Last month, I met my namesake, Olga Livshin. We found each other through an Internet fluke; neither of us had known about the other’s existence until a year ago. The strangest thing we discovered was that many members of both our families lean towards the same area of occupation: writing and languages. Olga herself is studying for a master’s in Russian literature at the University of Alaska. Her father is a magazine editor. My sister is a poet. And I am a journalist and a fiction writer. Surely, such coincidences can’t be mere chance. Perhaps there is more to our similarities than the same name? Perhaps we are distant relations? I started investigating.
On the Internet, I found an interdisciplinary study from the Israeli institute Am haZikaron: The Institute of Science and Heritage of the Jewish People. The study is called The Jewish People as a Phenomenon of Historical Longevity: On the Theory of Meta-clans and the Principles of Survival. Released in 2006, it challenges our perception of family and familial connections.
For eight years, the authors of the study compiled the available history of 63 Jewish clans. They considered biographies and historical materials, encyclopedias and rabbinical records, memoirs and family anecdotes. Tracing documents from as far back as 950 years ago to today, the researchers made a discovery: the concept of a meta-clan.
According to the study, a meta-clan is a group of people who have common ancestors and manifest common dominant features, psychological and occupational, which transfer through generations. Belonging to a meta-clan can be passed from either a mother or a father. Although individuals can belong to several Jewish clans through their parental and maternal connections, they belong to only one meta-clan, whose dominant features they carry.
Dominant features spring up in members of the same meta-clan with surprising regularity despite the possible temporal distance between them (up to 38 generations); despite countless migrations that result in the meta-clan branches living in different continents, climatic zones and political regimes; and despite the complete lack of information about each other. For example, members of one meta-clan, even if they are not aware of each other, usually select the same two or three areas of occupation and stick to them through the centuries. Of course, the actual professions may change with time, and they don’t always pass from father to son, but the field of work does not change: for example, grandfather is a rabbi, father is a politician, nephew is a teacher – none is a jockey.
Another effect of this phenomenon is that some rare professions pop up again and again in the same meta-clan, like theatrical director, for instance. One meta-clan has seven theatrical directors, representing 3.5 percent of its 197 members who were included in the study, while the average occurrence of this profession in Europe is about 0.001 percent. It is interesting to note that the seven directors have lived in different times and in different countries, with no connections between their families for 130 years.
Our choice of mates is largely determined by our meta-clan “programming” as well. Members of one meta-clan frequently select partners similar in appearance and character traits. Some participants of the study were flabbergasted when they first saw the photographs of their great-grandmothers, who looked exactly like their wives, even though the family branches didn’t have any contact for several generations.
Certain social behaviors and psychological profiles are also shared by members of the same meta-clan. Members of one particular meta-clan often died tragically: in horse accidents, train wrecks or plane crashes. Over several centuries, this clan has had 670 percent more victims of tragic death than members of any other.
Members of another meta-clan, according to records existing for many generations, have often made grandiose achievements. This meta-clan has produced a disproportionate number of political and religious leaders, prominent financiers and diplomats. Members of yet another meta-clan were risk-takers; they joined a political opposition, embarked on dangerous travels or made their living by crime.
The study showed that each member of a meta-clan carries a definitive genetic and genealogical load, which tends to repeat itself in descendants. Without realizing it, we are all bound by our meta-clan directive to implement this load through our lives and thus contribute to the spiritual and physical survival of our meta-clan.
This discovery has made an impact on Jewish thought worldwide. In 2007, the study was awarded the Zeiti Yerushalaim prize for the contribution to the national heritage and its development.
“I was astonished by the results we uncovered in this study,” said one of the authors of the project, Alexander Jonathan Vidgop, in a phone interview with the Independent.
Vidgop is one of the founders of Am haZikaron. Since he was a young man, he has been fascinated by his family roots. “Real history is often different from the official version,” he said. “The official myth, especially in Soviet Russia, was frequently linear and boring. The real history, on the other hand, resembles a legend, sometimes unbelievable.” His own life sounds like one of these legends.
Vidgop graduated from the Theatre Academy in St. Petersburg in 1981 as a theatrical director. He wrote and directed plays in several Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, and later, after his emigration, in Tel Aviv. His book of novellas in Russian was published in Israel in 1999. Through all of this, he couldn’t stop thinking about his family origins and genealogy in general. He kept collecting facts and stories about his and other families and any unusual coincidences. Although he noticed a continuity of Jewish fates throughout history, it was just a hobby at first.
Real life demanded that a new immigrant look for a job, but no steady job was available in Israel two decades ago for a theatrical director from Russia, so Vidgop stepped in an unexpected direction. With a group of friends, he co-founded Am haZikaron in 1998. The goal of the nonprofit institute is to restore the history and heritage of Jewish families, sundered during millennia of persecution and migration, and to recreate the bond between today’s Jewry and their past.
“At first, it was our own money,” Vidgop recalled. “Later, we attracted donors.” Now, according to its website, the institute is endorsed by 35 Nobel laureates in different disciplines from around the world. Among its supporters are several prominent Israeli politicians, including two former presidents.
The institute’s activities range from scientific interdisciplinary research and social projects of reconnecting families, to educational workshops for the Birthright program, which introduce participants to the most significant events and personalities of Jewish history. The workshops culminate in the distribution of personal family-origin certificates, which provide information on the meaning and origins of the participant’s names and, if available, offer a brief history of his/her family. Currently, the workshops are offered in Russian, but the institute is looking at making English-language ones available.
At the moment, the institute has a staff of 11 people in their Tel Aviv office. One of these is Vidgop’s co-author for the meta-clan study, Malka Haguel-Spitzberg, who graduated from the Technion in Haifa in 1996 with a specialty in life sciences.
“I love this work,” she said. “I love it too much for words. I read books on the subject all the time. Wherever I travel on vacations, my first stop is a Jewish cemetery, to look for names on the gravestones.”
The institute also employs, on a freelance basis, archivists and librarians from a number of countries. “We use professionals for most of our document searches,” Vidgop said.
He also explained to me that the other Olga Livshin and I are definitely related. “All Livshins are descendants from the same woman, Livsha, who was first mentioned living in 17th-century Prague. She must have been a very strong personality to have all her descendants named after her. Quite a lady!”
This article was published at Jewish Independent, Canada. Jewish Independent is a leading Jewish newspaper in British Columbia. Since its inception in 1930 it has received many honors, including at least 17 Simon Rockower Awards for excellence in editorial writing, as well as a Jack Webster award for excellence in British Columbia journalism and an Ethnic Press Council of Canada award.