Found this in a drafts folder. I wrote this a couple years ago to post, but I never did. Nothing's changed.
We’ve placed a relative in a holding cell. We didn’t know where else to put him. But somewhat similar to Schrödinger’s infamous cat, who is half-alive and half-dead, he’s in two different holding cells simultaneously, depending upon whether you ask me, or my cousin.
Yankel, son of Meier, was born in an Eastern European shtetl about 1839. This we know from census records. A Meier was born in 1795. I consider him the ‘father’ of the line, though we do know the name of a brother. Meier would have been 44 in 1839. Not too old to be a father.
My cousin, who’s been researching the family for twenty years, has created a Meier son of Meier to be the father of Yankel, because he fits better in the next generation. When I remind her that this goes against European Jewish tradition, she reminds me that most Jews had multiple Jewish names, and the birth records only have one written down. One could have been Meier Zev, and the other Meier Leyb. Or for that matter, one could have been Zev Meier and the other Leyb Meier. Still, I feel uncomfortable creating the appearance of a ‘junior’ unless there is proof that a ‘junior’ existed.
The superstition was that the Angel of Death could get confused and take the infant instead of the father/grandfather. Superstitions like that only fade away when infant mortality begins to drop, and parents stop asking G-d, ‘why did you take our child?’ In the 20th century it’s just a tradition, one that gets broken on occasion, but in the 19th century I suspect the superstition still held.
Still, for both of us, it’s a holding cell. A guess. We are almost certain he is a member of the family and fits in somewhere, along with all of his descendants. (Which could be tested with a DNA surname study.) I’m more comfortable with my holding cell; she is more comfortable with hers. The important thing is that we make notes that it is a holding cell. She has been extremely careful to cite all sources and explain all logic to the point that I occasionally think she’s gone a little overboard in her notes. But it’s a good practice I need to learn.
Hopefully, someday, Yankel will be free.