Beyond the Pale[1]

In 1791, the Russian Ruler, Catherine the Great, identified specific portions of her realm in which Jews were permitted to permanently reside. This area became known as the “Pale of Settlement.”

There had long been various kinds of limitations on Jews within what is now known as Eastern Europe. Jews were seen by majority Christian communities as foreign, suspicious, and even dangerous apostates. For hundreds of years before the 1791 edict, Eastern European Jewish life was centered on yeshivas – which were institutions for religious, social and cultural study – and shtetls, small villages of impoverished tradesmen and small farmers.  

More than 30 years ago, some of my mother’s relatives put together a family tree of those yeshiva-bochers and shtetl-dwelling ancestors with the surname Antolept.  It listed names, dates of birth and death, marital relationships, and little or no additional information.  This green and white covered pull-out document was distributed to the known Antolept descendants whose shared history started 150 years ago in the Pale of Settlement but who have since scattered around the Earth in six continents. (Who knows, there may also be an Antolept in Antarctica that we don’t know about. An alliterative homerun!) 

About five years ago, after extensive genealogical research by a new generation of family historians, a gathering of nearly 100 Antolept progeny met in New York City.  It was a quick few days of greetings and storytelling. For me, the event was both illuminating and fun. But it was only a small taste of what there was to learn about those people who stayed and those who fled poverty and oppression, as well as a strong cultural homogeneity in what is now Lithuania. I wanted fuller connections, and the primary purpose of this foreign travel was to whet my appetite for and deepen my knowledge of family lore.

As my trip moved from Turkey to South Africa and then on to Israel, I stayed in the homes, shared meals, and got to know with greater intimacy, some wonderful members of my family, who like me, now lived “beyond the pale.”

The most popularly known depiction of shtetl life in modern culture is, of course, the play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was a sad but also sweet coincidence for this blog purpose then, that the man who was initially reluctant to take the role of Tevye the Milkman, in the 1971 movie, but who went on to play Tevye over 3500 times in theater throughout the world, Chaim Topol, just passed away a few days ago at the age of 87.

With theater on my mind, and in search of a means of structuring this blog entry to orient readers to the last two-plus weeks of travel, I will introduce you all to my family under the classic western theatrical rubric:

Dramatis Personae

For all of South Africa, and most Israel, I met with the progeny of Moishe Hershel Antolept and his wife Chava Jaffe Antolept. They are my great grandparents on my mother’s side. For two nights I stayed with Chava’s brother’s family line.

  1. The Swerskys of Johannesburg (Joburg)

My mother’s aunt Frieda Antolept (my grandfather’s sister) married Simon Swersky in South Africa. They had five children, Lillian, Abie, Harry, Mavis and Alec (who died long ago).  On the first three South African nights, I stayed in the home of Ruth Nicola, daughter of Abie.

Ruth is a writer, educator, and editor.  Jean and I had gone on safari with her 15 years before in our only previous visit to South Africa.  We also met with her and her close friend, Grant, in Nova Scotia, a few years later and have kept in touch with writing and phone and zoom over the years.

A selfie with Joy, Padma, Ruth and Roberto at Joy’s Joberg home.

On my first night, Ruth and I went over for dinner at the home of Joy Stein. I first met Joy when she was traveling the US as a young woman, slightly older than myself. At her Joburg home, we had a delicious meal and a lively and warm conversation with Joy’s brother Swami Padmapadananda (aka Raymond Stein), and her significant other, Roberto.  Joy and Swami are the children of Lillian Stein and grandchildren of Frieda Antolept (Frieda was my mother’s aunt).  I also briefly met Josh, Joy’s son.

2. The Castles of Cape Town

Along with her older sister Adele, Sybil Castle is the last of my mother’s generation still alive. And she is very much alive! The youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of Moishe Hershel Antolept.  For my first three nights in Cape Town, I stayed with her son Gary Castle and wife Janine’s home in a pleasant suburban neighborhood of Cape Town. There, they are in the process of raising Samuel (who has stayed in our Olympia home parts of the last two Decembers while on winter break from college in the USA Great Plains), Brandon and Anna.  While at their home, we had a family gathering which included Sybil’s other, older son David Castle and his wife Debbie and two daughters Rachel and Anna; as well as her daughter Elana Castle Smut’s family which flew in from New York, including husband Grant and children Jonah and Leah.

A Castle of beauties, from left Debbie, Ella, Rachel, Leah, and Anna

3. The Itais of Israel

In my first visit to Israel in 1994, I visited cousins in the very northern tip of Israel, who came to their country by way of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi.[1] I met at that time the original Israeli immigrant from our family, Shirshara Jaffe Itai, who was Moishe Hershel and Chava’s niece.  Shirshara had several children, including Yuval who went on to a career as a mariner and many other trades, Avner who became Israel’s foremost choral director, Shula who stayed in the kibbutz and became an educator, and Hemy, her youngest, who became a hardware designer and one of the principal creators of what we now call “smart cards.” You know, like credit cards, things that computers can read. Not an insignificant contribution.

Hemy takes me to the Alawite village of Ghajar, in the Golan Heights adjacent to (and disputably within) Lebanon.

For my first two nights in Israel, I stayed (actually convalesced! For more on that see a later blog entry.) in Hemy and his wonderful wife Anat Itai’s beautiful country home in Beit Hilel, which is located in Israel’s northern Hula Valley.

4. The Brahms’ of Ra’anana

Sybil Castle’s older sister Adele Brahms, had visited our home in Bellevue when I was nine years old.  I called her “Miss South Africa” because I thought she was beautiful and heard that she won a “best legs” contest in what was then my pre-feminist awareness period.  She also, apparently, won some speed typing award, but what I remember most was just hanging out with her for what probably was a couple of weeks.  Adele went on to make aliyah to Israel, marry an Israeli and mother two children, Daniel and Michal.  For the rest of this most recent trip to Israel, I stayed in Daniel (Danny) and his wife Shirly Brahms‘ apartment. It used to be Adele’s apartment. Adele is now toward the fragile end of her long life, and I visited her in her nursing home twice on this trip.

On our first day with car, Danny and Shirly and I visit the ancient city of Caesarea.

5. The Benjamins of Kiryat Yearim

Janine Swersky Benjamin and her husband Brian made aliyah to Israel about 30 years ago and did they ever make a presence since.  They have nine children and 49 grandchildren! Self-described as former South African hippies, they now lead lives strictly consistent with halakhic Jewish law and customs. Their daughter Tamar, kindly helped arrange our dinner meeting with Danny and Shirly.

6. The Ports of Bet Shemesh

David Port and his wife Lauren, have three children, Orly, Elisha and Ezra, ages 8, 6, and 4.  David, Ruth Nicola’s nephew, is a clinical psychologist, specializing in service to the Haredi community.  Lauren is an editor and translator between Hebrew, English and French.

Danny, Shirly and I enjoy the quietest moment of the evening in the exuberant home of David and Lauren Port.

[1] I am extraordinarily proud to have a family connection with this kibbutz and its contribution to the creation of the state of Israel. For more research, there is a movie about its founding and role as a smuggling center into British Mandate-era Palestine.

[1] Surprisingly for me, the term “beyond the pale” refers not to the Pale of Settlement, but was originally derived from the term for a fortified boundary around Dublin, Ireland. It has come to be used to express behavior which is outside of acceptable, civilized norms.


6 thoughts on “Beyond the Pale[1]

  1. I assume you are home. Welcome back. When you recover from jet lag and I recover from the vicarious socializing let’s go for a walk next week.


  2. Awesome trip. Amazing family. You are most fortunate!

    And the Top of the morning to you. Jim L ________________________________


    1. Again thanks for sharing your great family history. So much appreciated,if only all could find and follow family back so far. All family histories are so enlightening. Blessings to you all. Earl Ralkowski Le Clair. Ps tried to send earlier, didn’t work well.


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