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Reflection: Family reunion; joy, honor, giving back

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2011 - Were someone to organize a family reunion of my relatives my guess is it would resemble, horrifyingly, the Snopeses on one side of the room and a busload of Shems, Shauns and Issys from Chapelizod on the other. That is not a picture I care to contemplate, thus the autobiographical portion of this blog ends here.

Nevertheless, I am fascinated by other families' family reunions, and look with wonder and delight and no little envy when I come upon them in places such as Forest Park, where reunions sprout up like dandelions and generations and branches gather together amicably to cook and to eat and to toss balls back and forth and to take evident pleasure in the company of each other. The wonder and delight I feel when I see such gatherings is magnified in the faces of the participants, leaving them luminous in soul and visage, or so I imagine.

I peek into the park picnic pavilions on these occasions from the remove of the bicycle path. Last week, however, in a hotel near San Francisco, I had the genuine privilege to be invited into a reunion of the large, sprawling Harband family.

My partner, Martin Kaplan, is a pedigree Harband, a descendant of Rebecca Harband, who came to the United States in the late 1800s from the city of Ternopil or Tarnopol, which is in the Western Ukraine, formerly designated as being in the district of Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Rebecca Harband -- Becky -- was one of 11 children -- in fact she was one of 17 children fathered by Alter Abramovitz and two wives in succession. Many members of this prodigious assembly made their ways to America and to San Francisco. Becky married Isaac Kaplan in San Francisco and eventually they moved to Los Angeles, where he and his brothers established a successful furniture business.

Three boys were born to Isaac and Becky: Sidney, who became a lawyer and specialized in immigration law; Leon, an educator in the Los Angeles Public Schools, who began his career working with delinquent boys; and Marty's father, Melvin, a physician specializing in internal medicine. Sad to say, Sidney and Leon both have died. Their brother Mel, however, continues to teach and to conduct clinics at UCLA-Harbor Medical Center, and, by the way, to play the trumpet every day, an instrument he's had his hands on most his life. The Isaac Kaplans lived in a house on Citrus Avenue, which became a gathering place for family and visiting relatives. In descriptions I've heard, it was a house filled with joy.

I'm scattering a few leaves from the Rebecca Harband Kaplan bough to indicate how strong and distinguished and well established one immigrant family had become in one or two generations, depending on your calculations. What was stunning to me was the family of Isaac and Becky looked pretty much like the rest of the American Harbands. They all landed in the U.S. with very little if any money, speaking only a few if any words of English. They set about earning livings, learning English and rearing families. Perhaps without thinking about it, they became active in the maintenance and perpetuation of the democracy whose membership they joined.

They were steadfastly Jewish, even when Jewishness became an inconvenience or an obstacle, as it did for Becky's son Leon, as he rose through the administrative ranks of the public school system. Nevertheless rise he did and was as successful as most all his relatives seemed to be.

Commitments to the heritage were varied. While sizable numbers of Harbands settled in the U.S. for keeps, other Harbands made their ways to Israel. Joel (Jody) Harband, who organized the reunion, emigrated to Israel and lives near Jerusalem. Danny Labin, one of Becky's great-grandsons, moved there recently. He's C.O.O. of the Children's Television Channel, and lives in Tel Aviv. Moving back in time, you meet the controversial Pinchas Lavon, another cousin. He served in the first four Knessets and was at one time minister of defense. He also was a thorn in the side of David Ben Gurion and was accused -- then absolved -- of authorizing a bombing in Egypt. It became known as the Lavon Affair.

As you might expect in a group this large and psychologically complex and intellectually formidable, there were ambivalences. For example, the late Julius Harband, who started his career in the family luggage business in San Francisco, and then amassed considerable wealth in real estate business, gave large sums of money away and, in his imperiousness, gave his family considerable grief.

The picture painted at the banquet that brought everyone out of his or her hotel room and downstairs was generally rosy. Dinner was served at buffet tables, and before long the program began. Homage was paid to an eminent and widely venerated ancestor, the 18th century Rabbi Alexander Siskind, author of "The Foundation and Root of Service" -- Yesod Veshoresh Haavodah. Stories of early arrivals in the U.S. were told, as were accounts of the lives of members of the various branches of the family. I couldn't get enough of the stories. Some were sad, most were sunny, all were captivating, all were infused with warmth and richly embroidered with letters that spell FAMILY in any language.

One must discern, however, that all of us, like it or not, have families. But with the Harbands I felt a difficult-to-corral sense of accomplishment, one that struck me forcefully, one that endows this family with special character.

The day after the reunion, I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art looking at works of art collected by another California Jewish family, the Steins, who left an indelible mark on the history of Western culture. Its most famous member was the redoubtable Gertrude.

I found myself standing beside Joy Rosenzweig, another pedigree Harband, who'd come from Westchester County, N.Y., to encounter her past and to embrace the present and her relatives at the reunion. I'd met her at the reunion dinner, and liked her immediately. Joy and I left Picasso and Matisse to fend for themselves for a moment, and initiated our conversation with talk of the fun we'd had, but quickly dug deeper into a discussion of a subject that absorbed us both. What was it, we wondered, that made this reunion more than fun, more than an exercise in nostalgia or vainglory, something well beyond the ordinary? The answer was a thoroughgoing generosity. We both understood that strain of generosity is not torn from a checkbook or a box checked online, but a transcendent generosity of spirit, a willingness to share one's humanity as well as fortune, a commitment to helping out.

If you go down the list, you find that Harbands tend toward occupations that make differences in the lives of others -- medicine, education, science, nurturing not-for-profit organizations (in Marty Kaplan's case, the St. Louis Beacon), the law and the arts, music especially.

Aristocracy is a word and a concept we tend to dance around or to avoid altogether, freighted as it is with intimations of excessive wealth, affectation and arrogance. I'm not one to avoid the word because I know a fine-focus definition of it. I trot it out with some frequency: I love it so much. In my conversation with Joy Rosenzweig, the word appeared in my mind insistently, like a signal. It will never be put to better us than right now, as I apply it to the Harbands and the ennobling goodness that radiates from them. The definition is part of an essay by E.M. Forster called "Two Cheers for Democracy."

"I believe in aristocracy," Forster wrote. "Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke."

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