Laya Bitman is expecting 75 people at her family reunion in Baltimore this weekend. The other 15,925 can't make it.
For the past 17 years, Bitman has been constructing her family tree, tying together 16,000 relatives from Philadelphia, where she grew up, and Baltimore, where she now lives, as well as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, California, Oregon, Texas, Lithuania, Russia, Israel, England, Australia, Hong Kong and Canada.
For a long while, it was slow-going, as Bitman used genealogy Web sites like MyHeritage.com and Ancestry.com to piece together 200 Bitmans, Sussmans, Zismans, Zussmans and Levins dating back to the early 1800s.
Then, in 2008, shortly after her father died, Bitman's mother handed her an envelope. Inside were old photographs and a few mimeographed pages. Bitman had hit the genealogy jackpot: The pages were a sampling of the five years' worth of gossip and history documented in a family newsletter, the "Sussmanews."
"I couldn't believe what it was," said Bitman. "I went back to Ancestry.com, and started putting in more names from the newsletter. I found a cousin who had other 'Sussmanewses,' and I realized it wasn't just the few pages I had. It was a bimonthly magazine that went out to everyone in the family.
"Suddenly, I had 1,000 people in my family tree. Then 7,000. It kept growing."
The "Sussmanews" was started in 1934 by Samuel Sussman who lived in Wynnefield. Sussman's father, Louis, was one of four brothers who came to Philly from Ponedel, Lithuania (also known as Pandelys), at the turn of the last century.
In the early 1900s, Sussman's Uncle Mendel, another of the four brothers, had set up a menswear manufacturing company called Middishade at 1600 Callowhill St.
'A Lot of Detail, A Lot of History'
Samuel Sussman was the Hebrew-school principal at Har Zion Temple, founded in Wynnefield in 1924 (it's now in Penn Valley). A prolific writer, Sussman decided to use some of the family money from the successful Middishade to put together a newsletter twice a month, and then mail it to relatives. The catch was that in order to receive a copy, you had to contribute news to it.
"I remember reading about my father, Nathan, in one of the newsletters from 1936. Everyone called him Nosi, and it said, 'Nosi motored to Atlantic City with his aunt for the weekend.' It was filled with little stories like that," recalled David Sussman, 56, of Ardmore, the great-nephew of Samuel and great-grandson of Middishade-founder Mendel.
"There was a lot of detail, a lot of history, because Uncle Sam was a real scholar," he said.
The newsletter stopped in 1939, likely because the war made it impossible to get mail back and forth from Europe, presumed Laya Bitman.
Bitman is Samuel Sussman's great-niece. Her grandmother Bessie was Samuel's sister. David Sussman is a cousin.
Now 37, Bitman has been interested in genealogy since she was a kid: "I can't remember a time I didn't bug my parents about where we were from, when we came here, if anyone was still in Europe."
Bitman, who's Orthodox, grew up in Northeast Philly. When she was in her teens, her family moved to Langhorne, where "there wasn't a single Orthodox Jew," she said. Her family moved away from Orthodoxy, but Bitman continued to embrace it, traveling back to the Northeast to stay with Orthodox friends every Shabbat.
At 20, Bitman moved to Baltimore to finish college at the University of Maryland, and — more importantly, she said — have access to a larger pool of datable Orthodox men. A matchmaker set her up with Baruch Bitman in December 1993; they married a year later.
"By the time I was 20, I had already started laying down a family tree. When I married, I started adding Bitmans to it," she said.
Baruch Bitman is a videographer. He helped Laya put together a documentary about the family to show at the reunion this weekend, where family members who haven't seen each other in 20 years — and some who have never met at all — will have a chance to connect, said Bitman.
She said that she hopes to take footage at the reunion itself, including interviews with two Holocaust survivors, and expand the documentary in the future. She has also set up a Facebook page so that long-lost and far-flung relatives can communicate, and is toying with the idea of writing a book about the family.
Stephen Sussman, David's twin brother and a professor at Barry University in Miami, has also been pouring over the "Sussmanews" and reconstructing the family's history. He plans to give a talk on the Sussman clan at the Israel Genealogical Society in Tel Aviv, and is coming up for the family reunion.
"Up until my father's generation, everyone was having 10 or 12 kids. So it's a large family. And Laya's done excellent work bringing the family together," he said.
"I'm now in touch with cousins I didn't even know existed. It really all got off the ground because of Laya's effort and the 'Sussmanews.' I think Sam would be thrilled that his work is being used in this way."