he notes that each and every one of us alive today probably shares a million or more atoms with Shakespeare. I wonder how many of my atoms are from Dov Caplan?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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11 Responses to Roots

  1. Great post, Steve. Glad the visit was good despite your misgivings about The Peg. I was right near that museum site in March (staying at the Inn on the Forks, which is about 5 minutes’ walk away).

    I may have mentioned this before, but since you’ve got both Bryson and Shakespeare in your post – Bryson’s biography of The Bard is an excellent read. Like A Short History…, it also debunks a lot of myths and is written in typically entertaining Bryson style.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Ahh yes, the Forks–an interesting area that was not there when I was a kid. I’ll have to do a comparison sometime between Omaha and Winnipeg–although Omaha is similar in size (greater Omaha is actually a fair bit larger), the cities are remarkably different in character. Here’s a video Cath sent me some time ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8cgD3CXVx8

      I will definitely get to The Bard, but I need to finish “At Home” by Bryson, which I am listening to now!

      • I can tell you that the Forks is entirely built on old railyards and factories, and that the hotel I was in ties in to existing (ancient) plumbing that backs up if there is heavy rain. I’ll spare you further details. 😉

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Years ago when I backpacked through S. America, there was a guidebook colloquially known as “The Bible” although its official name was the South American Travellers Handbook. I once stayed at a cheap hotel (in fact I ONLY stayed at cheap hotels) that the Bible described as having “adventurous plumbing,” which was a perfectly apt description!

  2. cromercrox says:

    The first thing I took from that was ‘it can get almost to Winnipeg from Omaha on a single 10-gallon tank of gas’. Wow.

    I suspect that Dov Caplan shared a few atoms with my children’s great-great-great-grandfather, Aaron Israel Ginsberg. I have no photos of the great patriarch, just a Yiddish inscription in a siddur (printed in Hebrew and Russian, Vilna, 1909) and a very fragile silk tallit

    Interestingly, I got Bryson’s book on the Bard in one of my recent bouts of tsundokuismus.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      There is, apparently, a relative on my father’s mother’s side who claims he can trace back ancestry to Spain 600 years ago, but I have serious doubts about that. But it did get me thinking a few years back about whether to accept an invitation to talk at a meeting in Portugal a few summers ago. On the one hand my gracious host set up a wonderful meeting with a lot of Portugese folklore and history. At the same time, Spain and Portugal have never officially rescinded their expulsion decree for Jews. I decided to go but had a long conversation with my Portugese hosts about my misgivings.

      Have you ever tried any DNA testing to look at your ancestry?

      • cromercrox says:

        I haven’t had DNA testing… I expect I am 99.9999% Russian. Or maybe Khazar. I know slightly more about Aaron Israel Ginsberg’s son, Grandpa Wolf, who was the first of the clan to come to England from the shtetl. Our family was the village cabinet-maker in the same way that Tevye was the village milkman. We have the set of six dining chairs Wolf made himself from mahogany… and I saw a photo of him once. He looked like a Russian in a flat hat.

        I never knew that Portugal and Spain had never rescinded 1492. Curious. I wonder if you know the tale of how the Jews came back to England centuries after the expulsion of 1290?

        • Steve Caplan says:

          I don’t know the story of Jews populating England, but it’s one of a number of fascinating stories I would like to know more about. My family on my father’s father’s side, descendants of Dov, actually made their way to England and lived for some time in Manchester before moving on to Canada. Hence the Caplan with a “C” rather than the American spelling of Kaplan with a “K.” For the record, in Hebrew it’s simply a “Kuf.”

          • cromercrox says:

            Well, it’s like this. Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290.

            Centuries later, Jews in Holland trading with England wondered if they could come and live there. In 1655, one Menachem ben Israel visited London for an audience with England’s ruler, which at the time was Oliver Cromwell, to ask permission for Jews to live in England.

            Jews asking admission to countries were accustomed to one of two answers: either ‘no’, or ‘yes, but you have to live in certain places, wear certain clothes, only do certain jobs etc.’

            Cromwell’s answer was characteristically English. ‘It depends,’ he said, and convened a conference to decide the question. The Whitehall Conference of 1655 was split. Businessmen were against having Jews, because they didn’t want competition. Religious leaders were all for having Jews, as to admit them would (apparently) hasten the Second Coming. Jurists couldn’t decide whether the expulsion of 1290 was a law that had to repealed, or a royal decree that would have died with Edward I. The result was deadlock. When Menachem ben Israel, sometime later, asked Cromwell about progress, the astute warts-and-all politician said that as nobody could make up their mind, they (the Jews) might as well come into England, provided they kept a low profile. Which really says a great deal about English tolerance, fudge and compromise. And that’s how Jews came to England in 1656, founding the Bevis Marks Synagogue, near what is now Liverpool St Station. Bevis Marks synagogue is still there, as is Liverpool St Station. Oliver Cromwell isn’t, and neither is Menachem ben Israel.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Henry,

    Actually I did know that story, with Cromwell (who I recall was a very sharp and calculating ruler), but it’s great to get a refresher. What, if anything, is known about the arrival of Jews in England in earlier on? Was it during the Norman conquest, or were there Jews there from the 2nd temple period?

  4. cromercrox says:

    Doh. He wasn’t Menachem ben Israel. My Freudian Slip is showing. His name was Manasseh ben Israel.

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