Meet the family - all 200 of us

It was the simchah to end all simchahs when the descendants of a Zionist pioneer gathered for the first time. First cousin Gita Conn was there


By Gita Conn, November 19, 2009
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The 36 members of the Manchester- based Conn branch of the Sugarman clan pose for the camera at the reunion in Israel.  Gita Conn is sitting in the second row, fifth from the left

The 36 members of the Manchester- based Conn branch of the Sugarman clan pose for the camera at the reunion in Israel. Gita Conn is sitting in the second row, fifth from the left

Rush hour in Rehovot, Israel. Stopped in traffic, a driver leans out and calls: “Where’s the Laromme Hall?” Responds the driver alongside: “Hey, we must be cousins, that’s where we’re going. Follow me!”

By plane, car, bus, mini-van and even on foot, over 200 members of the same family converged in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering, many meeting their relatives for the first time.

The dairy farmer from Meggido met the financial director from Paris; the radical feminist from Haifa chatted to the head of a yeshivah; the UK’s leading legal pensions expert hung on the words of the retired Ashkelon health inspector, fascinated to hear that, after service in the British Army from 1938, he departed Manchester in ’48 to serve the Hagganah and, at the age of 91, still spoke fluent English “with a Mancunian accent which only exists abroad”.

Secular and Charedi, professionals and blue-collar, kibbutzniks and city dwellers ate, drank and mingled joyfully as they celebrated a Jewish family saga with a rare theme of happily-ever-after… at least so far. We had made it. Grandchildren and spouses, great-grandchildren, great-great and one great-great-great descendant of just one couple — Chaim and Rosa Sugarman, who took five of their eight children from Manchester to Palestine 80 years ago.

All but one of the 17 surviving first cousins made it to the party. They swapped memories. “You brought us a Monopoly game,” recalled an Israeli cousin. “That’s how we learnt about London. And we still play it with our children.” “And you,” came the reply, “taught me my first words of Hebrew and how to recognise Ibn G’birol Street by the pillars.”

If relatives were unable to recognise one other by sight, handy badges came into play. A select group of bi-lingual youngsters greeted all-comers with a stack of stickers, a different colour for each branch of the family. Blue for Moshe (my father), their name in Hebrew and English and the all-important number signifying the generational distance from Chaim and Rosa. So we first cousins were number threes, our children number fours, our grandchildren number fives and my sister’s great grandchild the only number six. All were named on the magnificent family tree, featuring the wedding photographs of our grandparents (Chaim and Rosa’s children), with a copy provided for everyone to take home. (It was out-of-date only a fortnight later with the birth of another number five and number six who had both, however, been present at the party in utero.)

The organising committee — six Israeli-based descendants — spent a year planning the event, meeting at one another’s homes (some for the first time). This pre-party bonding ensured, as well as badges for all, a display of Sugarman archive and memorabilia, an on-screen family history, a photographer to capture each separate family branch and even an entertainer to keep the 80-odd children amused in one part of the L-shaped hall.

But, of course, the children were not to be confined. They ran to pore over the pictorial family tree and the displayed artefacts. “Did they really wash clothes in that tub?”; “What funny clothes they wore!”; “Why do they look sad on their wedding day?”, and dashed, uninvited, to grab the microphone and sing their favourite songs. Nobody minded.

As family names were called for the group photos, the little ones took their places in obedient reflex. I was amazed to see eight of my grandchildren neatly seated, front row. (I confess that my nachas at their presence impeded my attention to the stories unfolding from the platform.)

Abe Meiron, 91, meets two-year-old Shachar Mesita at the party

Abe Meiron, 91, meets two-year-old Shachar Mesita at the party

The call for “gingies” (redheads) to be photographed was greeted with laughter and approval from those who knew their more ancient family history. Hinda der Roiter (the redhead) was the earliest known ancestor, a feisty Russian matriarch. Balding members of the family swore they had once been ‘gingy’ in order to qualify for the extra photo opportunity.

A 10-year-old from England (number five) definitely qualified. His mother had received dispensation from his headteacher to take him out of school for the occasion (“Family roots are very important,” she had agreed). He kept repeating “Wow! All these people are my relations!”

“Black hats” and “sheitels” mingled happily with bare-heads and cleavages, and all the children played boisterously together.

I couldn’t help wondering whether our ancestor would have approved. The portrait of the patriach, Chaim Sugarman, loomed, stern, unsmiling, bearded; those heavily-lidded eyes recognisably replicated, down the generations, among today’s family.

There was probably not much fun for him in pogrom-ridden Vaslui in Romania. He escaped for Manchester at the beginning of the 20th century, presciently rescuing his descendants from even the worst massacres of the Holocaust.

In Manchester, he prospered as a quilt-blanket manufacturer, using remnants bought from Lancashire textile merchants. But, a devout Jew, he never forgot the blessing bestowed on him by the rebbe before he left Vaslui. While approving the Manchester option, the rebbe had hoped he would ultimately settle in the Land of Israel.

And so, in 1929, he obeyed the rebbe. He and his wife Rosa had also obeyed the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” and brought five of their eight children to Palestine. (There should have been nine, but the first-born died in childbirth.)

Left behind were the eldest daughter, who by that time had married a pillar of the Manchester Jewish community, and two of his sons (one, my father) to wind up his business affairs. Several of the descendants of those who remained in Manchester also eventually settled in Israel (including my own sister, brother and eldest son).

Chaim had undoubtedly made his fortune in Manchester. At the party in Rehovot, we reflected wryly that his story provides the answer to the question: “How do you make a small fortune in Israel?” The response, of course, is that: “You take a large fortune with you.”

In his zeal to help develop the nascent state, he invested heavily. In less than a decade, he was declared bankrupt and, so the story was told, died of a heart attack on hearing the news.

Rosa survived him by many years and I was fortunate to know her when I spent time in Israel as a girl. Her English was broken, but the Manchester accent, so pronounced in the English of the Israeli grandchildren, was discernible. The deep lines on her wrinkled face, in contrast to the beautiful woman captured in that sepia wedding photograph, had surely been etched by her sacrifice to her husband’s Zionist dream.

If she could only have been present in that hall in Rehovot, she could have seen just how fruitful her hard life had, ultimately, been. Chaim would surely have approved that every single one of the descendants of the five children he had taken to Palestine had, not only remained and thrived in Israel, but had been joined later by children of those who had remained in Manchester.

The evening ended too soon. Replete with stories, food, and laughter, babies were packed into pushchairs, older relatives helped down the stairs, with everyone clutching their family trees and ring-bound histories.

“I just couldn’t believe we were all descended from one family,” declared a great grandchild (number four). Pronounced her son, the ten-year-old number five “I’ve had the best night ever. I’ll remember it all my life.”

“Behold, how good and pleasant for brothers to dwell together,” goes the Psalm. Indeed, it was too for Chaim and Rosa’s descendants, to be together in love and harmony, in the land of Chaim’s dream.

    Last updated: 3:45pm, November 19 2009