Relatively speaking, two Pittsburgh Jews may be closer than you think

Relatively speaking, two Pittsburgh Jews may be closer than you think

A.J. Jacobs (left) poses with some of his cousins at his Global Family Reunion last summer. (Photo by Elana Goodridge)
A.J. Jacobs (left) poses with some of his cousins at his Global Family Reunion last summer. (Photo by Elana Goodridge)

Better pause before you give the evil eye to that nonstop talker in the pew behind you at shul. He just may be family.  

In fact, he probably is.

Scientists from MIT have claimed that a 70th cousin is the furthest degree separating any two humans on the planet, and the likelihood of one random Jew being related to another is much, much higher.

Add to that the historical propensity of Jewish Pittsburghers to stay put geographically, and the chance that any two are pretty close kin is practically irrefutable.

Best-selling author and humorist A.J. Jacobs, who currently is working on a book about the global family, thinks that there is no further distance between any two Jews than the relationship of eighth or ninth cousin.

The author of “The Year of Living Biblically” and “The Know-It-All,” first became interested in genealogy two years ago when he received an email from a man in Israel stating: “You don’t know me, but I’m your 12th cousin on a family tree of 80,000 people,” Jacobs recalled.

“Of course, I thought that next he would ask me to wire $10,000 to Nigeria,” said Jacobs.

As it turned out, though, this distant cousin from across the globe sparked a fascination in Jacobs that led him on his own search for his roots — and branches.

What he found once he dove into vast genealogical websites such as was not only a family tree, he said, but “a huge Amazon forest of trees.”

Citing the MIT study that sought to show that everyone on the planet is at least distantly related, Jacobs noted a consensus in the scientific community that Jews are much more likely to be related to each other than to those of other ethnic backgrounds.

“The lowest I’ve heard is fifth cousins,” he said, “and the highest, from a study by a Columbia professor, is 35th cousins. But I would say that if you take any two Ashkenazi Jews, they are probably at most eighth or ninth cousins.”

Dr. Harry Ostrer, professor of pathology and genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of Genetic and Genomic Testing at Montefiore Medical Center, has determined through his genetic research that all Jews are related to each other, no further removed than fourth or fifth cousins. In 2007, he organized the Jewish HapMap Project, an international effort to map and sequence the genomes of Jewish people.

Ostrer did not dismiss the notion that Jews living in Pittsburgh could be even more closely related than that.

“I suppose it’s possible, if people from certain families or shtetl went to similar locations,” Ostrer said.

Tammy Hepps, a New Yorker who came to Pittsburgh about a year ago to investigate her family history and that of Jewish Homestead, believes that in Pittsburgh the likelihood of most Jews being closely related is high.

In her research, which extends well beyond her own family tree, she has found “giant family networks across Western Pennsylvania.”

“Most people here have been here for a long time,” Hepps noted, contrasting that reality with that of the population of New York, where people are more transient.

 “People who came here stayed,” she said. “There is a certain stasis to this community that you don’t find in other places.”

While Hepps has found lots of cousins still living in Western Pennsylvania, “there is nothing unique about my story,” she said. “It’s common to Pittsburgh.”

Jacobs agrees that Jews in Pittsburgh may be more likely to be related to each other than to Jews in other locales.

“It depends on migration factors,” he said. “There may have been certain areas of Poland or Russia where Jews were more likely to move to Pittsburgh than to other places.”

Jacobs’ own family, in fact, has roots in Pittsburgh; his maternal grandmother was a Sunstein, from an established Jewish Pittsburgh clan that migrated to the Steel City in 1867 from Suwalki, on the Polish-Lithuanian border.

The notion that all Jews are somehow related has significant implications beyond the amusement of engaging in a hyper-extended version of the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, according to Jacobs.

“It’s a very simple idea that we all know, but is also very profound,” he said. “For the first time in history, we can prove we’re all one big family. Hopefully, when it sinks in, we’ll treat each other with more kindness.”

While acknowledging that families do not always get along, there are studies that back up the proposition that people do tend to treat family members better than strangers, he said.

“And this is a Jewish idea too,” said Jacobs. “We’re all God’s children.”

Last summer, Jacobs held a Global family reunion at the New York Hall of Science, which he called a “delightfully weird event.”

“I invited all these millions of cousins,” he said, and attendees celebrated with music, food and speeches by “a few celebrity cousins,” including Andy Borowitz and David Blaine.

Entertainment was provided by Sister Sledge, of course.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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