How I Discovered My Rabbinic Ancestry
by Arthur Kurzweil
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the Holy Shela'h
There is a postscript to this story that I must add, though it is not nearly complete. In fact, the very day before I wrote this I discovered additional information that brings my family history to even earlier beginnings. In response to the article in the newspaper, The Jewish Week, which ran the story about my research, I received a letter from a delightful young woman whose husband is a descendant of the Stropkover Rebbe. This makes us cousins, of course. Her name is Michele Zoltan, and we have established a nice friendship based on our mutual interest in the history of this family. Michele offered to translate the biography of the Stropkover Rebbe for me from the Hebrew. The first chapter was extraordinary.
The chapter speaks about the rebbe and his lineage and indicates that his mother was a descendant of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a renowned rabbi of the 1500s and early 1600s. After doing a little bit of checking, I was able to trace Rabbi Horowitz's family back several generations to the 1400s. In other words, I am a descendant of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (known as "the Holy Shela'h"), and consequently I am a descendant of his ancestors as well.
My discovery that I am a member of this rabbinic family and a direct descendant of the Holy Shela'h was one of the most eye opening moments in my entire search. The Shela'h, by the way, claimed to be a descendant of King David, thereby making me a direct descendant of King David as well. Whenever I think of this, my reaction is a mixture of pride as well as responsibility for me to try to live up to such a special past.
I also discovered that there is a Yeshiva in Jerusalem named after Chaim Joseph Gottlieb, the Stropkover Rebbe, and that it is run by some of his other descendants. I was fortunate enough to schedule a trip to Israel in order to visit the Yeshiva and its leaders. I cautiously walked into the Yeshiva's modest building in the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem, and, as I walked through the threshold, I entered a new world -- or perhaps I should say, an old world. There were lines of tables and benches with adult students sitting before open volumes studying the wisdom of sages. It looked like film footage from an era that had gone by, but I quickly learned that this scene is not unusual at all. It was just that I descended from a branch of my family that left the traditional Jewish way of life, so it is not surprising that it was foreign to me. I didn't know it at the time but my discovery of being descended from the Stropkover Rebbe and my visit to this Yeshiva was another step in my personal quest to find my place within Jewish religious tradition.
I also discovered that a group in Borough Park, Brooklyn, also descendants of the Stropkover Rebbe, meet once a year on the occasion of the anniversary of the death of the Stropkover Rebbe. The gathering is both a fund-raiser for the Jerusalem Yeshiva as well as an opportunity for the descendants of the Stropkover Rebbe to come together in order to renew family ties. I have attended this event each year for the past several years and have gotten to know a branch of my family that just a short time ago I didn't even know existed. These cousins, many of them Chassidim and many devoted to a strict Jewish way of life, have opened their hearts and lives to me in a most generous way. At one of the annual gatherings, they even honored me. It was heartwarming to know that they recognized the long journey that I have been taking.
From the tiny, assimilated family of my mother, I am now able to document descent back through some of the most illustrious rabbis of the past several centuries to the 1500s. And I do not intend to stop here.
Connecting with Jewish Tradition
After having celebrated at some length the discoveries that I have made about my ancestors, I feel compelled to remind all of us that the Talmud warns: "A learned bastard take precedence over an ignorant High Priest." In other words, illustrious ancestors are meaningless if we, ourselves, are not learned and worthy on our own. The crucial question that arises when genealogical discoveries are made is this: "What do we do with the knowledge of who our ancestors were?"
I find that learning about my family history draws me farther and farther into Jewish Tradition. The more I learn about my ancestors, the more I learn about Jewish history and, therefore, Jewish learning. The more facts I have about the lives of my ancestors, the more I learn to respect them and feel grateful to them for their decisions. It matters little, on one level, whether they were religious or not. I respect them for surviving as Jews and for being able to live and raise children, who eventually raised me. I learn much about courage when I understand what it was like to make the decision to journey to America. I continue to learn about faith and belief as I discover the obstacles set before my ancestors in Jewish history.
A special kind of awe comes over me when I learn about an ancestor of mine such as Isaiah Horowitz, who lived around 1600. Here was a man whose life and works are still known today for their greatness. The energy and power that this man had can be described by comparing it to ripples that will last a few seconds. The more powerful the force, the greater the ripples and the longer the duration of the vibrations. Such a powerful force was this direct ancestor of mine. There is no question in my mind that he was largely responsible for the religiosity of his descendants. As I examine those descendants I can see how devoted they were to learning and Torah, and, like strong ripples in water, he was one of the forces behind them. So powerful were the vibrations he sent that they reached me in the 1970s. His message traveled a great distance, not only in space but also in time. His influence has spread for nearly 400 years.
I certainly do not claim to lead a life on a par with his, but I am influenced by him. Just the fact that I am able to document my descent from him indicates how powerful an influence he has been. As I make this kind of discovery about an ancestor, I am forced (delightedly so) to encounter his life and teachings and to learn from them. This is the purpose of family history within the Jewish Tradition. It is not to make boastful claims about ancestors. It is not to take credit for the achievements of others, nor is it to take responsibility for the actions of others. But it is to continue to receive a message, first given at Mount Sinai, and still transmitted today. The message of Sinai is handed down through generations, and, as a famous Midrash says, the Torah is given at Sinai every moment if we will only listen for it and hear it. I do not claim to accept every letter of its message, but I do try to receive the message, nonetheless. My family history helps me to connect with the event, and with the history of the Jewish people. In this way, I celebrate my ancestors and the lives they led.
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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.