You know by now that I believe we are all somehow connected—that there truly are only six degrees of separation between any two people. I’ve encountered it many times while doing family history research—my cousins who end up being close friends with either my own friends or with my husband’s cousins, a cousin who once worked at the same JCC where I’ve belonged for over 30 years, cousins with children or grandchildren living in the same town where I now live, and so on.
So here’s another small world story, and although this one does not involve any of my own ancestors or cousins, it nevertheless is more evidence of our interconnectedness.
Back in the fall of 2013, I ordered from a third-party seller on Amazon a book entitled Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bella Cohen Spewack (Feminist Press at CUNY, 1995). I purchased the book to learn more about life on the Lower East Side in the first two decades of the 20th century when my grandmother, Gussie Brotman, was growing up there. The memoir gave a detailed and, in many ways, harrowing portrayal of Bella Spewack’s life as a child in the Lower East Side. Despite her poverty-stricken and difficult start in life, she grew up to become a successful journalist and writer, best known for the play and Broadway hit, Kiss Me Kate, which she wrote with her husband Sam Spewack. I devoted three blog posts to summarizing and commenting on what I had learned about the Lower East Side from reading Bella Spewack’s book.
In a footnote to my last post about Spewack’s book, I wrote about the mysterious handwritten note that had been tucked inside the book when I received it. The note was written to people named Sheila and Alan and read,
At last we have received copies of Bella’s memoirs. We thought they would never come. This one is for you. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll talk to you this weekend. On to Turkey! Love, Arthur and Lois.
When I found the note in the book, I had wondered whether Sheila and Alan, the addressees, had ever seen it and whether they had meant to leave it in the book when they gave away or sold the book. I also wondered who Arthur and Lois and Sheila and Alan were. I thought about trying to return the note, but without last names I had no way to do that.
I had one clue: there was an afterward to Bella Spewack’s book by a woman named Lois Raeder Elias, who wrote that she had been a longtime friend of Bella Spewack. I wondered whether the note was written by Lois Raeder Elias since it certainly seemed from the content of the note that the person sending it had participated in some way in the publication of Spewack’s book.
So I mentioned the note in my last blog post about Spewack’s book, hoping that Lois Raeder Elias or someone who knew her might somehow find my post and contact me. That was in December of 2013, almost four and half years ago.
Fast forward about two years later to November of 2015. I was now in the process of researching my Schoenthal ancestors and their lives in Washington, Pennsylvania. While researching the history of Jewish life in so-called “Little Washington,” I connected with Marilyn A. Posner, a past president of Beth Israel synagogue in Little Washington as well as the author of the centennial history of the synagogue, The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752 (1991, Congregation Beth Israel, Washington, Pennsylvania). Marilyn was extremely helpful to me in my research, and I relied on her research and her book extensively in writing about Little Washington’s Jewish history on my blog. We also developed an email friendship and found other areas of common interest.
House of Nathan Samuels in Washiington PA where Beth Israel congregants first met
Photo courtesy of Marilyn Posner from her book, “The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752
So how do these two things relate? How does a note in a book by Bella Spewack about the Lower East Side of New York City connect to a woman who lives in Washington, Pennsylvania?
Well, fast forward another two and half years to April 2018, about a week ago. Out of the blue I received an email from Marilyn that I had to read several times to absorb and understand completely. But here’s the essence: Marilyn’s first cousin, once removed, a man named Arthur Elias, had died on April 12, 2018, at age 92. Marilyn’s son, in Googling his cousin Arthur’s name for information about his life, somehow fell upon the footnote to my blog post from December 15, 2013, and sent it along to his mother, Marilyn.
Marilyn with her great-aunt Bertha Elias, mother of Arthur Elias, 1948
Marilyn immediately recognized my blog and contacted me to share this small world story: Lois Raeder Elias, who had written the afterward to Bella Spewack’s memoirs, was the wife of Marilyn’s recently deceased cousin Arthur Elias. Arthur and Lois were very close friends of Bella Spewack and in fact had inherited the rights to her works when she died, including the rights to Kiss Me Kate, which had been revived and brought back to Broadway in 1999 with the support of Arthur and Lois Raeder Elias.
Marilyn also solved the mystery of the handwritten note I’d found inside the book. She assumed it must have been written by her cousin Arthur and his wife Lois to Arthur’s sister Sheila and her husband Alan.
Marilyn then connected me to her cousin Sheila, who was very excited to hear that I had the note and the book. The next day I mailed the book and the note to Sheila, and she received it last Friday. She was thrilled and so grateful, and I was more than delighted that I could reunite Sheila and Alan with the book and the note that Arthur and Lois had sent to them over twenty years before.
Siblings Sheila and Arthur
I had long ago forgotten about the footnote that I’d left on my blog and never expected at this point to hear from anyone about that handwritten note. And then the forces of six degrees of separation came through, and someone with whom I’d connected almost two years after writing that blog footnote and over two and a half years ago turned out to be the cousin of the author and of the recipient of the note.
How is that for a small world story?!