Ancient Canaanite by
(189 Stories)

Prompted By Genealogy

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1910 Census showing my maternal grandfather

Last November, my brother copied me on an email which shared the results of a 23andMe DNA analysis (since we have the same parents, we share the same DNA; yes, I know, we are not identical twins, so we do not have exactly the same DNA, but would have similar threads, so the results are similar for the two of us). We are of Eastern European extraction. Our paternal grandparents came to the US in the late 1800s from Kovno, Lithuania. Our maternal grandparents came from Bialystock, Lithuania in 1906 (we know more about them). So, not surprising, we are of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) descent. Indeed, 23andMe reported that we are 99.7% Ashkenazic (not quite as pure as Ivory Snow). We are 0.2% East Asian (0.1% unspecified Manchurian & Mongolian; my brother joked, “Let’s hear it for Ghengis Khan!”), and 0.1% broadly sub-Saharan African.

My brother is a college professor in Cincinnati. A colleague/friend in England helped him interpret the results; what various threads specifically meant. She wrote: “Rick, you’re a Canaanite!!! And your maternal line is one of four of the oldest maternal lines in the Ashkenazic community. These ancient paternal genes of the Canaanites passed from father to son for over 2,500 years. You are the first Canaanite I have ever met.”

Cool! Our genes rock! Does this mean I might be related to someone biblical? I feel kind of special, all of a sudden.

Another email arrived in May, not with DNA data, but details of our maternal grandparents trek from Russia to the US with two babies, again facilitated by a “genealogically-savvy” friend of my brother’s. My Stein grandfather (you can read about these grandparents in My Grandparents’ Story) was born in 1877 and Beila in 1878. There was a major pogrom in Bialystok between June 14 and 16, 1906. They left with their two babies soon thereafter, departing from Europe on July 22, 1906 on the S.S. New Amsterdam from the port of Rotterdam, and arrived in the port of New York on August 6, 1906 (my mother, though not yet born, was always proud that the family did not come steerage). He was almost 28, she was 27. My brother has the ship manifest, where they are listed as passengers 19-23. Ann was listed twice, once as Ann, once as Chana.

The Featured photo is the 1910 census. Think, for a moment, about all the turmoil going on thanks to our current administration, the up-coming 2020 census and the immigration crisis. How many of us would not be here if our grandparents, or some ancestors, had not been allowed to enter this country. What did it take in 1906 to become a citizen? My grandparents wrote and spoke heavily-accented English all their surviving days, but left a thriving business and quite nice investments for their heirs.

My Aunt Ann is listed as Angelina! She was never actually called that; wishful thinking on my grandmother’s part.  My brother comments that the other two sisters were also given Classical Roman names: Stella and my mother, Cornelia (she detested that name and went by Connie). My brother also included the 1920 census (now Cornelia, born in 1913, makes an appearance) and a photo, from perhaps 1931 or ’32 including my grandfather, the four children; Ann, Joe, Stella and Connie and Ann’s husband, Lew Daniels in the upper right.

My grandparents joined Grandma’s mother in Toledo, OH, living in a two-flat with her. Grandpa had worked for a watchmaker in Russia and opened a successful jewelry store in Toledo. Joe joined him in the business, and after college and a year in New York, taking classes with Doris Humphrey and trying to make it in the dance world in 1935, my mother came home and worked as the store’s book keeper until WWII, when she went to Detroit, lived with Ann and Lew and worked for the USO. She met my father in February of 1946 and they married four months later. They were both 32 years old.

They began their lives together at that point. Rick followed in 1948 and I, the baby, completed the family in 1952.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Ashkenazi, Lithuania, pogrom, 23andme
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. This is fascinating, Betsy! The information about what your DNA reveals makes a great backdrop for the stories of your grandparents’ immigration to the U.S. The only critique I would have is that your blog post seems to end rather abruptly. I would have enjoyed a conclusion or summary of what you learned. Other than that, I loved your writing and your stories!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Steve. I confess that I write these stories weeks ahead with the thought of tweaking as the prompt gets closer, but knowing that I may not have time. I agree that this ending was weak (in part, just because I couldn’t figure out how to end it). But also, as I feared, things got very crazy this week, so never got back to look at the story and think about it again. Dan had ANOTHER bike accident 3 days ago; this one even more serious than 6 weeks ago, as he was knocked unconscious, lay on the ground for who knows how long with a concussion, 2 broken ribs and (he’s on a blood thinner), a small brain bleed. He was air-lifted to Mass General Wednesday night for overnight observation (if the bleed got worse, they couldn’t handle it on MV). Thanks goodness, it got smaller and he came back on Thursday, with need for lots of care and now we have weekend company. So that’s the scoop. Also, heard Adam Schiff speak Thursday night and Friday morning. So nice to hear someone speak in full sentences and give well-thought-out answers!

  2. Marian says:

    Betsy, loved the census photo and the history. The names are a kick. I had a great-aunt Ann (probably Chana in Poland), and my mother’s original name was Chana, which got garbled in kindergarten, to become Henrietta, if you can believe it. One scientific nit: while you and your brother share a large percentage of DNA, because of the unique chromosomal mixing of your parents’ contributions to each of you, it won’t be identical. For example, because of the slight variation, I have blond hair and my brother’s is dark brown, and we’ve inherited different disease patterns, so I ended up with my dad’s side’s thyroid issues and my brother has my dad’s high cholesterol. So, it might be worth getting yours done just to compare the results!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Of course you are correct about having different DNA than my brother, Marian. Among other things, he’s male and I’m female! But for general purposes, we have common threads. I heard George Church speak two weeks ago. He said that 23andMe is useless and we should have our own genomes done (and provided the names of companies that can do them relatively inexpensively).

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I love your story, Betsy. One again, we are linked by heritage. All of my grandparents came here from Lithuania during that same time frame. I have often thought about how lucky I am that they decided to leave their shtetls (after reading your Grandparents’ Story I see my origins were far more humble) and travel alone as adolescents to what they thought would be a land of opportunity. For them and their descendents, it was.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      So many of us are from that area of the world. Since writing two stories about my grandparents for this site, my older cousins filled me on a lot of family history, which is fascinating, since I didn’t know it all. Glad that we have Lithuania in common, Laurie.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Absolutely fascinating, Betsy. I expected as much given all the careful research you do for all your stories. And, as always great photos. (Also an important reminder from you on how very important the census is, not that the Trump administration sees it as anything but another convenient political tool.)

    And, yes, your genes certainly rock. My father’s family comes from Kiev and the general Ukraine area — even have some documentation to confirm that — and my mother’s family comes from Austria, but I have yet to take “the test” to know much beyond that. I did, however, live in New Canaan for a number of years, so I figure we’re probably related, right?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      From Canaan to New Canaan, I’m sure there must be some relation, John. I think it is good to know where you came from. It helps to inform you as a person. But I haven’t taken the test either, and according to famed Harvard genetics professor George Church, none of the commercial tests really give much info. He said you should map your whole genome (I heard him talk two weeks ago). You need to have someone interpret the whole thing for you.

  5. Wonderful detail Betsy. Counterbalancing the ying of my dad’s family arriving in the 1640s is yan of my mother’s emigration from Italy in 1916. Two very different stories. And I echo Marian’s point about sibling DNA. One of my sisters and I have both done Ancestry’s test and the results are comparable but not identical. Don’t know if it’s true about 23 and me but Ancestry regularly updates its DNA database with new information from new samples that alter prior assessments of origin. Fascinating stuff.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Tom, and of course, as you and Marian point out, you are both correct. Since my brother and I are not identical twins, we do not have identical DNA, but close enough for purposes of this discussion. I agree that ancestry info is fascinating stuff.

  6. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy, and how lovely that you are a Canaanite! Definitely something to put on your resume, or perhaps in your obituary (but you won’t get to see that). I come to this discussion late, because I was behind on getting my own story written, and others have already made all the appropriate comments. So I’ll just say thanks for all you contribute to Retrospect! And my condolences on Dan’s bike accident.

  7. Fabulous story, Betsy. Given the furor over citizenship status and the census, I suggest you register your nationality as Canaanite in the 2020 census! All that aside, it must be a profound experience to feel the rumblings of lineage back to the Iron Age. We are all strung together so closely over the time-space continuum! I wish your husband a speedy recovery. You may now righteously lock up his bicycle and throw away the key!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Love your suggestion, Chaz. I SHOULD do it. I actually believe that if you scratch under the surface, we are all distant cousins.

      As to the bike, I wouldn’t be long for this earth, if I took your and all the other good suggestions from friends. My husband is one stubborn cuss. This is the THIRD serious bike accident in 11 months with this bike. You’d think he would learn, but he doesn’t, and certainly does not listen to me.

  8. When I was in high school, I broke my leg playing soccer twice, in two successive seasons. While I had a cast on my leg from the second break, I decided to take my motorcycle for a spin, hit a patch of sand and ended up breaking my right elbow against a lovely old New England stone wall. An ambulance hauled me off to the hospital where my mother refused to visit me. A friend had to pick me up and take me home. Point made, point taken. May I suggest that next time the over-aged teenager in your family takes a spill, you follow my mother’s example and leave him to his own devices? Boys will be boys, even when there pushin’ 70.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Point taken; I am enabling. I had a talk with him about how his actions affect both of us after the accident 6 weeks ago, but here we are again. He can’t drive and is not in good shape. Lots of stress on both of us.

  9. Dorothy Rice says:

    Wonderful story. And so true about today’s immigration woes – my father and grandmother would never have been allowed to stay.

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