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  • Donny Levit


I never expected to be so excited to receive a care package of socks. But these were no ordinary socks. Getting them sent through the Royal Mail is far cooler than those mundane Amazon delivery trucks.

Last Thanksgiving, my dad gave me this photo of his family taken at Ventnor: He sits surrounded by his mother, Rose; his sister Judy; and his father, Donald.

Adorned with the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club insignia, these purple and black beauties were sent by my newly discovered British cousins who were making a strong case for my becoming a supporter of the Premier League club. Immediately persuaded, I scanned for the next match and set a reminder on my phone. “10 a.m. Saturday. Wear the socks,” I wrote.

Although there’s more to say about cousin Ruth and her family, I must start by crediting my wife for scrubbing multiple websites and continents for my bloodline. Jewish genealogy is particularly tricky, so Nicole armed herself with,, and several generous folks who translated Hebrew and Polish for us. Before we knew it, we were added to WhatsApp chat groups and swapping family photos with fourth and fifth cousins in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.

The inaugural moment for these discoveries took place last Thanksgiving when my dad pulled out a hulking collection of photos that had been buried in storage for years. Suddenly, the table was covered with slices of cranberry walnut pie and never-before-seen pictures of my grandfather and namesake Donald Levit, who died decades before I was born. My dad handed me a photo of his family of four: Grandpa Donald, Grandma Rose, my dad, and his sister, Judy, riding one of those classic rolling chairs on the boardwalk at Ventnor City Beach. As the photos kept pouring out, I realized how little I knew about my dad’s ancestors.

Thanks to a distant cousin in Colorado, my mom’s side has been successfully traced back to Vitebsk Guberniya, a piece of the Russian Empire when my ancestors left in the 1890s and now part of Belarus. The empire was less than hospitable to the Jews, to say the least, and many landed in the United States.

My dad’s side, however, turned out to be a bit more far flung. Mix in a little Poland here, a little Austria there, pepper with some Ukraine and Germany, and you get the idea. But the key that unlocked the door to so many relatives can be credited to the DNA of my paternal great-grandfather, a man named Harry Putter. Don’t get my kids started because they’ve built a compelling argument that my dad’s side is full wizard. After all, we are related to Harry Putter, the “Jewish Harry Potter.” Sounds like some juicy fan fiction to me.

Looks like my grandfather and namesake Donald was a baseball fan, as am I.

Old family photos aside, there is a much more powerful reason that Nicole went on this recent quest. After Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel last October, I experienced a great sense of loneliness. The action of searching for other Jewish relatives around the globe was uplifting. To actually find many of them has been a great panacea for the pain of these months and our current days.

Before cousin Ruth sent that care package, we were getting to know each other over email. Her handsome 21-year-old twin boys brought a great sense of comfort to me. We are thrilled that we’ll be able to meet her son Jacob this coming June when he visits the States.

So back to my great-grandfather Harry Putter. Nicole had to untangle the challenge of spelling variants and Americanized names as well as ship manifests and naturalization records to locate my cousins in Rio because their last name is Butter. The Brazilian Butters quickly connected us to the French Butters. In no time, the Putters were introduced to dozens of Butters and their many children. What a difference a single letter makes!

When it comes to the DNA search, the Brazilian Butters aren’t kidding around. They’ve assembled incredible family trees to show to us their oodles of cousins. But most significantly, the Butter sense of humor aligns nicely with the Levit sense of humor. After Nicole mentioned that I’m a huge Yankee fan, cousin Mendel replied, “Well, that’s not in the DNA because I find baseball boring.” Fair enough.

Here’s what’s not boring: the incredible photos they sent to us of Carnival happening in Rio. We’d get nightly reports of the traditions filled with a lot of fascinating history. Cousin David spoke about the bate-bola costume traditions they used to see when they visited their grandmother in the Jacarepaguá neighborhood in Rio. Cousins Anna and Arthur chimed in with a Friday evening “Shabbat Shalom.”

I’ve always been jealous of those huge extended family gatherings with dozens of people sporting kitschy T-shirts to mark the occasion. I’m dreaming up one of those reunions that’ll take place in Rio. I’m already designing the Butter-Putter graphic, which will surely include phrases in Portuguese, French, Hebrew and English. My kids will enthusiastically gather quotes for their Harry Putter fan fiction. We better hire a good translator.

Donny Levit is a writer, reporter, theater director and Spurs supporter. COYS!


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