For Avner Yohai, an Israeli living in Northern California's Silicon Valley, it was the strings - the mandolin strings, to be more specific.
I first met Avner at a board meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, held at my friend Rosanne Leeson's home in Los Altos early this past summer. We connected again in August at the 30th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, in Los Angeles.
The photo (above left) is of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra in the 1930s.
Tablet Magazine, which always offers a good read, carried a story by Alexander Gelfand, on Avner's family and research, and the "Aha!" moment that kickstarted Avner's interest in family history.
Have you ever had one of those moments—one of those epiphanies—when everything is illuminated?
Avner Yonai did. And it came, fittingly enough, while he was watching the film Everything Is Illuminated, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Which led, of course, to the mandolins.
But first, the epiphany.
In 1932, his father's family went from Poland to Palestine. In 1935, members of his mother's family followed the same trip. The ancestral town was Gora Kalwaria - Ger, in Yiddish. Those who didn't leave, died in Treblinka.
His family didn't talk about Poland, and he himself didn't think about it until he saw "Illuminated." Most of the town's residents died in a massacre on March 18, 1942. Avner was born on March 18. Do you hear Twilight Zone music?
In two weeks, he was in Ger, looking for family information. A 94-year-old survivor showed Avner the Ger Yizkor book and showed him the photo of his grandfather, great-uncles and a cousin, from the 1930s. That was the photo above, also on Avner's business cards.
Mandolin orchestras were all over in the early 20th century, mostly performed by immigrants (and amateur musicians) who kept their memories of home alive through familiar music.
However, the instrument is not a new one and dates to 15th century Italy with lots of Baroque and classical music. It spread rapidly across Europe, where many countries each have their own style of music.
In the 19th century, mandolins were made in various sizes, each with a different "voice," just like string quartets and larger ensembles. The sizes sounded like a viola (mandolina), a cello (mandocello) or a bass (mandobass), providing musical richness to the sound.
In the story, author Gelfand relates his own experience with mandolin music in Montreal. His maternal grandfather was from Krynki (Krinek), some 150 miles northeast of Yohai's ancestral town of Ger.
The photo spurred Avner to "lost" relatives in Israel, much more detailed research and to recreate the group.
But Yonai is not one to give up easily. He has used the genealogy website JewishGen and the YIVO archives to find contacts and archival materials among the scattered descendants of the Jews of Ger. He has hired a doctoral candidate in ethnological studies at the University of Warsaw to pore over old newspapers, sheet music, record catalogs—anything that might hint at the mandolin orchestra’s repertoire. Together with the Israeli mandolinist Benny Bilsky, who has volunteered to act as music director for the project, he has even visited the large community of Gerrer Hasidim in Bnei Brak, Israel, searching for tunes that might have found their way into the orchestra’s book.Thanks to Avner, a newly recreated Mandolin Orchestra of Ger will perform in March at the 26th Jewish Music Festival.
Now, as you look for your family's heirlooms and photos, keep an eye out for old mandolin music as well, and let Avner know.
Read the complete story at the Tablet link above.