How I Discovered My Rabbinic Ancestry
by Arthur Kurzweil
TRACKING DOWN LEADS IN WILLIAMSBURG
The biographer's name was Rabbi Israel, and when I called him he was nice enough to suggest that we meet to pursue the question. He also told me where I could get a copy of his book. The next morning I went to Williamsburg to purchase the book from the source suggested by Rabbi Israel.
It was the first time I had ever gone to Williamsburg. I have been a New Yorker all my life, however, I was always a bit afraid to go there. I had heard too many stories about the Chassidim in Williamsburg who do not like outsiders. I felt hostile toward them, wondering why they thought they had the right to look down upon other Jews who were not like them. But my experience that first time was just the opposite. I found the people on the street and in the shops to be quite friendly and I realized that I had only heard the sensational stories. I liked everyone I met.
When I arrived at the address given to me by Rabbi Israel, a young girl answered the door and asked me to wait a minute. She returned soon afterward and brought me down the street to a grocery store and a young man who appeared to be her brother. They spoke in Yiddish for a few seconds, after which she left. The young man, who appeared to be about my age, was dressed in traditional Chassidic street clothes with an apron for working. He brought me down the block to a storage room. It was there that the books were kept. He looked for a clear copy, brushed off the dust, and sold it to me. Together we walked back to his store. Before we said goodbye I asked him why it was that he had these books to sell. He told me that his father printed them. I asked him why his father printed them. He answered me by saying that he was "an ainicle of the Stropkover Rebbe." He used the very same words that my mother's cousin Maurice had used when I first began this journey.
It then dawned on me that I was standing in Chassidic Williamsburg with a young man, a Satmar Chassid I later found out, who was a cousin of mine. He and I both were descendants of the same Chassidic Rebbe (assuming my belief was correct). To be honest, I must admit that I did not tell him I was also a descendant of the rebbe. I was afraid that he would wonder why I was obviously not Chassidic. In some ways, I wondered myself -- though I knew. Yet it was startling to see how strange fate is. There we were, both of us the same age, both of us stemming from the same family tree, and yet we were in two different worlds. His line took him to Williamsburg, and mine took me elsewhere. It was confusing and fascinating.
It was then that I remembered from one of the many conversations I had had, that there was a Gottlieb's restaurant in Brooklyn and that the owners of this restaurant were descendants of the same rebbe. I located the address and decided to go there for lunch. The owner of the restaurant wasn't there, but his son-in-law was, and we had a conversation, briefly, about the rebbe. Yes, he said, it was true that they were from that family and the owner would be back the next day. I was disappointed, but I was also excited by my new possession -- the book by the rebbe and biography within it. I called Rabbi Israel, the biographer, and made an appointment for Sunday, just a few days away.
Those next few days were a blur to me. I was so preoccupied by the whole experience that I couldn't think about anything else. I simply counted the hours until I could see Rabbi Israel, who would surely be able to link my branch of the family with the rebbe. Finally, Sunday came and I went to Rabbi Israel's home. The rabbi was a pleasant and kind gentleman who made me feel quite at home. He asked me if we could speak in Yiddish and I was sorry to have to tell him that I could not. He took me down to his basement where his library was and we discussed my family. Again I repeated everything I knew, but nothing seemed to match. Again the Usher was the same, but the dates were obviously wrong. I felt I had reached a dead end. It appeared that with all of the circumstantial evidence I had gathered, it was nothing more than that. If the rabbi who wrote the biography of the rebbe could not help me, then who could? I began to feel I was wrong from the beginning: I shouldn't have made any claims, even to myself, without knowing for sure. Now it seemed as if there was nothing more to do but go back to thinking that my mother's family was a small one, that they may have known the rebbe's family in Europe and may have even take his name, but other than that there was no relationship. I would have to be satisfied with the truth, and with a genealogy that went back no further than my great-grandfather.