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