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Our family stories


Eli Ari Applebaum was born in Poland. Jay Houpt, his great-great-great-grandson, compiled his family tree on a simple spreadsheet.

Contained within the spreadsheet is a tree that includes almost 500 of Applebaum’s descendants and a smorgasbord of family names. Every year brings new names to the familial stew.

Applebaum’s descendants live all over the world – from Poland, to Canada, Israel and the U.S. But there’s no doubt that the publication of these names will produce a slew of corrections – more names and more places will be added to the list.

Do the names of our predecessors matter? What about their stories?

Family business and wealth preservation studies show that these are big questions that matter, because these stories, and our family trees, have a role in shaping our sense of family and self, and in helping us preserve our family wealth – and I’m not just talking about monetary wealth, but also our familial relationships and shared history.

A family tree, however fruitful it is, is the bare bones of the family’s story. While it is an ancient and compelling narrative, – harkening back the Jewish patriarchs  (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah) – it is to a family history what the bones are to the body: it supports it, moves it, protects it, defines it and enables us to survive, but it is only part of the story.

The branches reflect the intertwining of families, the dates and places of births and deaths, the crossing of countries and oceans. But it doesn’t express why this was done, or at what cost. It does not reflect what was gained or lost, or why they chose to leave certain places and seek peace, opportunity and a haven from persecution in others. What they did, what they left behind and what they found is missing from the family tree.

The names speak to Jewish life and culture in a given time and place. But they do not capture the families, the individuals and the ties of love, marriage, hope, promise, endeavour, industry and philanthropy that held individuals, families and communities together.

The sheer number of Applebaum’s descendants is truly a celebration of lives lived. Their contributions have impacted many lives throughout the world and helped the Jewish population of the world rise to equal that of the community prior to the Second World War.

It could be an epic story of survival, a mini-series about the power of family or a lasting tribute to one individual who seems to have heeded the admonition to “be fruitful and multiply.”

But why build a family tree? We could say it’s to make the links stronger; to craft a meaningful history from the threads of dates, names and numbers. In other words, to help us piece together our family story.

Stories anchor us. Stories change us. Stories guide us. They help us define who we are as individuals and families. They can be spoken, expressed through pictures, written or even sung.

Sharing our stories, building the narrative and identifying shared values and family themes helps create familial harmony. It helps join a disparate group of individuals tied by blood, intention or circumstance, by giving them a common and enduring sense of purpose, one of which may or may not be wealth preservation and legacy.

If you’re one of the individuals who waves off the impact of family harmony on wealth with breezy proclamations – “I’m leaving it all to charity,” or “I took care of the children during my lifetime,” or “I won’t care what happens after I’m gone” – maybe you’re right. Perhaps you’re being realistic and pragmatic. After all, Psalms 49 states: “For when he dies he shall carry nothing away; his wealth shall not descend after him.”

Or it may be that you’re one of those who’s sure that you’ve “made great decisions,” hired the “best of the best” and have a “great plan.”

If those are your truths, if you’re skeptical about communication, openness, the power of family stories and the value of family harmony to those left behind after you’re gone, forget the stories and pay the professionals. But consider the following.

First of all, it should be noted that death leaves a vacuum and chaos rushes in to fill it.

Spoken and unspoken family conflicts has spawned an industry of its own. Estate litigators, accountants, forensic auditors, mental capacity experts, medical experts, lawyers and court reporters need to make a living, too, and your estate could well end up paying for all of it.  The outcome is often a surviving, but increasingly isolated, spouse who can’t straddle the family divide and who’s left to pick up the pieces of a broken family and a plundered estate. Also remember that what the family doesn’t take, the government will. And for wealthy or high-profile families, it becomes a public debacle that plays out to the bemusement of their neighbours and the greater community.

As Mark Daniell and Sara Hamilton – advisors to some of the wealthiest families in the U.S. – unequivocally stated in their book, Family Legacy and Leadership: Preserving True Family Wealth in Challenging Times, “legacy is a living concept that transcends time and place. While legacy is indeed derived from the past, it is also a connected flow of personal histories, family patterns, events and memories that exerts a strong influence on the present and shapes the future.… Family legacy encompasses all that a family holds dear and wants to preserve for the future – the history, values, knowledge and experiences that are as essential as a family’s financial assets.… Telling – and retelling as many times as needed – family stories is a key role for all family members.”