There were cries of greeting at the door and wonderful smells wafting from the recreation center kitchen. Aunts were kissing everybody, leaving traces of crimson lipstick on cheeks.
It was time for another Witkin family Thanksgiving reunion, this one, after decades of annual gatherings, a particularly joyful one.
Yesterday afternoon, more than 100 Witkin descendants and relatives from Washington, Philadelphia and points north and west converged on the Longwood Community Center in Olney to celebrate the centennial of their clan in America. They were sporting blue and white buttons that said, "Witkin Kin Thru Thick & Thin," and they meant it.
"Hot knisches!" announced one of the organizers, North Chevy Chase resident Lennie Wolf Gnatt, bearing a tray and raising her voice above the big-band music: "Let the party begin!"
Thanksgiving with the family, one of those "comforting anchors" that are the "binding link between generations," as Washington psychologist Julius Segal has said, are for the Witkins boisterous and warm occasions, when the news of the year is exchanged.
Get-togethers that big are becoming hard to find in an era of small families and splintering relationships. But for the Witkins, a family remarkably untouched by divorce or dissension, Thanksgiving is a time when the generations are reunited and the ties rebound.
"Unlike some families," one member observed, "this one never has a branch that is not talking to another."
It was a time for the newest baby, 6-week-old Deborah Perry of Rockville, to meet the oldest, her great-greataunt Ida Witkin of Philadelphia, who was born at the turn of the century, and for the newly engaged to introduce their fiances for inspection. It is a family, said Hyattsville area resident Lillian Perry, that delights in "happy occasions."
A Witkin clan reunion typically starts in mild pandemonium and then -- after three 30-pound turkeys are annihilated, the chopped liver and knisches are history and the strudel reduced to crumbs -- begins to work up a head of steam.
Yesterday, there was a lively program of news from each branch of the family and a slide show of old photographs. There were booklets showing the family tree as souvenirs.
The Witkin gatherings are rooted in the Friday Sabbath dinners of the Witkin homestead on North Sixth Street in Philadelphia, weekly rituals that none of the dozen children of the religiously observant Jewish family would have thought of missing.
Thanksgiving is an annual ritual that is happily, faithfully and jointly organized here by many of the 131 descendants of Moses and Esther Witkin, Lithuanian immigrants who landed as newlyweds in Baltimore 100 years ago last month.
Yesterday's scene would have met the approval of Esther Witkin, who routinely fed 30 to 50 people on Friday nights and holidays in Philadelphia, said her daughter, 82-year-old Minnie Wolf, a resident of Leisure World in Silver Spring.
A strong, determined woman who, her daughter said, "wanted the best for her 12 children and made sure they got it," Esther Witkin insisted on attending family weddings and other occasions even as a frail old lady.
The large family Esther and Moses Witkin launched is today the delight of Witkin in-laws, including several who had become used to having only a few relatives, and some who had lost family members in the Holocaust.
Herschel Gloger, 40, a Baltimore grocer born in Russia who is married to Minnie Wolf's granddaughter Roberta, said his family was scattered and then further torn by World War II. As a Witkin kinsman, he said, "I have never felt like a stranger."
Rosalind Gnatt, 35, Lennie's new daughter-in-law, said that before she and Michael Gnatt were married three months ago, the rabbi asked her to name one of the things she liked about her fiance. "I said, 'His family,' recalled Gnatt, a singer who lives with her husband, a physician, in American University Park. "I want my children to grow up experiencing this kind of family unity.
" . . . There's a great deal of strength in knowing the talents of ancestors, the talents of great-grandparents," she said. "And there's a security for a child growing up knowing that people feel connected to him, that people feel a sense of responsibility for their well-being, and an interest in their future.
"I think it's one of the things that makes life very frightening to children and to adults these days -- not having the sense of other people's responsibility toward their lives and toward their welfare . . . . "
As parents in the future, Rosalind Gnatt said, "I know we'd never be alone in the raising of our children."
While some of the younger Witkin relatives admitted to temporary reluctance to attend the large gatherings when they were teen-agers, they said they grew to look foward to them.
"I love to get people's reactions when they ask me what I'm doing for Thanksgiving . . . and if all my relatives live in town," said Cindy Wolf Gilman, 33, of Gaithersburg.
"I say, 'Yes, I'm eating at a rec center with 100 of my closest relatives . . . .
"You take the least coziest place in the world and you turn it into the warmest feeling place," she said of the annual get-togethers. "Of course, my aunts go out of the way to bake 35-pound turkeys. The mass of food that walks in and out of that door is incredible."
Gilman said that about six years ago, she thought she might like "a cozy little dinner at home" on Thanksgiving. "I tried it, but it just didn't seem right," said Gilman, whose assignments for this year's feast included making brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
Gilman's mother, interior decorator Freeda Wolf, 56, joined the family in 1950, when she married bicycle wholesaler Harvey Wolf.
That was shortly after 25 young Witkin relatives, their thoughts on Thanksgiving, launched a largely social cousins' club. It survives today as the greatly expanded Witkin Kin organization, which goes as far as to elect a president every year, but not far enough to actually assign that official -- usually the newest bridegroom -- real duties. However, the treasurer, Ida Witkin, one of two surviving children of Moses and Esther Witkin, retains office annually.
"I get such a warm feeling seeing all the aunts and uncles together and showing off my grandchildren," Lennie Gnatt, 60, a retired first-grade teacher, said of the Thanksgiving gatherings. "I feel a great strength in being part of a family . . . that really has roots.
"I have friends who have children out of town or grandchildren who live far away, who they get to see so seldom. I think they miss so much. That's why Thanksgiving is a special time for us."