Daniel Singer

A World Series of Genealogical Discoveries

I’m a singer by name and by trade. I am neither a sports fan nor an expert on the subject. But this summer, after seeing the Associated Press report “no practicing Orthodox Jewish player has made it to the big leagues,” I challenged sports journalists to recognize the most observant Orthodox Jew to have played and won the World Series, Morrie Arnovich. I never imagined the article about my hometown heroes from Superior, Wisconsin would have led me to discover they are also my blood relatives.

I didn’t know why I cared so much about Morrie Arnovich. After the Forward published my article, I heard from journalists and sports fans who questioned my research and politely cast doubt on Morrie’s religious observance, as well as from some of his family who had thanked me for correcting the record. While I was able to accurately answer most questions in the spirit my father, a reference librarian, would have, I was surprised to discover that Arnovich, like the recently drafted Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jacob Steinmetz, actually did play in some games on Shabbat and other holy days while he was in the major leagues. But Arnovich still proudly considered himself to be an observant Orthodox Jew. 

As I dug even deeper, I found that, according to the oral history delivered by his first cousin, Rabbi Alex Hyatt (originally Arnovich), in the Litvak shul Agudath Achim in Superior, Wisconsin, the strictest observance of Shabbat — “Shomer Shabbos” — was especially required of the chazzan (cantor.) This tradition had gone all the way back to his hometown of Wilkomer, Lithuania. I intentionally avoided questioning any of the players’ claims to Orthodoxy. But from these conversations with family, journalists, and critics, I learned that while Rabbi Hyatt undoubtedly expected everyone to observe the Sabbath, he also recognized the reality of ministering to a remote industrial town where Jews worked for non-Jewish businesses and could not always be shomer Shabbat. 

Morrie’s father was a gas station attendant and his family observed to the highest extent that they could under the circumstances. But Rabbi Hyatt had to require at least the minimum requirement of the chazzan being shomer Shabbat from all of those who observed in the community. I also learned that prior to 1950 far fewer Jews were shomer Shabbat than today, including the Orthodox. Labor laws eventually allowed for a two-day weekend and Orthodox Jews later made greater efforts to encourage universal Shabbat observance.

Responding to my last article, one journalist felt that the crossroads between Bob Dylan and Gen. John Hammond’s family, the city’s founders, was the most interesting part. In the last year of his life, my father helped to research David Engel’s acclaimed 1997 book, “Just Like Bob Zimmernan’s Blues.” The first chapters include many details on Dylan’s Jewish upbringing in Minnesota: Superior’s Jewish community was founded by the Kaners who also were from Wilkomer. Many of them went by the first name Shabsie, a Yiddish name. There were so many Shabsie Kaners in Superior, they had to distinguish them by their street name or other distinguishing characteristics: “Shabsie Downtown,” “Shabsie Connor’s Point,” “Shabsie the John Kaner,” and so on.

Tugging on that thread, I learned that Bob Zimmerman was given the Hebrew name Shabtai to honor his grandfather Benjamin David Solemovitz (Stone), whose Russian patronymic surname was taken from his great-grandfather, Sholem Karon. Shabtai is the Hebrew form of Shabsie in Yiddish, which means “a child of Shabbat.” The Shabsie name was carried down in the family for generations from Dylan’s sixth great-grandfather, Girsh Shabsel Karanovich. The Karanovich family became the Karons, Kaners, Canners, etc., and the Arnovich rabbis were all cousins who had encouraged one another to escape Russian pogroms in the solace of Superior.

My father never could have discovered this in his day. His research as a librarian preceded the internet. It was before the digitization of countless genealogical records, digital genealogy websites, social media, and DNA testing, which is all continuing to advance and change how we conduct research and make genealogical connections.

My connection was made by accident, only after I’d posted a tongue-in-cheek question on Facebook about the possibility of Zimmerman’s surname originally being Zemerman. It was a cute midrash, perhaps designating a singer instead of a carpenter. One of my cousins reading my post insisted I immediately get in touch with Ian Levine, a renowned British DJ and record producer who has researched his Kuklya family obsessively for 26 years, organized family reunions with thousands of confirmed Kuklya descendants, and is about to publish a massive 2016 page Kuklya Encyclopedia.

My cousin believed that we were related to Ian. After Ian and I analyzed our DNA and confirmed our blood relationship — and checked to be certain it corresponded with the work he and I had done separately on our trees — he welcomed me warmly as family. In Ian’s work, I was absolutely astonished to see my great-grandfather and many tens of thousands of other ancestors. There, just one generation beyond the reach of my own research, I learned that my second and third great-grandfathers had married Karanovich daughters, and I discovered the same Girsh Shabsel Karanovich is also my sixth great-grandfather. Bob Dylan, Morrie Arnovich, the Singers — we are all cousins descended from the same Karanovich and Kuklya families in a long lineage of rabbis going back to Rashi and beyond. 

My father was an only child, whose father had died when he was two years old and who was raised by his mother’s cousins in Detroit. His father’s brothers and sisters and their descendants who had remained behind in Lithuania were brutally murdered by Gen. Jonas Norieka and his followers. My father had searched for his family his entire life. Now, I’ve discovered he was never alone. Superior had mysteriously beckoned to him just as it did his ancestors.

Maybe that’s why it bothered me so much when the press snubbed Morrie. And maybe that’s why I care so much about the preservation of Superior’s history. Turns out: Morrie is family, after all. And Superior’s history is my history.

Originally from Superior, Wisconsin, Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side.

About the Author
Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. Drawing on a wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish music, Cantor Singer is as comfortable singing an 18th-century classical liturgical repertoire or leading the congregation in traditional Hasidic or Sephardic melodies as he is performing Jewish pop acapella with SIX13 or singing roles with the Yiddish Theater or opera.
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