Seeking kin: Pre-state Israel family portrait launches search

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Jewelry hung from Rosa Zacharia’s ears and neck. Bracelets adorned her wrists and she wore rings on six of her fingers. She and her family were dressed to the nines.

Life appeared to be pretty good for Zacharia and her husband, Naftali, and their three girls: Sara, Rahel and Yoheved.

At least, that’s the way it seemed in an image of the Zacharia clan captured at a Tel Aviv photo studio on May 29, 1929. Naftali mailed the photo to his brother Suleim in Chicago.

The information on the family was handwritten on the back of the photograph. It constituted nearly all that Suleim Zacharia’s granddaughter Valerie Chereskin knew about them. Also known was that Naftali and Rosa had a tea shop in Jerusalem.

Chereskin, who owns a public relations firm near San Diego, contacted “Seeking Kin” for help in locating the Zacharia daughters and their descendants, hoping to meet them during a visit to Israel she and her husband were planning.

Turns out, she’ll meet one of them.

Through an arduous search, Seeking Kin found Shai Shuhami, a Jerusalem business owner who, when presented with information, confirmed that he was Chereskin’s second cousin. Shuhami had been unaware that he had relatives in America.

His mother, Yoheved — the littlest girl in the photograph — is 86 and lives in Maale Adumim, a West Bank city near Jerusalem.

1929 photo of the Zacharia family in Tel Aviv photo/courtesy valerie chereskin

The same 1929 photograph that launched the search adorns a wall in her living room.

“This is the greatest feeling in the world,” Shuhami said. “There’s nothing that arouses curiosity more than when searching for one’s roots — from where one comes and to where one is heading.”

Echoing his enthusiasm, Chereskin said, “This is amazing.”

With little to go on, Chereskin hadn’t been optimistic about finding her kin. Had the search been conducted in reverse — the Israelis looking for their American kin — the odds that they’d find them would’ve been infinitesimal because, upon reaching America, Suleim Zacharia changed his name to Harry Marks.

That was 101 years ago, when he sailed from the port of Liepaja, Latvia.

Chereskin and her sister, Gail Jelinek, who lives near Chicago, knew of his difficult background in Urmia, in northwest Iran’s Kurdistan region.

Naftali and Suleim had three other siblings. A brother, Sarteep, traded their 11-year-old sister, Maral, to someone for the man’s sister, whom Sarteep married. Maral

was said to have died in the desert en route to Israel.

“My grandfather fought his brother about it,” Jelinek said.

After Suleim’s father died, his mother’s second husband refused to let Suleim live with them. Suleim worked herding sheep, sleeping among the animals for warmth. He ate grass as they did, sometimes coming to his mother’s back door for food. Through the windows of classrooms, he’d glimpse his friends at school; Suleim did not attend the school because he couldn’t pay the tuition.

In Chicago, Suleim worked in a metal factory that during World War II manufactured torpedoes. He died of heart failure in 1946 at age 51.

Ultimately the Zacharia descendants were found by Hezi Yitzhaki, a businessman who lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Motza and whose grandmother also was from Urmia. Responding to a “Seeking Kin” post, Yitzhaki combed records of the ministries of the interior and foreign affairs, and of the Jewish Agency for Israel, searching for families whose names and dates matched what Chereskin knew.

Yitzhaki settled upon the correct family, but with great difficulty — and after contacting the Shuhamis, he learned why: Two of the girls in the 1929 photo were not the children of Naftali and Rosa, who was later known as Shoshana. The eldest girl, Sara, was Shoshana’s sister; the girl standing between the two adults, Rahel, was Naftali’s daughter from his first marriage.

In a brief conversation with “Seeking Kin,” Yoheved said she was the eldest of Naftali and Shoshana’s seven children (four are deceased). She was looking forward to meeting Chereskin.

“It would bring together a whole circle of the family connection,” Chereskin said of the planned gathering with the Israelis. “It would bridge that whole gap between the old country and the new country.”

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives. Email Hillel Kuttler at [email protected] if you would like him to write about your search.