The Circuitous Journey of An Extraordinary American Family

Boy, do I love it when seemingly unrelated events come together and fit into the puzzle that is my life. And, when they do, it gives me goosebumps and I re-think my stance on a Higher Power.

For those who do not know of my previous life in California, I lived in Salinas for eight years. Capital of Monterey County, Salinas is the largest city in the Salinas Valley, home of wonderful, hard-working people (especially teachers) and lots of lettuce and strawberries. I loved living and teaching there and one of my favorite things was teaching about homeboy Noble Prize winning author John Steinbeck, who was born and raised on Center Street in downtown Salinas. As part of my 4th grade curriculum, my students read some of Steinbeck’s stories and visited his home. We also headed out to the Monterey Bay and followed his adventures on Cannery Row.

So imagine my surprise, when as part of my Israel Studies Master’s Program at Haifa University here in Israel, I learned that John Steinbeck had some interesting Israel family connections!

Turns out that John Steinbeck’s great grandfather moved his family from Massachusetts to the Holy Land around 1850, settled in Jerusalem, then on a farm near Jaffa. At the same time, and following the same deep religious beliefs about the return of Jesus Christ, Steinbeck’s paternal grandfather left Germany for that same Holy Land, settled on that same small farm outside of Jaffa, met the Massachusetts fella’s daughter, married her, and the rest is history. However, somewhere in that family saga is a terrible tragedy of violence, murder and rape, international scandal and the intervention of the United States and Turkish governments, the rebuilding of lives and changing of names, the American Civil War, disguise as a dead man, a farm in Hollister, the Hamiltons of King City and voila… John E. Steinbeck III is born in Salinas in 1902.

It is a fascinating story and you can read it here by clicking The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family

BUT WAIT!!! There is MORE!!! Once you’ve read the above research paper, you may remember that Johann Grossteinbeck, John’s grandfather, was a carpenter and joiner (a skill necessary to seamlessly join pieces together to make beautiful wood carvings).

Well, as I was researching for the above paper, my good friend Baruch Velleman called. He told me that he had begun working at the Kibbutz Gennosar souvenir shop and was selling his friend Lenny’s antique coins and carved wood pieces.

Baruch had previously told me the story of how Lenny Wolfe, one of Israel’s foremost ancient coins and antiquities dealers, had come by a cache of 19th century olive-wood carved pieces and was now ready to sell them.

“You know, the olive-wood pieces I told you about” he said, “The ones that are 150 years old from Christ Church in Jerusalem”.

Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my hand stood up.

I called Lenny.

I told him about Johann Grossteinbeck. I told him about my research. I asked him, “Could it be? Could it really be that one of those pieces may have been carved by John Steinbeck’s grandfather?”

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit (c.1850-1920)

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener (c.1850-1920)

And the truth is, that Lenny knows these pieces were made starting in 1850 by skilled woodworkers at the carpentry shop at Chris Church in Jerusalem, but that is where the certainty ends.

Several of the pieces have the stamp of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (abbreviated to London’s Jews Society or LJS), but the actual woodcarvers’ initials or signatures are not present. In 1849, the LSJ helped found Christ Church, the oldest Protestant Church in the Middle East.

Olive-wood Flowers of Palestine book (it still has the dried, pressed flowers in it)

Book of dried flowers and photographs (covers made from olive-wood) with Bethlehem on front; House of Industry, Christchurch, Jaffa Gate (1850 – 1920)

It is quite tantalizing to think that Johann Grossteinbeck could have carved some of these 19th century olive-wood pieces. And that years and years ago, some unknown buyer bought these pieces at the Christ Church wood shop and took them back to England. And that Lenny Wolfe found them in England and purchased them. And that my friend Baruch helped Lenny bring the pieces from England to Israel. And that Baruch called me and told me about his exciting new job, just as I was researching the Steinbeck family’s connection to Israel. How cool is that!

This is certainly The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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