In the spring of 1979, Gary Mokotoff received an unsolicited letter from Israel. That is, the man who sent it was named Israel Cohen, and he lived in Bat Yam, a city on the Mediterranean just south of Tel Aviv. Israel had seen Gary and his wife Ruth’s names listed in the ’78-’79 registry for the high-IQ society Mensa, and he was intrigued by the couple’s surname. He’d noticed that there were very few people in Israel with the same name; in fact, he’d found only eleven Mokotoffs listed in the Tel Aviv telephone books. Perhaps driven by the unrelenting commonness of his own last name, Israel Cohen enclosed in his letter to Gary the names and addresses of those Israeli Mokotoffs. Gary, then living in New Jersey, wrote a set of eleven letters back to them: “My name is Gary Mokotoff,” he remembers, paraphrasing. “My family came from Warsaw. Are we related?”
When Gary Mokotoff sent his eleven letters to Tel Aviv, he knew very little about his extended family and even less about his name. Over the years, acquaintances and business associates and even strangers had mentioned to him that they knew of Mokotoffs living in Buenos Aires and Australia and, yes, Israel. A door-to-door salesman had once told Gary’s mother that he’d had a piano teacher named Mokotoff in Berlin before the war. Gary didn’t know these people, and he certainly didn’t know if he was related to them. Over the last four decades, he has found over 1,000 living members of the Mokotoff family, including relatives in Australia, Argentina, and England. He’s identified about 400 members of the family who died in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. And of the living Mokotoffs, he has yet to find one who is not related to him.
Like Israel Cohen, I’m drawn to unusual names. Growing up, my ears perked up at NPR host sign-offs: Renée Montagne, Korva Coleman, Ira Glass. When family friends got pregnant, I peppered them with baby name suggestions. I spent hours surfing the database on babynamewizard.com, which charts the popularity of given names from the 1880s to the present. (My own doesn’t make a blip on the radar until the 1970s.) I can still remember the first time I met another Talia, at a children’s museum in Berkeley when I was about four. It felt like kind of a big deal for about half a minute, until I, most likely, slipped off to play.
Even though I thought a lot about names as a child, I never really thought about my surname, except that I always thought my mom’s, Pearlman, sounded nicer than my dad’s, Soglin. Mostly, I was opposed to the sog-based nicknames of my dad’s side: Soggy Waffles, Soggy Pancakes, Soggy Cheerios. As I got older, “Soglin” started to feel a bit amorphous. Sometimes people thought it was Italian. I always told anyone who asked—not all that many—that it was Russian, Russian Jewish. The only people I ever met with the name Soglin were the ones who were related to me, but I never dwelled on it much.
I am sitting with Gary Mokotoff in the fluorescent-lit back office of a building he shares with a public relations firm, in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Westville, in New Haven, Connecticut. From this room, he publishes the quarterly Jewish genealogical journal AVOTAYNU; the International Review of Jewish Genealogy. Avotaynu, Inc. is billed as the “leading publisher of products of interest to persons who are researching Jewish genealogy, Jewish family trees or Jewish roots.” In addition to distributing the journal four times a year to about 1,300 subscribers, Avotaynu publishes an assortment of genealogical books, from the very general (Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy, which Mokotoff wrote himself) to the more specific (“Naturalized Jews of the Grand Duchy of Posen in 1834 and 1835.”) Mokotoff’s wife Ruth copy edits the articles to the classical tunes of WMNR radio. The journal’s editor, Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus, cajoled Gary into the publisher’s job at a genealogy conference in 1984, and she wields the red pen from her home in New Hampshire.
A small wooden tree hangs above Mokotoff’s desk. Its body has been carved in the shape of five names from his own extended family tree stacked atop each other: Mokotoff, Friedberg, Taratotsky, Wlodawer, Cemnic. Gary, who was 82 when I met him last year but as sturdy as a tree, wears a pen in his front shirt pocket and a chunky gold chainecklace—chaiis the Hebrew word for life — that Ruth gave to him many years ago. Both his ring fingers bear gold rings: one is his wedding band, and the other, which sports the initials “J.M.,” belonged to his father Jack. One day, he will give it to his grandson Jackson. He sits with his legs crossed, reclining in his swivel chair. Sometimes when he talks about the Mokotoffs, he closes his eyes and lets his hands take over.
Gary Mokotoff tells me how he discovered he was the only Gary Mokotoff in the world. The child of first-generation American Jews, Gary grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Even during his youth, he knew his name was uncommon. “If you knew a Mokotoff, you knew a relative of mine,” he tells me. But he never thought very hard about it, even though he thought hard about plenty of other things. Mokotoff matriculated at the University of Chicago at sixteen, where he studied, amongst other subjects, Gregor Mendel’s papers on fruit fly genetics, and went on to pioneer computer software at IBM in 1959. This was the age of punch cards; his first job was to write a program that would print out the computer’s entire memory.
Mokotoff tells me that his interest in genealogy was sparked by “an act of God.” He was also interested by the release of the Roots miniseries in 1977, which piqued interest in ancestry-seeking nationwide. In any case, as he waited for the Israeli Mokotoffs to write back, he dove into the archives at the Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library and called foreign consulates, asking for their telephone books. He didn’t have much luck at first. But Mokotoff would in time become an adept archival researchist, gleaning many of his leads from the mid-19 th century Polish civil registration records kept on microfilm by the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Mormons believe that the souls of their ancestors can be saved after death, so they maintain extensive records to help members of the church find and baptize their relatives. The original records, which contain some two billion names, are stored in a massive granite vault in a mountain range in Utah. They are not without controversy, because they list not just actual ancestors of church members but countless other people—including Jews—just in case their descendants one day convert to Mormonism. But the archives proved invaluable to Mokotoff.
In his letters, Mokotoff had asked the Israeli Mokotoffs for details on their most immediate family members and ancestry, hoping to find a common connection. A few months later, when he started getting letters back, he noticed that in every family there was at least one man named Tuvia. Ashkenazi Jews name their children after deceased relatives, so this suggested that all the families were one family, linked together by a common ancestor. There was a catch, though: there had never been a Tuvia in Mokotoff’s own family. But—and Mokotoff says this is the key to most genealogical problems—it was all about knowing what questions to ask. He knew the Hebrew names of most of his family members. One day, speaking to a cousin of his father’s, he realized he didn’t know what his Uncle Joe’s Hebrew name had been, so he asked. His father’s cousin said, “‘Uncle Joe? Oh yeah, I remember. His name was Tuvia.’”
In the years that followed the discovery of his own Tuvia,Gary Mokotoff would go on to create the JewishGen Family Finder and the computer database for the National Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, now housed at the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall. He was the first person to receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The Forward has called him an “all-around makher,” or mover and shaker, of Jewish genealogy. In 1993, Mokotoff retired from his software business and devoted himself to Avotaynu, which has always been self-sustaining but never exactly rolling in cash. When I ask him why he is so interested in names, in genealogy, he tells me that my question is a strange one. “It’s kind of like saying, what makes you interested in baseball?”
When I was ten or so, I spent so much time browsing the family tree my dad constructed on Geni.com that he gave me my own log-in. The scans of old photos and memorabilia he had uploaded onto the site enthralled me: the sepia-toned baby photos of relatives I had known only with gray hair; the death certificate of my grandfather’s sister, who died of scarlet fever as an infant; the black-and-white photograph of my great-great-grandmother Rose, or Risya, her hair wrapped, brows furrowed, eyes hardened into the camera. Most of all, I liked to look at the ship manifest, which listed the passengers on my great-grandfather Ari’s boat to New York.
When Ari left the Russian Empire in 1912, he traveled under the assumed name Yankel Katzoff. According to family legend, he did so in order to escape the draft; families who had just one son could exempt that child, but Ari had a brother. In this telling, the Katzoffs were either friends or neighbors without any sons to be drafted, or, alternatively, a family who had already lost a son to the military. In any case, it seems that Ari could not leave under his real name, which was Aaron Soglin, and the turn of the twentieth century was not a great time to be a soldier in the Russian Army or a Jew in Russia, for that matter. So there he was on the S.S. Patricia manifest out of Hamburg: 5 feet 6 inches, brown hair, grey eyes, in possession of at least fifty dollars. (At ten, I could have recited these attributes from memory.) Ari arrived at the Port of New York, from which he eventually made his way to Chicago. There, he married my great-grandmother Sarah, had three children, and shed the Katzoff name. He went back to being Ari Soglin, who he was for a good four decades until he died of a heart attack in 1954.
When I was born almost half a century later, my parents picked my last name out of a hat. Actually, the person who did the picking was a midwife named Yael Silverberg. My parents hadn’t been able to decide whether I would get Soglin, my dad’s name, or Pearlman, my mom’s; each was too stubborn to acquiesce to the other. Yael Silverberg plucked Soglin from the depths of a green Gap baseball cap and left my mom with a feeling of betrayal that twenty-one years later, still lingers.
Over the last three decades, American genealogy has undergone nothing short of an explosion. A lot of this has to do with the Internet. JewishGen was founded in 1987; by the late nineties and early 2000’s, it had been joined by the likes of Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, Geni, RootsWeb, and 23andMe, not to mention newly digitized databases like the Ellis Island Passenger Search. The advent of DNA testing has attracted even more ancestry-seekers, who are drawn in by the allure of shiny pie charts and percentages broken down to the tenth. Mokotoff has had his DNA tested by a number of companies, but he’s more interested in what the data can tell him about his living relatives than in determining his family’s ethnic origin. (Ancestry told him he was 100% “European Jewish”; 23andMe said 99.3%.) When he scrolls through DNA matches on Ancestry.com, the site can tell him how much DNA he shares with a relative, if that relative has also been tested (“287 cM across 15 segments”), and it can estimate the relative’s relationship to Mokotoff (“Third or fourth cousin”). But as Mokotoff scrolls through his matches, he lists off details the database can’t: this one’s mother is his second cousin, that one has a deceased father with whom he used to exchange letters.
Most American Jews trying to document their ancestry hit an immutable brick wall sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. That brick wall can usually be blamed on Eastern European Jewish last names, or, more specifically, the utter lack of them. The primary problem with Eastern European Jewish surnames is that they are entirely made up. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ashkenazi Jews used a logical but rather slippery system of patronymic naming. In other words, Moshe, whose father was Aaron, would be called Moshe ben Aaron —Moshe, son of Aaron. If Moshe had a son named David, David would be called David ben Moshe. Eventually, various European rulers noticed that it was rather difficult to keep track of large swathes of their populations if they changed their surnames every generation. So around the turn of the 19 th century, various European states began passing laws compelling Jews to take surnames. When Napoleon invaded Poland in 1807, for example, he demanded the keeping of meticulous civil registration records. “Thank God for Napoleon,” Mokotoff likes to say.
But Jews were not thrilled about the prospect of surnames, and this general lack of enthusiasm shone through in their rather haphazard approach to the process. Sack-Pikus, the AVOTAYNU editor, describes the Jewish surname as a “goyishe invention forced on you for nefarious reasons, like taking your boys away to the army or taxing you.” Even once they took surnames, Jews felt no particular attachment to them and changed them with frequency, at will. Some took surnames in patronymic or matronymic traditions. When the comedian Sarah Silverman joked about an old Jew named “Manischewitz Gooberman,” her hyperbole wasn’t too far off; the surname Manischewitz comes from the given name Menashe, the suffix “-witz” meaning “son of.” Other Jews chose occupational names. Goldstein was a goldsmith; Fleishman a butcher. Still others took the names of their hometowns. Mokotoff, Gary discovered, came from the name of a town near Warsaw called Mokotów. His great-great-great grandfather Tuvia ben Moshe wasn’t even from Mokotów—he lived in a neighboring town called Warka—but family legend goes that he must’ve liked how the name sounded, which was not too far off from the Hebrew “ki tov,” meaning “for the good of God.” The name Tuvia Mokotoff, translated literally, means “God is good, for the good of God,” and it leads right up to Gary Mokotoff’s brick wall. Gary knows from a Warka death register that Tuvia’s father was known as Moshe Aronowicz, or Moshe, son of Aron. He can thus deduce that his fifth-great-grandfather’s first name was Aron. Aron’s ancestors are untraceable.
A second major challenge of this entirely fabricated class of surnames are their spellings. Names which originated in Yiddish or Russian or Ukrainian had to be transliterated out of Hebrew or Cyrillic alphabets. This meant that names often went through the ringer once in ship manifests in Hamburg, the port at which many Jews departed from Europe, and then again, sometimes many times over, after those who bore them arrived in the States.
It is at this point that amateur genealogists tend to fall back on one of the most persistent myths of American genealogy: they declare that their family’s name got changed at Ellis Island. There’s a somewhat romantic appeal to this narrative, but inspectors at Ellis Island did not even record the names of arriving passengers; they simply checked them against the names already listed on the ship manifests. Once they arrived in the Lower East Side, or Brooklyn, or wherever, immigrants were at complete liberty to change their names to whatever they liked, often with no legal intervention whatsoever. Jews occasionally lopped off errant ov’s and sky’s from their names in attempts at Americanization. Sometimes, though, they made more dramatic modifications.
My own maternal great-grandmother was born in New York City as Lilly Usilewski but enrolled in public school as a Solawisky. When her younger brother went to school, he was listed as Daniel Oslofsky, at which point their father, who’d been in the country for a decade or so, had apparently had enough. The judge he went before to change his name was called Judge Green, which evidently sounded nice enough to him. Thereafter, the Usilewski/Solawisky/Oslofskys were known as the Greens.
When I ask Mokotoff about my name, he pulls out a big red Avotaynu-published book titled A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames From the Russian Empire. Of the tens of thousands of names inside, mine is not one of them. Mokotoff, however, is unconcerned. After some flipping, there, between Tsofnos and Tsoir on page 591, is: Tsoglin (Gomel’, Chernigov gub.) K: see Segal (?). When I see the entry for Tsoglin, I know it’s my family. In the 1990s, my grandmother had gotten in touch with a family in Brooklyn. Their last name was Tsoglin, and they came from the Gomel region in what is now Belarus, too, though they’d stayed in the Soviet Union until only a few years before. Grandma and the Tsoglins realized that they possessed the same family photograph from the 1910s. The Tsoglins turned out to be Ari’s brother Abel’s descendants, making them my second cousins, once removed. So Tsoglin (Gomel’) doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already, technically, but I’m surprised by how weighty the moment feels. That is where I came from, and to see it in print is proof.
The only other time I had read a name so similar to mine was in high school. One day, as I skimmed an issue of Time magazine at my dining room table in California, my eyes were drawn to a byline at the bottom of a page. The name, in bold font, was Richard Zoglin. I read that byline more than twice, just to make sure. Then I told my dad what I’d read, wondering if I was on the edge of an exciting new genealogical discovery. But he told me that he’d already exchanged emails with the Zoglins. Richard Zoglin and his brother Paul had grandparents from Gomel, too, but they could never go back far enough to prove we were related.
It turns out that the Soglin-Tsoglin-Zoglin spellings constitute a classic conundrum of Jewish genealogy, the solution to which began in 1918, when a man named Robert Russell developed the first sound-matching system, which coded letters to numbers to allow names to be classified by sound rather than by spelling. In the mid-1980s, Mokotoff and his collaborator, Randy Daitch, realized that the Russell system didn’t do a good job of matching Slavic or Yiddish-German names, so they created their own. In the Daitch-Mokotoff system, which is now used in the Ellis Island database and at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, letter combinations that make the same sounds are coded in the same way. The “Ts,” sound, for instance, has the same Daitch-Mokotoff number as “Tz,” “S,” and “Z.” Double letters with multiple sounds—“Ch,” for example — are coded differently for each.
What Mokotoff can’t tell me is what my name means. I hardly even thought to ask the question, because it has been so unanswerable for so long. But Mokotoff tells me to call Alexander Beider, a Sorbonne-educated expert on Jewish names and author of our dictionary. When I call Beider in Paris, I’m not sure exactly what I want to hear.
Alexander Beider tells me almost immediately that Soglin is an obviously monogenetic name, by which he means a name that only one family has ever taken. More specifically, he means that it’s a name one person in a shtetl in western Russia chose sometime in the early-to-mid-nineteenthcentury. That’s what the root was. The Zoglins, Tsoglins, and Soglins are all branches off the tree that grew from that root, but Beider doesn’t know what they mean. His best guess is that it’s a corrupted form of a Yiddish occupational name; the “-in” a Russian suffix appended onto whatever now-forgotten word some single distant ancestor of mine chose for forever. When I hang up the phone, I realize that if Beider doesn’t know what my name means, I probably never will. It might be a dead end, but it’s one that all of us share together.
On my last visit to Avotaynu, Mokotoff codes my name for me by hand. The Daitch-Mokotoff system boils names down to their consonants, then matches each sound to a number. Mokotoff sounds out each consonant. S-G-L-N, he says, is 4-5-8-6.
458600 Sagalin, Sakolin, Seglin, Shklyannoj,
Shkol’ne, Shkol’nyj, Skalin, Sogalin,
Sokolin, Sukhlin, Tsoglin, Zaglin,
Zaklin, Zhigalin, Ziglin
The red hardcover is unwieldy, so Mokotoff holds one end and I hold the other, while I think about how easily I could have been a Zaglin or a Sogalin or a Zaklin. It isn’t until a few days later that I realize I could almost as easily have been a Green. If I were Talia Green, who would I be?
Avotaynu means “our fathers” in Hebrew, though in time it has come to mean “our ancestors.” It’s one of the first words in the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish service, which praises God and the Biblical patriarchs.
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheniu ve-lo-hei avoteinu Blessed are you, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors Elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzchak, vey-lo-he Ya’akov [elohei Sarah, elohei Rivkah, vei-lo-hei Rachel v’Leah] God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob [God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah]
One day in the eighties, when he and Sack-Pikus were still searching for a name for their journal, Mokotoff heard the Amidah in synagogue. “Avotaynu,” he said to himself—“that’s it.”
Mokotoff tells me that he thinks on a day not so far away, genealogy will be over. Brick walls are brick walls, so there will be no tracing back to Isaac or Jacob (or Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel or Leah). But there will come a day when an eager genealogist logs onto Ancestry or Geni and discovers that their family tree has already been completed. Mokotoff seems less bothered by this than I would have expected, but I think I hear a trace of emotion under the monotone.
One day back in 1982, Gary and Ruth Mokotoff stood outside a stranger’s apartment in Tel Aviv. Moshe Mokotow wasn’t exactly a stranger, of course, but Gary and Ruth had never met him. From the doorstep, the two Americans heard some jubilance upstairs, the result of the gathering in Moshe’s apartment of a couple dozen Israeli Mokotoffs. Gary, the “all around makher” who had brought them all together, waited outside the apartment, considering what he would say when he made it upstairs. Eventually, he and Ruth were retrieved from the doorstep by one relative or another and led into the fray. What he exclaimed when he walked into the room was this: “Shmi Mokotoff ”: My name is Mokotoff.