All my relations, Part 2: Scroll

by Wolf Pascoe on July 8, 2011

Dead sea scroll

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

Czeslaw Milosz, from “Meaning”

A copy of the scroll tracing my family back to the 14th century arrived in the mail. It came in the form of a book. My cousin in Israel—her name was Hadassah Shimron—had worked on the project for ten years, translating, correlating, corroborating.

The original scroll had been lost, but a scribe had made a copy that found its way to Palestine before the war. It was reproduced in the book. There were charts, descriptions, translations, annotations. I had never held in my hands anything like it. Hadassah Shimron had re-constructed a family tree so vast that six centuries and the continent of Europe couldn’t contain it.

OF BLESSED MEMORY

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This is how it began:

My honorable father, the Rabbi Reb Berisch, of blessed memory, head of the Beth Din in the community of Brazdevitz, was the son of the Rabbi, the Ga’on Reb Leibush, of blessed memory, head of the Beth Din in the community of Brazdevitz, the son of the Ga’on Reb Avraham Moshe, head of the Beth Din in the holy community of Zuravno …

On and on it went, like Genesis, like a court record, like a fairy tale. The names traced paths through ghetto towns in Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Poland.

old new synagogueSome I recognized. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known by his acronym, Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Bible. Rabbi Judah Loew, the Marahal of Prague, creator of the Golem—the man fashioned of clay who had come to life, and whose slumbering body still rests in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in Prague.

At the very bottom of the scroll to one side, in tiny Hebrew letters, I found the unmistakable name of my great-grandfather, my father’s mother’s father.

So. I was part of this illustrious line of scholars. Rashi! The Maharal! The Golem!

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I had begun the project in search of a few names, hoping to clear up a few mysteries. This answer was of another order. It was deep archeology, impossible, dangerous. I had asked for water and been given ambrosia, asked for bread and been given manna. I had waded into the surf and the sea had parted.

THIS JUST IN

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earthenware jarsThere was more, fragmentary but tantalizing. Rashi, it seemed, claimed descent from Hillel, the greatest of the rabbanim. Hillel was chief of the Sanhedrin in the time of Herod. And Hillel, blessed be his name, claimed descent from David. The David. Biblical king of Israel.

I had seen the lining of the world.

A man in my men’s group, who had once waded into similar genealogical waters, issued this caveat:

It reminded me of the new-agers who when they talk about being reincarnated, it’s never from a horrid charwoman in England 1821, no it’s always Cleopatra or some such god or goddess.

Breathe.

I entered the names into the computer and produced a chart of my own. I summarized Hadassah Shimron’s work. I added this to the work I had already done and finished my little book. I made copies and sent it out to every American cousin I knew.

I felt enlarged, connected. At home in the world in a way I’d never felt before. Was I carried away? I was carried away. Though the miracle, I knew, was not the exalted family history. The miracle was the piercing of the veil. After all, isn’t everyone descended from the same man and woman? But to know the names, to trace the path!

It was luck. It was magic. It was revelation.

It was a castle of straw.
. . .

A

RELATED POSTS:

This is the second post of a three-part series. All My Relations continues next time with DNA.

All my relations, Part 1: Unpronounceable Town

Strange visitor from another planet

A

YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

The Golem inspired countless works of literature and art, beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The moody animation in Jiri Barta’s film below conjures an oppressive, creepy 16th century Prague. (You can make the Google ad at the bottom disappear by clicking on the X in its upper right corner.)

. . .

EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Any thoughts about the old ones and the lining of the world? I invite, bestir, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Beckley July 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm

What a FASCINATING story, Wolf! And now a cliffhanger. Can’t wait for the next installment.

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Wolf Pascoe July 8, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Tune in next week …

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Kristen @ Motherese July 8, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Wow, this is much better than one can get at ancestry.com! 🙂

Your tale puts me in mind of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, which involves a trip to Eastern Europe and a search for his ancestors. And Michael Chabon’s Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which the Golem figures as a prominent character. (Can you tell I can’t stop thinking about books this week?)

I’ll look forward to part 3 of the on-going saga.
Kristen @ Motherese recently posted..What’s in a Name?

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Wolf Pascoe July 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I love Chabon. Sorry to say I haven’t read Foer. Part 3 may put you in mind of Gregor Mendel.

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vicki July 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

I love the contemplation of a life, the actual feel of living. What a gift to be able to sense this flow of discrete, because named, effulgence.

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Wolf Pascoe July 9, 2011 at 10:32 pm

A river with many tributaries, many branches.

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Barbara S. July 9, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Ah, that exhilaration of discovering those links, those names. You know they’re there, but when they have names, it’s so different for some reason. And Wow! to have found such names in your links. I can feel the embers of my genealogy passion being fanned! Kudos to your cousin, by the way!

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Wolf Pascoe July 9, 2011 at 10:33 pm

It’s something like buried treasure, isn’t it?

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BigLittleWolf July 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm

This is such a fascinating journey. The David. That would cause a gasp. Or more than a gasp.

Holding my breath for the next part…

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Wolf Pascoe July 12, 2011 at 12:39 am

Hope I don’t let you down…

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