Saturday, January 23, 2010

A heaping helping of history served at Seder

The Seder meal is the most important event in the Passover celebration, taking place the first two nights of the eight-day holiday which began Saturday, April 19th. Two days prior to the celebration, Yellow Springs resident Gabriele Leventhal could spare little time for an interview as she prepared for the arrival of 32 guests.

“Yesterday I cooked chicken stock for matzah ball soup,” she said. “Tonight I will recruit one of my kids to help me roll about 70 matzah balls which I will then cook for the soup to serve Saturday night. I’ve still got gefilte fish to make. These are some of the traditional foods we serve each year.”

Each year the Leventhal family looks forward to celebrating Passover with a combination of family and friends. New to the gathering this year were some guests from Cincinnati—Mitch Leventhal, his wife Yumei, and their two children, Zara and Roman. Gabriele never would have met Mitch or his family if it hadn’t been for her participation in National Geographic’s Genographic Project.

Last year, on a lark, Gabriele sent for a DNA analysis after going to the project website at After receiving the Public Participation Kit, she swabbed the inside of her son, Quinn’s cheek with one of the kit’s scrapers. “He just happened to be the one standing next to me when I decided to do it!” she laughed. She then sent the DNA sample to National Geographic. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I had my DNA tested by Family Tree DNA at,” explained Mitch in a recent phone interview. There are numerous companies using DNA analysis for genealogical research. If the person who is tested agrees, the company will share its findings with National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Participants get an ID number that is used to access the data. “When I log in, I can see the names and e-mail addressees of everyone I’m matched with,” said Mitch. “I can see a list of people who have perfect matches with me on a number of genetic markers. You pay more for more markers. The more markers you match, the greater the likelihood of a common ancestor.”

The DNA search both families pursued focused on the gene that is passed from father to son. “Quinn’s DNA is virtually identical to [his father] Todd’s which is virtually identical to [Todd’s father] Fred’s,” said Mitch. “It is clear that we are genetic cousins, the question is how far back. Perhaps the earliest possible common ancestor would be my great-grandfather and Todd’s great-grandfather could have been brothers.”

In March, Todd, Fred, and Mitch met for the first time over lunch.

“It was worthwhile pursuing,” said the elder Leventhal. “You open up a door and you want to see a little more on the other side. We could learn from each other. You want to see more of the person. We ought to share some family gatherings.” So Mitch and his family were invited to Passover.

“Fred reminds me of my father’s generation,” said Mitch. “The way he expresses himself.” Upon meeting Fred for the first time at the Seder meal, Mitch’s wife, Yumei, noticed a strong family resemblance between Fred and Mitch’s father.

“It’s like genealogical archeology,” said Mitch. “You get a history of where you come from. One thing this whole experience teaches us is all humans are cousins.”

“I think there is an attraction among Jewish people to find their history,” said Gabriele, “because of the Holocaust and the pogroms to get rid of them. There’s such a strong interest to connect.”

The day after the Seder, Mitch e-mailed me to say they had so much fun they were the last to leave.

“They fit right in like we had known them all along,” said Gabriele.

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.