What the heck's in a name?

Posted: Feb 23, 2007 1:07 PM

Most people have a natural curiosity about their ancestors. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no interest in mine. Seeing as how my parents and their parents were all Russian Jewish peasants, I suspect that none of their ancestors ever had the opportunity to be anything else. They may well have been swell people, but once you got beyond finding out that they always slept under many blankets, hated wolves and Cossacks, and loved borscht, I doubt if there was a lot more to know. Opportunity to broaden their horizons and the horizons of their offspring was, after all, the whole point of their coming to America.

As it happens, there aren’t many Prelutskys around. For one thing, my father only had sisters; my eldest brother never had children; my middle brother had two kids but he had changed his last name along the way, as did my son. So I am always surprised when a Prelutsky pops up. The first time I heard about one to whom I wasn’t directly related was the day several years ago when a hotel manager here in Los Angeles called to ask me if I was related to a Canadian named Gregory Prelutsky. I asked him why he was phoning. He said the guy had just run out on his hotel bill. I said that sounded like a Prelutsky, but I didn’t know the guy. The manager asked me if I wanted to pay the bill. I declined with thanks for the offer, and suggested he contact the Mounties.

The next Prelutsky I got wind of was Jack. About 30 years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that her kids loved his books of funny poetry. I had never heard of him, but I dropped him a note care of his publisher. I didn’t hear back and, so, I forgot about him until about six months later. It was a Saturday night and one of my delightful “Mary Tyler Moore” episodes had just aired. The phone rang, and it was Jack. He said he’d just seen my show, which he’d liked, and it prompted him to call. It seems he had come out from back east to visit friends in Seattle. He said there was a slim chance he’d be coming down to L.A., and, if so, he’d be in touch. I told him I was working on a pilot script at MGM, and if he wanted to reach me, that was the place to do it.

One day, a couple of weeks later, I got a call from the guard at the studio gate, informing me I had a visitor. I went down to see who it was. As I came around the corner of the building, I stopped in my tracks and gawked. Standing 20 feet away, the absolute double of my middle brother, if my brother had a beard, was Jack Prelutsky. What was even more astonishing was that I didn’t resemble my two older brothers, and they didn’t look anything alike. I had brown hair, brown eyes; Ted had black hair, hazel eyes; Ed had blonde hair, blue eyes. And we were all different sizes. We were like some sort of genetic experiment gone haywire.

Anyway, Jack and I had lunch, but neither of us knew enough about our Russian forebears to know if it was our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers who were brothers. We had no further communication until I read last year that he’d been appointed children’s poet laureate of America, and sent him a congratulatory letter. I didn’t hear back. Perhaps he feared I was merely sniffing around, looking to borrow some of that $25,000 that came with the honor.

A few years ago, I received a note from a Russian immigrant who spelled his name Prilutsky. He suggested we meet for coffee at a local diner. We neglected to describe ourselves, but I figured there wouldn’t be too many guys sitting alone, and that the process of elimination wouldn’t be too difficult. I was wrong. When I arrived, there were four or five men seated by themselves. I stood for a bit, looking around, waiting for one of them to call me over. Nobody did. But I was a little early, so it was a safe guess he hadn’t arrived. I took a booth and kept my eye on the entrance. Five minutes later, a fellow walked in, glanced around for two seconds, spotted me, and made a bee-line for my booth.

He introduced himself, we shook hands and I said, “How on earth were you so certain I was me?”

His answer shook me to the core. “Because you look like a Prelutsky.”

As I began picturing the various Prelutskys I knew, my blood ran cold. “You’re saying we all look alike? How can that be? I don’t even look like my brothers.”

He just shook his head impatiently. “Probably far more than you imagine. Take my word for it, all the Prelutskys, no matter if they spell it ‘Pre’ or ‘Pri,’ all come from this one small area in the Ukraine. And, believe me, we all look alike.”

“That’s just great. So what you’re telling me is that we’re all just a bunch of Russian Jewish hillbillies!”

He just shrugged. I guess those long Russian winters can make a person pretty philosophical.

Now do you understand why I was happier when I didn’t know beans about my ancestors?