FOR THOSE social Jeremiahs who keep announcing some new "crisis" of the American family, I offer a glimpse into my own family, or at least into a recent gathering of some of its members. Specifically, 400 of them.
Yes, 400 -- brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, first and second cousins, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles.
It was not my whole family, mind you, only part of my father's side, those descended by birth or marriage from my great-great-grandparents, Mordecai and Rive Nozick, who lived and died in the 1800s in the shtetl of Osovetz, Russia. Mordecai, a transporation overseer in a logging camp, and Rive had nine children, eight of whom themselves had a total of 54 offspring. It was the progeny and spouses of those eight Nozick children who had a little gettogether a couple of weekends ago.
In fact, we booked an entire hotel for ourselves in New York State's Catskill Mountains. That in itself was an emotional experience for those of us who grew up on New York's streets and spend our summers in the crazy bungalow colonies, summer camps and hotels of "the mountains."
But we were not there to tour the Borscht Belt. We were there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a remarkable organization, the Loyal Family Circle. The LFC was created on Oct. 20, 1929, in a Brooklyn basement, with an initial membership of 30, all relatively recent immigrants or their children. This little group not only had the heretical notion that relatives should also be friends, but they were determined to keep the family together, and especially to help any member who was sick or in financial distress, though they all had little enough themselves.
Well, they have been growing and keeping together and caring for each other in striking ways for half a century now, and the heck with all the forces -- the mobility mania, the mass navel-gazing and whatnot -- that some say are tearing the family apart.
Numerous social prophets, of course, have been issuing dire warnings about the state of the American family for more than a century. I don't mean only about "kinship ties beyond the household," which is what a sociologist would say our Catskill conclave was about, but about threats to the immediate family, to individual homes, marriages, children, the future.
Listen to historian John Demos, for example summing up the fears for domestic life that poured from popular American literature in the second half of the 19th century: " . . . divorce and desertion were increasing; child-rearing had become too casual and permissive; authority was generally disrupted; the family no longer did things together; women were more and more restless in their role as homemakers." A familiar refrain?
We seem to enjoy kidding ourselves about how terrific everything used to be, including the family, as if everyone really lived with three generations under one roof (mainly a myth) and all was bliss (an even bigger myth). The fact is that the American family has a long history of "crisis" -- divorce rates growing without interruption at least since 1860, birth rates declining, more woman going out of the house for work and the like.
That doesn't mean family matters have remained exactly the same. Sure, they have changed, and a number of long-standing strains have intensified and certainly shouldn't be ignored. But I'll go along with Mary Jo Bane, who concluded several years ago in a valuable little volume called "Here to Stay: American Families in the 20th Century" (Basic Books) that despite all the strains, the American family persists and, in many ways, is thriving.
If family split-up rates continue to rise, she reported, marriage appears to be "enjoying unprecedented popularity," as evidenced "by the fact that 90-95 percent of Americans marry at least once." If singleparent families have spread, "None of the statistical data suggests that parental watchfulness over children has decreased over the span of three generations; much suggests that it has increased." If family members often move away from each other, recent studies "have shown that Americans maintain close ties with many of their relatives."
That last is the 400 of us at the Loyal Family Circle aniversary in the Catskills that she's talking about. Ours is not a "typical" family and it was not a "typical" gathering, of course, but it was revealing, I think, nonetheless.
Hardly any of us could believe the turnout. Relatives converged from Rhode Island and California, New York and Colorado and Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania and Michigan -- 17 states in all. One of my many first cousins, Karen Aliuiyuddin, flew in from Malaysia with her husband Ali and their three children. Another more distantly related cousin, Susan Greenberg, journeyed from Nova Scotia. A group of 39 cousins from the Washington area hired their own bus, which broke down en route, and they ended up singing folk songs alongside the New Jersey Turnpike for four hours until another one was found.
I can't tell you how peculiar it was -- knowing that everyone coming out doors or walking down halls of a hotel was a relative. You could scarely go 10 feet at first without another embrace, another handshake, another glance at the name tags we wore that identified which of Mordecai and Rive Nozick's eight children we were decended from. There were cheek-pinching aunts and tearful brothers and sisters and cousins ("Sure, they just saw their rooms," said one.) There was endless picture-taking, moving speeches and Borscht Belt entertainment in the evening (You know the kind: "My teenage daughter is having an operation -- to remove the jeans from her behind and the phone from her ear.").
But beneath it all was wonder at how the family, and particularly the Loyal Family Circle, had managed to endure.
For a long time t he LFC's most urgent purpose was to help those in dire straits. Its emergency fund provided up to $50 for a family -- which in the old days could pay for a month's rent and food -- no questions asked, no identities disclosed, no interest allowed, often no repayment made at all. More than once far larger help was needed, as my cousin Evelyn Solinsky, now LFC vice president, recalls:
"In the late 1930s there was one cousin who had TB. She was estranged from her husband and had a 12-year-old daughter. They put her in a sanitarium on Staten Island. Four families in the Bronx, where she lived, took care of her daughter. The rest of the family formed two rosters of woman -- the first to visit her every week and bring her fresh fruit, the second to make sure the first group could go, taking care of their children or nursing a sick husband.
"When the cousin was released from the sanitarium, Uncle Ben helped get her a job in the garment industry. A couple of cousins helped get an apartment for her and her daughter. Everybody donated something for the apartment -- I remember my mother gave a fleshedika [meat] pot, which was all the LFC provided the maximum $50."
The cousin lived to be 81. "I saw her when she was old," Evie recalls, "and she told me that in the bad times 'I wanted to die. But I was ashamed for the family. They insisted that I live.'"
There were many other episodes like that. In the 1940s, when another cousin needed the then-astounding sum of $3,000 for an eye operation that was necessary to prevent her from going blind, two LFC officers in New York got on the phone and, overnight, the money was raised. When a great-aunt of mine was confined to a hospital, LFC members helped pay the bills for more than two years.
But those days, blessedly, are over. Although it may be reassuring to know that it's there, just in case, nobody has asked for an emergency loan for years. So that doesn't explain much today.
To understand what is behind it now, you have to start with a group of about 20 cousins in the New York area who absolutely refuse to let up on keeping the rest of us together. You have to begin with a man like Harry Hoffman, one of the LFC founders 50 years ago, who told the current LFC president (who happens to be his son Stanley) and the other officers that he wanted the Catskills conclave.
So they worked toward it for two full years, planning, worrying, tracking down a number of relatives around the country whom they had lost touch with, urging everyone by mail to come even if they had to crawl. You don't say no very easily to people like that.
There was also, of course, the lure of the heritage that helps give us moorings. Many there listened to or taped their elders' tales of bygone days in Byelorussia or on New York's Lower East Side. I confirmed from two uncles, for example, that my original family name was not Epstein, that an ancestor had taken that identity from a dead man to avoid conscription into the Czar's army. An LFC committee compiled and published a handsome family history with an astounding number of photos and thumbnail biographies of members from every branch.
But you can't underestimate other forces, particularly that heretical notion, right there in the preamble of the LFC's constitution, that relatives, yes, ought to be friends. My family has not only promoted that idea with years of kiddie parties and testimonial dinners and fund-raising sales and weekend retreats and other group and individual social get-togethers, but it has carried the thought a bit further: A good number of first cousins have married each other.
Two of Mordecai and Rive Nozick's sons, for example, married two sisters, and two of their children married each other. In my father's immediate family, three of the 12 Epstein children married three first cousins from a Hoffman branch. In fact, my father married one of his first cousins' daughters, my mother, and two of my own first cousins are now married.
One relative, noting that Arthur Nozick, a California bachelor, i the only male left with the Nozick name, callenged all those Jewish mothers one evening to make a match -- even if with a cousin. "After all, we have been fooling around since 1850," he said.
I can't explain why these cousin-marriages have happened, and I won't even attempt to cite some of the maddeningly double and triple relationships that result. According to my cousin Martin Hoffman, a physician in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, however, the phenomenon hasn't caused any greater incidence of malformed or otherwise harmed offspring in our family than in the general population. He should know: He's a product of one of the Epstein-Hoffman first cousin marriages.
For me, all of these factors -- determined family members, selfhelp, ancestor-hunting, friendship, even a surprising number of cousins marrying -- still don't fully explain it all. Something else was lurking beneath the surface of that memorable meeting, something that is harder to get a handle on.
Evelyn Solinsky, the LFC vice president, comes close when she says that with the family "I know that before I even do something wrong, I am forgiven." Her son Michael, in a talk that won a standing ovation, touched on it when he said that "the family lets us tune out the dehumanizing forces in 20th century life."
In a very different way it was in the face of my wife Anita, a survivor of Hitler's Holocaust, whose grandparents amd most aunts and uncles were murdered by the Nazis; she has long felt an emptiness in one part of her because of that. Tears welling in her eyes, she looked around a dining room full of descendants of those who had escaped the Russian pogroms and said: "I could have had a family like this."
I don't think I can say it any better than others. But to me it was one weekend in the Catskills where there was unqualified affection, no pretensions, total acceptance, spontaneity, just be yourself. It was just family. That, I suspect, is chiefly why the LFC will be around for a long time to come and why so many other families out there in this country, despite all pressures on them, have been proving the Jeremiahs wrong. Because there is no other place know of but family where you can find those kinds of open arms.