Kinship clubs preserved family ties for many Jewish families
The clubs, which were filled with related family members, operated somewhat like a nonprofit corporation, with elected officers, meetings, dues and newsletters.
The engraving on this gavel reads: “Spiegel’s Cousins’ Club.” All the members of the Club were related to Hazelwood merchant Herman “Harry” Spiegel and his sister Bertha Spiegel Lebovitz. These cousins started their club in late 1957 and, through spouses and children and grandchildren, drew members from a constellation of related clans: Feldman, Lebovitz, Rofey, Rosenbloom, Rosenthal, Sittsamer, Smooke and Spiegel.
The club elected officers. It had a president, two vice presidents, a treasurer, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a guardian, a monitor, a hostess chairman and a goodwill chairman. They often met at the old Adath Israel synagogue on Ward Street.
Despite all this formal parliamentary structure, the club had a lot of fun. It hosted Purim masquerades, summer picnics, Chanukah parties and various social events ranging from movie nights to anniversary dinners. At one legendary event, the elders of the family dressed up like mop-topped members of The Beatles. Their band name? The Shmiegels.
If the Spiegel’s Cousins’ Club had been a one-of-a-kind thing, then this gavel would be an interesting novelty item. But the club was one of hundreds of similar Jewish “kinship clubs,” and therefore this gavel is also an artifact of a fascinating sociological trend.
The undisputed expert on the subject is William Mitchell, an anthropologist whose 1978 book, “Mishpokhe: A Study of New York City Jewish Family Clubs,” remains the definitive account. He uses the umbrella term “kinship club” to include two types of clubs. Under his definitions, a “family circle” unites all the descendants of one couple, while a “cousins club” brings together all the descendants of a generation of first cousins.
Mitchell claims that kinship clubs are unique to American Jewish families of Eastern European decent. They are not widely found among any other ethnic group in America, and they developed organically in this country without direct Old World precedent. (He does, however, draw a connection to landsmanshaftn and other mutual aid societies.)
Although his original study focused specifically on the Jewish kinship clubs of New York City, he found similar clubs in other American cities with a sizable population of Eastern European Jews. He even explicitly listed Pittsburgh as a notable hub. When a local anthropologist named Myrna Silverman conducted her study of multigenerational Jewish families here in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, she found that half of the families she interviewed were members of at least one kinship club, and some were members of two.
If you look through the Jewish Criterion from the 1930s into the 1960s, you can find reports from kinship clubs mixed among the announcements from synagogues and Jewish communal organizations. In the late 1950s, the Criterion even briefly ran a dedicated column reporting on the activities of more than a dozen kinship clubs around the region.
Over the past six months, the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives has received collections from three Jewish kinship clubs in Western Pennsylvania: the Spiegel’s Cousins’ Club, the KA-EL Club and the Weiss Family Club. In addition to this gavel, the recently donated materials include minutes, newsletters, scrapbooks and a time capsule.
Beyond their immediate value as a genealogical resource, the records of these kinship clubs express something about the spirit of Jewish family life. Organizing a family like a nonprofit corporation — with members, officers, meetings, dues and newsletters — feels a little bit like children playing house: a game, but also a way of venerating the real thing.
No single artifact of Jewish kinship clubs embodies both attitudes quite as succinctly as this gavel. As far as Robert’s Rules of Order is concerned, a gavel is an optional prop in the theater of parliamentary procedure. You can start and stop a meeting without its rap.
But like all ceremonial objects, a gavel casts an aura of reverence around an otherwise mundane event. After all, a meeting is just a group of people talking. The rules of order, though sometimes silly, are one way of holding that group together in a unified “body.” PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.