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A Game Of Same-Name Jewish Geography

In the late 19th century, my grandfather Jacob and his brothers left their Russian shtetl to seek a new life in South Africa. The rigors of pioneer life were not to Jacob’s liking; he returned to Russia, married my grandmother and immigrated to America. His brothers remained in South Africa, where they prospered and multiplied in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

As a child I was told how one brother introduced Coca Cola to South Africans while another struck it rich digging for gold. These “tall tales” were our sole connection to our South African brethren until the late 1970’s, when a cousin, Leon Maister, contacted my aunt and uncle on a trip to America. I spoke to Leon on the phone and a few years later met his son, Stephen. We promised to correspond but never did.

As the years passed, our link with the South African branch of the family seemed doomed. Then I discovered Nigel Maister in New York City. “I don’t know,” Maister said dubiously when I telephoned. “There are several branches of Maisters in South Africa. Which one are you related to?”

Which branch? Perhaps I should have been more tolerant of Cousin Nigel’s ambivalent reaction to my phone call. I had myself always viewed “Jewish Geography” as a futile exercise. As soon as I would be asked, “You’re from such-and-such a place; so do you know my Cousin So-and-So?” I would have a flight. If I did know Cousin So-and-So, did that make us automatic cousins, friends or what? I was embarrassed watching others play, maybe because I was skeptical that beyond our immense, diverse universe is an invisible thread binding the Jewish people together.

As we spoke, I imagined Cousin Nigel desperately wanting to bow out of this round of Jewish geography. “Who was this stranger calling me at home,” I imagined him thinking.

If only he had been privy to the series of events leading to my call. It started at the newspaper where I work. One day I took an obituary notice for a man whose last name was Maister. The next morning at my exercise class, I chatted with a woman named Emily, who had told me she was originally from South Africa. Had she heard of the Maisters, I asked. Yes, she had known a Laurie Maister more than 40 years ago. A few hours later, as I was looking in the White Pages for a telephone number, I decided to check if my unlisted number had crept back into the book. It hadn’t, but in what had been my place as the sole Maister in the New York City telephone dictionary was a Nigel Maister who lived only a block away from me.

With a name like Nigel, I knew he was one of my South African kinfolk.

I was on a roll, in sync with the universe, so without hesitation I called Nigel. He answered with an unmistakable South African accent.

Which branch? “All I know is that I’m related to Leon and Stephen Maister,” I told him. “Leon! Stephen!” he repeated. “Leon’s my father’s brother, and Stephen is my cousin.”

Nigel, a theater director who had been in New York for about a year, invited me to a play so that we could meet. With our long, thin faces, and our brown eyes and hair, we could see the “Maister” in each other. On tracing our respective family histories, Nigel and I discovered that his grandfather and my grandfather had been brothers.

There is an amazing postscript to this story. The Laurie Maister whom the woman in my exercise class had known turned out to be Laurence Maister, Nigel’s father. She had dated him and had met his parents, my great — aunt and great — uncle, at their home in Cape Town.

Jewish Geography, anyone?

As a part of our series celebrating The Forward’s 120th anniversary, this article was originally published in the November 13, 1998 edition of The Forward.

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