WHEN I TOLD MY FAMILY that I was moving to Texas eight years ago, the news was greeted with sighs around my grandmother’s dining room table. My family saw Texas as alien territory, the opposite of the intellectual New York Jewish world in which I was raised. (“Are there Jews in Texas?” my grandmother asked me, only half joking.) Back then, none of us knew that many of our long-lost relatives, the Samuelsons, had moved to Texas during the Depression and that we had dozens of cousins scattered across the state, from Lubbock to Beaumont. The recent discovery of our Texas family has led to some unlikely revelations. I learned that an old storefront on Austin’s Congress Avenue, one I’ve walked past nearly every day for years, used to be Slax Menswear—the headquarters of a local clothing business that my forgotten cousins ran for more than half a century.
The two sides of my family have been shaped as much by our disparate geography as by the biology that links us. We are all descended from my great-great-great-great-grandfather Samuel Glassivitsky, a Russian peasant whose sons, Morris and Julius, came to America in the 1880’s. The Glassivitskys (Morris’ descendants) and the Samuelsons (Julius’ descendants, who bear his new American name, from “son of Samuel”) were a tight-knit clan until the Samuelsons headed south to Louisiana at the turn of the century. The families remained close through the thirties, when my great-great-grandmother Rachel Glassivitsky Cohn—our sturdy, Yiddish-speaking matriarch, who was known as Bubba—would pack a suitcase of kosher food and take the train to New Orleans. Bubba eventually got too old to make the trip south, and the families drifted apart. By the fifties they had lost track of one another entirely.
Two years ago a Glassivitsky cousin of mine who was doing some genealogical sleuthing found a Samuelson family reunion Web site, which explained that the clan traced its origins back to our Samuel Glassivitsky. My adopted home of Austin, I soon learned, was also home to many of my unknown cousins. This information was received by my side of the family with a mix of amazement and Yankee chauvinism; southern Jews are often seen by their northern counterparts as being too assimilated and estranged from their culture, and my family was undeniably wary of these far-flung cousins. Though the Samuelsons turned out to be far less traditionally observant than my family—they bought Christmas trees and ate oysters, for starters—they were so engaging that even my deeply religious grandparents could not help but be charmed by them. We all met last summer in New Orleans for a family reunion, one that included more than two hundred descendants of Samuel Glassivitsky, and raised our glasses to this lucky convergence of bloodlines.
My Texas cousins are everything that my family is not. We are bookish, intensely private, and driven; I remember watching my father and his first cousin compete to see who could finish the New York Times Sunday crossword first, racing to fill in the white boxes in ink. Our newfound cousins are warm, gregarious, fun-loving people—romantics at heart—who in their fading family photographs wear gardenias in their hair and dreamy smiles that speak to a sense of limitless possibility. We share a love of food and fashion and an obsession with politics. But the Samuelsons are inherently different, having lived in a place that owes less to Old World ways than to the idea of self-invention. The family’s elder statesman is 83-year-old Hymie Samuelson, a vibrant man who has written fifteen books, some about his life and others about various metaphysical questions. He now reads my articles with a red pencil in hand, underlining passages that strike him and scribbling words of encouragement in the margins.
Last fall I ventured into a synagogue for the first time in a long while. It was the week after September 11, and I had gone as much to commemorate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, as to find solace in tradition. I was relieved when I spotted Hymie’s white hair in the front row, and I rushed over to kiss him hello. He squeezed my hand, in silent acknowledgement of the grief we were all feeling. “It’s so good to see you,” he whispered. I was glad to have found family so far from home.