I’m a genuine genealogy junkie. (Try saying that sentence fast ten times. Okay, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but don’t say I never offer interactive articles.) Getting back to the topic at hand - I feel a mental, emotional, and even physical thrill whenever I come across new information. Every tidbit, no matter how small or trivial, is a piece of the puzzle of my family history. This puzzle is the most challenging one I’ve ever done. There is no picture to use as a reference point. The pieces don’t come in a box. It takes an inordinate amount of time, which I most often don’t have. And it will never be completely finished. But it’s also the most enjoyable and rewarding puzzle I’ve ever done. It’s not a two-dimensional flat thin object; rather it’s something above time and place, providing me with eye-opening information about my roots, and filling me with pride regarding my lineage. The further back in time I go, the more intriguing the information. I’ve traveled across continents to remote villages where people walk around with pickaxes and chickens roam freely the streets, to get a taste of what life was like for my ancestors who lived there about a century ago.
As my grandfather was the chazan, shoschet, and assistant rabbi in the town where my father and his family lived before the war, the family lived in the annex of the shul. I traveled to Austria and met with Julia, the daughter of the German caretaker of the shul. She remembered my family well. It was touching to hear about my father from the perspective of an outsider who knew him as a little boy. She remembered my father as being serious, always trying to teach her things even though she was older than he was. She further shared that my uncle would always try to sell her things. At the age of four, he would cut the buttons off his shirt and try to make a deal. She was not surprised when I told her that when they grew up, my father went into the field of education and my uncle became a successful businessman.
In my quest for knowledge, I am not the slightest bit embarrassed to call up a total stranger, explain who I am, and then interrogate them about all matters relating to my family history. Most of the time, people welcome my phone calls, as they, too, are fascinated by what I am able to share with them about our mutual relatives.
I spoke with a woman in Netanya who is a descendant of the brother of my great-grandmother for whom I’m named. She told me about my great-great-great-grandfather, Shlomo Zalman, who davened with Rabbi Meir’l of Premishlan, known to be a miracle worker in the first half of the 1800s. When a man would be called to the Torah at his minyan, the Rav would give him musar for his sins. One day, when Shlomo Zalman was called up to the Torah, he was given musar for not saying Tikun Chatzos, which was generally his daily practice. But Shlomo Zalman had a good excuse. He lived near a river. He skipped that night because there was a flood warning in the area. He didn’t go out because his father, who had been blind, died in a flood. The Rav felt that Shlomo Zalman should have realized that someone who is in the midst of doing a mitzvah will not be hurt. This story fills me with pride but also makes me feel the weight of responsibility to live up to the high standards of my ancestors. This woman also told me about my great-great-grandparents, who fulfilled the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim on a very high level. Upon leaving their home, one of their guests who was so taken by the wonderful hospitality he had received told them that one day they would end up being mechutanim. Indeed, my great-grandfather’s son married his guest’s granddaughter. I reached out to a descendant of this couple. He was shocked when I told him about my family line, which he knew nothing about. He excitedly added his brother to the phone line so that he, too, could hear the news. They are descendants of my great-grandmother’s brother, Moshe Aharon. But they had no idea that Moshe Aharon had a sister. In fact, he had several of them.
My husband shares my passion for genealogy and has also researched his roots. My husband is a child of Holocaust survivors and until recently believed that all of his relatives who came from Europe came after the war. He was taken by surprise when he was contacted several weeks ago by his third cousin once removed who comes from a line of his family that actually immigrated to America before the war. She is a baalas teshuvah who didn’t realize she had any frum relatives. She was a dental patient of my brother-in-law when neither of them knew of the family connection. She could barely contain her excitement two weeks ago when we invited her family to our home to meet us along with my husband’s brother and wife.
Ancestors from far back have a certain mystique about them, but there is also much to be gained by finding relatives that are actually alive. Through my family research, I have renewed contact with relatives who lost touch with our extended family many years ago. I have also made contact with relatives who are “new” to me. I am thoroughly enjoying these relationships and even arranged a gathering of several of them during my last trip to New York. If I can travel halfway around the world to see the kevarim of family members I never met and are no longer living, I think I can put some effort into maintaining contact with my living relatives as well.
Genealogy is more than just a hobby. What we learn from researching the past can broaden our perspective of who we are, and positively impact our lives in the present as well as in the future.