While we hold our secrets close to our hearts, sometimes they slip out. Five stories
When I married my husband, I went from belonging to a family that waited three hours between eating fleishigs and milchigs to a family who had the minhag of waiting six. I’d rib my husband about this only half-jokingly: “As a baal teshuvah who’s unsure of his family’s mesorah, you can select your minhagim. So why in the world did you decide to pick six hours?”
“Because I researched the inyan and felt it’s the right thing to do,” he’d volley back. “If it bothers you so much, you’re welcome to look into my family history and try to find someone who really liked ice cream.”
At this point in the conversation, we’d usually smile at each other in truce, and move on to looking for something pareve to snack on.
Many years later, after my father-in-law retired from the medical profession, he still had the scientific itch within him, and he turned his research skills toward our family genealogy. He went about it systematically and diligently, combing obscure documents, attending genealogy conferences, trying to connect the dots, and fill in the gaps of what, at the time, was a very fall-turning-winter-looking family tree.
Like many things involving the past, the project moved along at a very slow pace. When my father-in-law would visit, he’d gather my family to the table to report on the incremental findings. Each of us would bravely put a smile on our face and politely glaze over while he would tell tales of minute family details he was able to uncover via microfilm at his recent genealogy conferences (ship records of family member’s travels to America, pictures of lost family tombstones, etc.).
But then one day, an important detail was discovered that jolted us awake: a link had come to light that ignited our collective interest.
“It seems that we’re related to an important rabbi,” my father-in-law reported to my husband one day on the phone. “I’m not familiar with him, but perhaps you are. Have you heard of Rav Levi Yitzchak M’Berditchev?”
Despite my husband’s rising intrigue that he might have just obtained a key that could actually unlock quite a bit of family history, he asked, “Are you sure?”
My father-in-law explained how he’d woven it together. His grandfather’s last name was shortened to Derber at Ellis Island, but before that it had been Derbaremdiger (which means the rachaman, the merciful one, in Yiddish). This had been Rav Levi Yitzchak M’Berditchev’s surname!
There are a few accounts of how he was assigned this last name, but the general notion was that it was fitting, given that Rav Levi Yitzchak was known as the “defense attorney” for the Jewish people (saniguran shel Yisrael). He was famous for this compassion for every Jew and would intercede on their behalf before Hashem. My father-in-law continued his research until he was able to trace our family history straight back to Rav Levi Yitzchak.
My husband took the genealogical reins from there. With a prominent figure now in his family tree, he believed there would be known records of Rav Levi Yitzchak’s yichus that could help him dig back further.
Through the help of some university research experts, my husband learned of resource tools that would help him uncover the history of Rav Levi Yitzchak’s family. From there he was able to discover that Rav Levi Yitzchak’s mother was a descendant of the Maharsha, the Maharal, and Rav Yehudah Hachassid.
Many gaps were soon filled, as we found ourselves suddenly galloping through history at a rapid clip, the secrets of our family history laid bare before us. The next thing we knew, the foliage in the recently-sparse family tree bloomed before our eyes as leaves upon leaves budded with news of talmidei chachamim, eventually revealing quite a splendid fruit at the top of the tree.
One Friday, after uncovering this crown jewel of genealogical research, my husband marched downstairs from his desk in our attic to where I was standing in the kitchen cooking for Shabbos. In a nonchalant tone, as if he was merely asking me which kugel I was making that week, he said with a smile: “So much for not knowing my mesorah. Guess who we’re related to?”
My wildest guesses didn’t come close. It was Dovid Hamelech himself! After I gasped, we decided to save the information to share with our children at the Shabbos table. Later that evening, with everyone dressed in their Shabbos finery, my husband revealed our roots. He stacked up a pile of his seforim — each one penned by one of our new-found relations — and kept our children spellbound as he went through sefer after sefer and explained our family tree.
At the end, I told him to reveal the ancestor toward the top of the tree by asking the question he had asked me in the kitchen just hours before. He directed it to one of our daughters who had always loved to play princess dress-up. She clapped in delight upon learning that she was related to a king and even did a regal curtsy in honor of the news!
After that, we all talked about the ancestors we now could trace even beyond that — Rus, Yehudah, and then all the way back to Adam Harishon…
Uncovering this information gave our family a strong feeling of connection to our mesorah. But for me, one question still remains: “Nu? Did Dovid Hamelech wait three hours?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 732)
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