How I Discovered My Rabbinic Ancestry
by Arthur Kurzweil
When the author's maternal grandparents moved to a new home, he discovered photographs of his great-grandparents, as well as old documents and letters, which yielded important clues to his family's history.
I was fascinated by the contrast between these two couples whose children married each other several thousand miles away from where these photographs were taken, but my attention quickly was drawn to my grandfather's parents, who were obviously Chassidic. His father was the rabbi, the shochet! I could not take my eyes off the photograph. I stood staring into my great- grandfather's eyes, which stared back at me. I looked at his side-curls, his long coat, his hands folded gently on his lap and I wondered who this man was. I was his great- grandson, and yet the distance between us, not only in miles and years, but in ways of life was startling. My own great-grandfather was a Chassid. If not for this photograph I might have never known.
It was shocking that I had never been told about this. It was always my belief that my father's family was the religious side of the family, but here before me was the photograph of just a few generations ago, of my great-grandfather, a Chassidic man. The progression of history began to come clear. My grandfather, as a teenager, left Europe and his family and traveled to America, land of opportunity. He cut his side-curls, said goodbye to his rural Chassidic community, and went in search of a "better" life. Upon arrival in America he discovered a different world and rapidly became a part of it. I have to admit that I was always troubled by this. My Jewish involvement has, over the years, become more and more traditional and it has been largely an uphill battle for me. I was not raised in a very traditional home, and this was partly because of my family history: My mother's parents were not traditional and this affected my upbringing. Had my grandparents been, I too might have had a different kind of life. But this feeling was dramatically resolved when I brought the newly discovered photograph of my great-grandparents to their son -- my grandfather. I also showed my grandfather another photograph I had found of him as a young man. In it, he was dressed in a modern suit with spats, a stylish hat and was holding a cane!
My grandfather was excited by the sight of both pictures. He repeated over and over that those were his parents, and also enjoyed seeing this picture of himself as a young man. He then told me that the picture of him was taken in Europe. I was confused because I knew that he came to America as a teenager and this was a later picture. He told me that he went back to visit his parents twenty years after he had left them. It was an incredible thing to imagine. Here was a picture of a fully Americanized man, the son of a Chassid, returning to see his parents and family. One could just imagine the scene when he arrived in town looking the way he did as compared to the way his father looked. And I was right! My grandfather told me that his own father was upset by how his son had changed. His father wanted him to stay there and not to return to America, the country that made him leave the old ways. My grandfather refused, of course, and returned to America. The rest of the story is obvious: Had my grandfather stayed and returned to the religious ways of his family, he would have shared their fate -- the Death Camps. Yet he returned, continued to assimilate, and I, his grandson, was born years later. And today, I connect once again with the tradition of my great-grandfather, through my family history research.
The Stropkover Rebbe
I remembered that the letter from my mother's cousin, Maurice, who had originally written to me telling me about the family and what towns we had come from, also contained his regret that he could not find a picture of his grandparents. Now that I found one, I wanted to call him and share with him what I had found. I arranged to visit with him and show him the photograph. I also hoped to get more information from him. I suspected that he knew much more than he wrote in his letter. When I arrived at his home, it quickly became apparent that Maurice knew quite a bit about the family history. He identified many photographs for me, told me stories about members of the family and taught me a lot. But one item, which he mentioned to me in passing, was the clue that became the key to centuries of family history. Maurice told me that as a child he was scolded for playing a childhood prank. The way in which he was scolded was memorable, because he was told, "That's no way to behave, especially since you are an 'ainicle' of the Stropkover Rebbe." At the time I did not know that the term "ainicle," although it generally means "grandson," actually means "descendant" in that context. In any case, my genealogical ears perked up and I knew that I had hit upon a major find.
That night was somewhat sleepless for me. I couldn't wait to go to the library the next day and find out about "the Stropkover Rebbe." If my mother's first cousin was his descendant, then I was too, and it would be an important and meaningful discovery for me. The following morning I went to YIVO -- The Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan -- and began to search for anything I could find about the Stropkover Rebbe.
YIVO, the finest archives and library of Eastern European Jewish material in the world, had a book with biographical material on Chassidic Rebbes, with an index by town.(F1) It was just what I needed. I looked up Stropkov and found that there were several rebbes who were known to have been connected with the town of Stropkov at one time or another. I struggled with each entry written in Hebrew and one by one I rejected each as possible ancestors. When I finally got to the last entry I was startled to see the name of Chaim Joseph Gottlieb. My mother's name was Gottlieb. He must be my ancestor! I was terribly excited for about one minute, until I remembered that Maurice wrote me that the name of our family was not originally Gottlieb but Rosenvasser. Suddenly, I was afraid that this was not my ancestor at all, but that we had simply taken his name because of his reputation as a rebbe. I knew that people named children after their teachers, and perhaps this was a similar case.
Still, there was something within me that said that he was my direct ancestor. I had a feeling about it, and knew that eventually I would understand how the name Rosenvasser came into the picture. It seemed likely that Chaim Joseph Gottlieb was an ancestor since the names matched and since it also confirmed the story by Maurice about being scolded as a child. Another possibility was that the name Rosenvasser was the original name and that it predated the rebbe.
What I found myself doing from that point on was breaking just about every genealogical rule in the book, especially the following two: Never make claims that you aren't sure of, and, Do research from the known to the unknown. You start with what you know and you see how far back you can go, step by step. You should go backward, one generation at a time. This rule is to discourage people from picking out a famous individual from history and trying to made a connection. It has been shown often enough that people who set out to prove that they descend from an illustrious figure do it -- regardless of how accurate their findings are. In other words, it is not respectable genealogy research to pick King David and then try to establish descent from him. Except for the fact that I had some good clues to go on, I was doing just that. It is not advisable methodology.
The other rule that I broke was telling everybody I knew that I was a descendent of the Stropkover Rebbe, Chaim Joseph Gottlieb. At the time it was just circumstantial evidence, but it was such an exciting possibility to be a descendant of a Chassidic Rebbe that I couldn't help it. The only good part about it was that it pressured me to get to work immediately and to find out the truth.
The short biography of the rebbe that I found included the fact that he wrote a book called Teev Gitten v'Kiddushin. YIVO did not have the book, but the New York Public Library Jewish Division did, so I went to examine it. I was amazed to see that the book contained a brief genealogy including the names of the rebbe's grandfather (which would take me back to the 1600s!), and the rebbe's sons, one of whom was named Usher. My great-grandfather was named Usher, and for a minute I though I had solved the whole problem, until I realized that the dates were wrong. There would have to be at least one generation between the rebbe's sons and my great-grandfather. I still hadn't established a link. It occurred to me that my great-grandfather, Usher, might have been named after the rebbe's son Usher, but it was still speculation.
1. The referenced book is: Alfasi, Yitskhak, ha-Hasidut. Tel-Aviv: Sifiriyat Ma'ariv, 1977. The first volume of a new edition appeared under the title ha-Hasidut mi-dor le-dor (Chassidism from Generation to Generation). Jerusalem: Makhon Da'at Yosef, 1995. back
Arthur Kurzweil's groundbreaking work in Jewish genealogy and family history has helped to establish a growing movement of Jews in this generation who have discovered the rewards and importance of genealogical research. Having spoken before several hundred Jewish groups over the past two decades, his name has become synonymous with Jewish genealogy. This article is an excerpt from Chapter I of From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History, 1994. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.