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Designing a Uniquely Personal and Genealogically-Oriented Litvak Menorah

By Judith Langer-Surnamer Caplan, December 2002

Recently I added a New York City Menorah to my personal collection of Chanukiyot. You, too, may be familiar with this contemporary modern ceramic menorah of the Manhattan Skyline which displays a unique blend of instantly identifiable Gotham landmarks upon it such as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the United Nations, the Chrysler Building, a Broadway marquee, a New York City taxicab, a bridge with a tower, and the Twin Towers, A"L.

As I stared across my dining room table on the first night of Chanukah towards the table by the front window where the candles in this distinctly New York City Menorah were burning so brightly, I began ruminating about what might be placed on a Chanukiya to transform it into a uniquely genealogically oriented Litvak Menorah…

I began my creative candelabra design quest by trying to identify distinct genealogical landmarks which were either or both Jewish and indigenous to Lithuania. Naturally, some of the first places to spring to mind were also some of the very archives and repositories I am most apt to contact vis a vis family history research. Thus, as I began to seriously envision my Litvak Chanukiya, at the head of my list were replicas of YIVO and LVIA (Lietuvos Valstybes Istorijos Archyvas or the Lithuanian State Historical Archives), both connected with Vilnius aka Vilna Ir va’Aim b’Yisroel, as well as Kauno Apygardos Archyvas, the State Historical Archives in Kaunas.

Next, naturally, in addition to the major cities of Vilnius and Kaunas, I very much wanted to include allusions to my many ancestral shtetls in Lithuania, starting with Zagare, Siauliai, Klykoliai, and Popilani where my Surinamers and Zurinamers were known to reside, and continuing with Zeimelis and Kriukai where my mother-in-law’s Lepars used to lived, and Birzai where her Bochurs once dwelled, and possibly including the elusive places where my husband’s Kaplans may have lived of either Keidaniai or Kvedarna and where his Klompuses may well have lived, in Vieksniai or Sveksna. (Of course I could always opt to write what was on his grandfather’s naturalization which was Chevedan and Ibeksni.) But even so, just how should I go about incorporating these shtetls into the overall design of this menorah-to-be? Should I simply have a few directional signs along a winding path to point the way to these localities, or should I perhaps instead include a detailed map of Lithuania with the names of these shtetlach that were personally important to me inscribed in Hebrew? Or, alternatively, maybe I might even include miniature versions of some of the historic vital records in my collection, such as the 1885 marriage of my husband’s second great-grandparents, Sheina Reich Berman and Bendet Lepar, in Zeimelis.

Moreover, since some of my Surinamers and Bochurs wandered further afield into what was once Courlandskaya Gubernia and is now Latvia, in my mind’s eye I also considered adding in road signs or railroad signs pointing onward towards Liepaja, Riga, Mitau, Bauske, and Skaistkalne, but I am still undecided whether or not I absolutely want to do so. And I also have to decide whether or not I want to include an allusion to the birthplace of my fifth great uncle Gerrit Jacobs, the elusive, mysterious Bismosnejar whose exact location in 17th century Lithuania has still not been unearthed – though possibly a highway sign labeled Bismosnejar with great big questions marks surrounding it might be the answer.

Perhaps one could even design a unique, all-inclusive Menorah featuring familiar Jewish landmarks from the many different towns and villages that make up LitvakLand from Akmene and Aleksandrovo to Lida and Lygumai and Zasliai and Zeimys -- maybe even a sui generis Synagogue Menorah featuring distinctive synagogues from all over Lithuania. The possibilities, once one’s imagination gets started, are indeed endless.

What would you most like to see on a Menorah if you were envisioning your own unique genealogically oriented Chanukiya??? If you start designing it now, you might just have it ready to use for next Chanukah…

about the author
Judith Langer-Surnamer Caplan

Judith Shulamith Langer-Surnamer Caplan This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is the Editor of the LitvakSIG Online Journal. Judi, who has a BA in English from Brooklyn College, an MS in Mass Communications from Syracuse University, and has studied at Seminary College of JTS, taught English in the NYC high school system. Judi is also a poet and short story writer, and her articles on genealogy have appeared in AVOTAYNU and THE JEWISH STAR. 

Judi continues to research her extended mishpacha, especially her many Litvak connections: KAPLANS in Keidaniai or Kvedarna; COLUMBIS/KLOMPUS in Vieksniai or Sveksna, Lithuania; BOCHURS in Skaistkalne, Latvia, & Birzai, Lithuania; LEPARS in Zeimelis, Lithuania; and SURNAMERS and ZURINAMERS in Siauliai & Zagare, Lithuania, and Liepaja, Mitau, & Riga, Latvia, as well as Suriname, the Netherlands, Israel, South Africa, and England. The Surnamer family has been traced back to the mid 1600’s, to Esther Isaac HaCohen and Zadok Simon HaLevi Van Coerland. 

Judi has talked about "How to Read a Hebrew Tombstone Anywhere in the World" and "Creating and Publishing a Family Newsletter" at several IAJGS Jewish Genealogy Summer Conferences, including the 24th IAJGS Conference, July 2004, in Jerusalem. Judi is also the founder of UpRoots! Genealogy Research Services and does professional genealogical research in the metropolitan New York City area, including Long Island.