Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Loops in the Family Tree

Here in Virginia, one of the local pastimes is telling West Virginian jokes. (You have to look down on someone, right?) On I-81 in Virginia, the speed limit is 65, but in West Virginia it's 70. The reason for that, I cracked wise one day, is because they're hurrying home to their cousins.

Since then, I've learned that in West Virginia it's illegal to marry your first cousin. But it isn't in New York. (Take that, Murray Hillbillies!)

For the past three years I've been researching my family tree, aided enormously by the databases and Family Finder feature at, the website for Jewish genealogy. And here is what I found:

I come from people who marry their cousins.

I'd known for years that my father's aunt Dinah had married a Stander cousin from England, Sam. Supposedly he was a second cousin, but there were no hard facts, and I've yet to find any evidence either way. I always figured this was an anomaly; a one-off kind of thing. And then in the course of more research, I found a second pair of cousins who married, and a third, and a fourth. Dinah and Sam weren't aberrations, they were the norm!

The practice seems to have stopped after World War II, and fortunately wasn't so pervasive that we're all mad (at least not very), or have hemophilia. However, it has ensured a marked resemblance through all the branches of the family, especially the men. My father, the late actor Lionel Stander, exemplifies the Stander Y-chromosome look: barrel chest, skinny shanks; broad, round-cheeked face; reddish hair, freckles. A cousin I recently met has the same round cheeks and stiff-legged gait as my father. Through JewishGen, I heard from a man who claimed kinship. I was ho-hum about it (my dad is a popular guy to be related to) until I got his photo in an email. And then I nearly plotzed. I forwarded it to my mom, and her reaction was the same as mine: "Oh my God!"

The gravelly voice was my dad's alone, but I hear eerie resonances in other Stander men. Three of my far-flung cousins, who have never met each other or even spoken, sound almost identical. Another says, "Hello, Bella!" in the exact same intonation as my dad, albeit with an English accent. I like to call him just so I can hear his voice; it's like getting a piece of my father back.

Tomorrow I'm off to England, in search of the Stander mishpocha*. No doubt I'll find many more familial resemblances--and differences--while I'm there. Stay tuned for the Fabulous Yiddisher Britisher Tour.

*(Yiddish) entire family network

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