Seeking the Richness in Genealogy
Genealogy is far more than just dates and facts.
Genealogy is learning!
We have all heard the old expression that someone’s knowledge is ‘a mile wide, but only an inch deep’. Today I would like to suggest to you, give you some examples, and explain why I believe this should not be anyone’s genealogy, ancestry, and family history goal. As I have said before, it is incredibly valuable if you take the mental approach that working on your genealogy is a marathon and not a sprint. In order to fully weave, what I call ‘the tapestry of our family history’ we need to go well beyond dates and facts and learn more by seeking out the stories, the culture, the color, and work to understand the world in which our ancestors lived their lives.
My wife’s cousin recently sent me an email which illustrated my philosophy from a different angle. It seems that she was in Mass one day last week when the priest’s homily was on the topic of families. Part of what she had this to say was the following:
“The homily for today’s Mass was all about how families should track their heritage as far back as they can in order to see how very blessed they have been by God.”
I am willing to bet you agree with the priest on this just as much as I do!
We need to move past simply ‘documenting’ and move into ‘understanding’ our ancestors. This means at times we must often move past the easy, tried-and-true resources of Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com, FamilySearch.com, etc. and delve deeper using all kinds of resources. Some of these resources, like some of those above, will not be free, but some will be. One of my favorites resources is the pay site GenealogyBank.com with its more than 6,500 historic newspapers, but for every ‘pay site’ there are hidden, free gems online such as Jewish-History.com that currently houses digital copies of The Occident and American Jewish Advocate from 1843 to 1853.
Even though it has been online for awhile, I happened to just recently discover the Jewish-Histroy.com site while I was conducting some research on the original Bohemian/Czech immigrants of Cleveland. Within this site I discovered some fabulous materials about the father of one of these original immigrants that has added a wealth of richness to this story. Searching on this site alone, I found 14 references to the exact Joseph Levy, the immigrant I was seeking. While every one of the items was useful and interesting, it was a letter, written and submitted by Joseph Levy himself that really caught my eye. Published in the June 1852 edition there was one major drawback. It was written in Hebrew, and what I was told was ‘Old Hebrew’. (I have also seen this differentiation between modern and old descriptions in some of our Czech translation work here at Onward To Our Past®) I began to try and locate an appropriate translator. This turned out to be no simple undertaking, but thanks to the good offices of Mr. Daniel Horowitz, Chief Genealogist for MyHeritage.com, I was able to get this letter translated to English.
And what a magnificent letter it turned out to be! But rather than simply say so, read below and you can see if you agree. Needless to say, the third paragraph is STELLAR genealogy!
I hope you enjoy and I bet you can see just how much richer such history can make anyone’s genealogy, ancestry, and family history!
Vol. X No. 3
Sivan 5612 June 1852
According to a man’s wisdom will he be praised,
but the distorted of heart will be put to shame.
(Proverbs 12, 9,)
B’’H Cleveland, Sunday 14 Cheshvan
I hear the sound of distress among the writers of the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland and the Asmonean in New York. The latter wrote with horror and amazement about what happened in Cleveland – that a Jewish man from the community wrote a final decree of divorce and gave it to his wife and sent her away on the sixth day in the month of Tishri. The Plain Dealer reported the matter of the divorce without explaining its reason, as though the husband and the man authority who issued the divorce decree had taken the matter lightly and the divorce ceremony had been conducted in haste. The editor of the Asmonean wrote contentious and grievous words. Such matters are rarely heard of in America and he dwells on the suffering and grief that flows from the divorce decree which ejects the loving doe from the home, in order to create a storm. In sweet words he explains that he seeks to teach the readers about the nature and difficulty of the divorce decree. Among the multitude of his open criticisms he adds his amazement that three discerning and god-fearing men can be found to appoint a Beth Din (religious court) of three experts in the town of New York and even in the small town of Cleveland.
Since I myself issued the divorce decree, the words of the Asmonean penetrate the depths of my heart like barbs. Lest I become the object of derision and disgrace in the eye of the public, our fellow Jews, I am compelled to remove from myself the sword of slander. I announce publicly the validity of the divorce bill; let my integrity testify for me and I will feel relieved. I will explain with clear proofs and with utterances refined sevenfold: The divorce decree was passed from the husband to his wife according to the established procedure and in accordance with the commandment from the Torah and the specifications of our sages. Before I begin to speak against the wise men of our people and as is usual about my life story, the country of my birth and what led me to occupy myself with the work of divorce bills:
I am Joseph, son of the late Rabbi, Isaac Levy, an Israelite. I speak Hebrew and the German language (I regret that I do not speak English). I was born in Europe, in the State of Bohemia close to the town of Pisek. From my birth I always followed the Law and strove to walk in the footsteps of the Talmud. I have always loved the Hebrew language and grammar. I am now fifty-four years old and when I was fourteen I went to learn among diligent youth, in the Jewish community of Prague. I learned there for six years with the great Rabbis of the Yeshiva, god-fearing luminaries known across the state of Bohemia. They included the great Rabbi who taught pupils for more than thirty years, R. Bezalel Ranschburg author of the work ‘Horeh Gever’ on the Gemara tractate of ‘Horayot’,- Decisions and the work ‘Emek Sukkot’ on the tractate ‘Sukkot’ and ‘Pitchei Nidda’ on the tractate ‘Nidda’ and further handwritten manuscripts. I also learned with the late great Rabbi Isaac Spitz, the head of the Beth Din in the town of Bunzlau who is known from his book ‘Teshuva Beahava ‘ and also with R. Elazar Fleckeles, the presiding judge of the Beth Din of the community of Prague at that time.
My hand was pressed against my lips to gain insight and understanding in the depths of the sea of the Talmud. I had God-fearing friends and I did not swerve to the left or the right from the moral path or the fear of God. When I was thirty years old, the Rabbis of our country ordained me and I received the authority to teach and to serve as a religious judge. The certificates and stamps from my ordination are in my home; I have shown them to the beloved members of our community and they can be shown to anyone who wants to see them.
For two years my home country was overtaken by the tumult of war. I considered leaving to go to one of the States of America and I feared the sword for my two elder sons. A year ago a wind lifted me over the seas and I followed them with my other two sons to Cleveland in Ohio, a place where the air was pleasant, pure and clear and the people healthy and I chose to settle there. For I had found the community I love Adath Jeshurun known as Anshei Hesed and most of its people are God-fearing. They have a synagogue built as a model to emulate, a warm ritual bath for women and a cemetery. All these came together to create an everlasting heritage.
I was accepted into the community as a member. I deliver a lecture every Sabbath without payment on the Torah and the Agadah to draw people’s hearts close to the fear of God and his Laws. I also brought with me the Code of Jewish Law, the works of the Maharsha the Maharshal, the Maharam, the Rashbah and further responsa from the Holy Shlah and Agada. I also brought assets, thank God and I acquired place for myself. I built a house with a shop to make a living through buying and selling. I thank and praise God for bringing me to this place. I have not needed the gifts of human hands and I have been to fix times for learn studying the Holy Law as we are commanded. The heavens should be my witness that I did not tell my personal history to glorify myself. Far be it from me to do such thing but circumstances compel me. One also learns from the Gemara that in a place where one is not know it is permitted to say: I am a learned man.
I will now seek to reply to the editor of the Asmonean. I will answer first things first and last things last and I will explain what led me to issue the degree of divorce:
I personally witnessed the pain of the man forced to divorce his wife. Woe is the household governed by strife between husband and wife angering each other all their days. The reason was one of those list in the ‘Even Ezer’ section 141 to the end, where it explains that there is an obligation to divorce the leaders of the community asked me to issue a decree of divorce to prevent the man from falling into the pit he had dug and from dying before his time from anger and sorrow. After research and I enquires I agreed to their request. The woman also assented. I put my faith in God, my Rock, to remove any hindrances from my path. I did not take the matter since I had studied the Gemara tractate ‘Gittin’ – Divorce Decrees in my youth. Before issuing the decree I revised the laws of divorce from section 119 to up to section 154 in the ‘Even Haezer’ and according to Maimonides.
A Now with reference to what he, Asmonean, says about the need to research and examine the reasons for the divorce. This is absolutely true and I researched and examined closely all the findings. However I will not reveal the findings now for a reason that will stay with me. As the Sages say, there is a time to be silent.
B (As he said) we are careful to observe and uphold the laws of the state. I was also very careful about this, since we uphold these just laws with love and pride. The government does not prevent us from upholding the law of Mosaic Law.
C His amazement and doubt that there could be three people fit to issue a decree of divorce from the Jewish Communities in the State of New York. Where in heaven does this vision come from? I was amazed and incredulous that the supremely beautiful New York could have no one studying the law be empty of god-fearing Jews. Woe betide this rumor! It is told but it will not be believed. Even it were true the communities of America would not be destroyed because gold can be found even among the sand. See Ecclesiastes chap. 9, verses 13-18.
(To be Continued)
Vol. X No. 4
Tammuz 5612 July 1852
Mr. Joseph Levy, of Cleveland, Ohio
Mr. Joseph Levy, of Cleveland, Ohio
D In his rebuke, the editor of mentions a Beth Din (religious court) of three experts to issue a decree of divorce. This is a complete error. In chap. 141 of the Mishna it says that Levirate marriage and the termination of marriage with a minor girl requires a court of three but this is not what the Mishna teaches us about divorce. In chap 12 of the tractate ‘Yebamot’ it says that Levirate marriage requires three judges and they even be three simple people. The question is asked in the Gemara – if they can be simple people why is the word judges mentioned/ The answer is three people who are fit to be judges. The Gemara not conducted according to the of the Gemara tractate Sanhedrin it says that Levirate marriage and the annulment of the marriage of a minor girl require three judges and even three ordinary people. This is surely an issue where we can draw a comparison, as it is written in the case of Levirate marriage that an ordinary judge suffices – the his sister-in-law shall ascend to the gate, to the elders…. This requirement for a court of three experts is not mentioned at all with respect to divorce. Nor is it mentioned anywhere in the tractate of ‘Gittin’ decrees that a divorce requires a religious court except in the case of a divorce decree issued through a representative who has to say: It was written and sealed in my presence.
Thus writes the Ramah in the ‘Even Ezer’ in the chap. on divorce, section 154: At the time of the sages of the Gemara the custom was to appoint an expert wise man. Similarly we find in the wrings of the Early Sages that a divorce decree was only issued in the presence of the major rabbinic leaders of the generation. It is written that this was customary but not required. If a man issues a diverse without any authority it is written in the ‘Yoreh Deah’ section 242, par. 14. Someone who issue a divorce, or performs a Levirate marriage and he has not been appointed a teacher, his deeds have no value.
In a case where it is not known to the public that someone is an expert there are those who disagree and are lenient. This is where the matter ends, but it seems to me further that a man can be ordained a teacher for the purpose of issuing a Divorce Decree. In any case there are clear proofs that three experts are not required in order to issue a divorce but one a Rabbi who has been ordained and we add to upright men to make the matter public. And if a fellow Jew asks -who appointed you to be a rabbi and our teacher? To this I would reply that I have the authority of a teacher, even it is from distant Europe The Torah portion of Judges: You shall come to the Kohanim, the Levites, and to the judge who will be in those days which is written in the Bile Parshat Shoftim , 17… Yiftach in his generation is like Samuel in his …
E The editor wrote that that also in the African desert and the parched land and desert of Russia a case like this did not take place. What can we imagine of places where animals roam the forests? However if there are Jewish communities there they also followed the laws of the Torah. I think God dwells among a people who love justice and uprightness and in whose streets wisdom flourishes: He will plant a sapling and its flowers will extend around the world.
F The editor wrote that there is doubt how the word Cleveland should be written in Hebrew and this poses a serious difficulty. This is not my opinion on the matter and the laws tractate ‘Gittin’ should be studied carefully. According to the law of the Torah you can write the divorce bill in any language and alphabet, however in practice the decree has been written in Aramaic language and the Assyrian script. The precise writing mentioned in the ‘Even Ezer’ refers only to the names of men and women. With reference to the names of places and communities founded long ago, whose names have been changed over time we are particular to write the names as they were written in the first divorce decrees so as not to pour scorn on them. New places names are written phonetically as they are pronounced. The divorce decree does not vary according to country. Cleveland was established forty years ago and Jewish settled there fifteen years ago. If ten years pass without a divorce being issued it is good to avoid doubt and write the place name as it was originally written.
G The editor wrote that there are those who have little knowledge of our Holy Law and seek to make a living from it and to our Holy Law into a spade for digging. I thank God that these arrows have not penetrated me. All those who know me make will attest that I loathe unjust gain and have taken no payment, but only compensation for loss of time. I praise God that I make my living from the trade in my shop and all the ways of the Torah are pleasant and happy are those who support it. However I will further ask the editor of the Asmonean: If a Jewish man marries a woman beloved to him at the time of the marriage, and after some time he discovers that his wife has committed adultery or has broken religious law in a way that makes her forbidden to him, he is obliged to divorce her. Shall we forbid him to send this wicked woman away from his home through a divorce decree and watch as he spends the rest of his life in sorrow, sitting in depression and silence or will he come together with her although it is forbidden, hating her for her evil deeds. The Holy Law brings light to our eyes and saves us from destruction in the hands of a wicked woman lest our feet not stray from the straight path. And all the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace to all those who walk in straight-forwardness. People will rebel in the guise of modesty and cause quarrels and defame those who seek justice. This is a summary of the writings of R. Aharon Levy of Barcelona in the ‘Sefer Hachinuch’, 5579. He should remove the wickedness from his house.
If despite all this, the editor asks why the man did not take his divorced wife and go to New York to give her the decree, I will answer in all honesty: He is not a wealthy man and if he would have wanted to make his way to New York he would have had to take with him a map and two witnesses, since the witnesses have to know the man and the woman, which would have entailed much expense. To go there and return to his town would have cost more than120 dollars, which is not an expense he could afford. In addition, according to his testimony there is doubt as to whether he would have found someone to issue the decree there.
In this writing I have shown in an exemplary way that I researched and examined the matter of the divorce according to the strictures of the Law and that it was written and given according to the customs of the Earlier and Later Sages, nothing were omitted. Nor was it done in a hurry. The writing in his name and her name continued from the tenth hour in the morning until the fifth hour after midday. The witnesses were valid and they did not move from the beginning until the end of the writing. There were also witnesses to the handing over. There was great publicity and it was known throughout the community. The house where the divorce was conducted was full of men and women. The men I added to make up the religious court were fitting people. One is a teacher of children of the Anshei Hesed community – a righteous and literate man, knowledgeable in the Torah and its commentaries and in possession of much further knowledge. The third man is a son of one of the residents, a literate man. The scribe was a man who is speedy in his work. He studied for seven years at the yeshiva of the community of Nicholsburg in the state of Moravia with Rabbi of the whole diaspora, Rabbi Treibitsch, chief rabbi of the town and state. He submitted testimony written in his own hand that he is expert in the ways of the Talmud and competent to teach Jewish children Gemara in the best way. He also studied the tractate Gittin and its laws. I wrote the decree according to the version of Maimonides in the ‘Yad Hazaka’ and also in accordance to our sages in the tractate of Gittin and the Even Ezra on the laws of divorce. I am also in possession of the work ‘Nahlat Shiva’ which has a version of the decree with all the strictures of the law. The work ‘Sefer Motzvoth Ketanot’ shows a version of the decree used at that time in Paris. The work ‘Sefer Hachinuch’ includes a version of the decree according to all the strictures of the law. Finally the work ‘Chok Israel’ which details the 613 Mitzvoth, shows a version of the decree as it was issued in the town of Prague and the author is Rabbi Israel Landau, son of the great Sage Rabbi Yecheskel Landau, author of the book ‘Noda BiYehudah’ on the tractates Pessahim Beitza and Berachot.
I hope that every man who fears God in his heart will gain insight and understanding and grasp the truth from all that is written here, on the sixth day of the month of Tishri. I have written with authorization and without slander as is fitting for the Jewish people and I am certain the divorce decree is valid. If I am wrong my error lodges with me and may God will forgive my sin:
My fellow Jews the judges, elders and leaders of the Jewish communities and all those who know law and judgment will judge between me and my opponents. If I am in error I will accept my reproof with love for I grow in learning from all my teachers. Love truth and may there be everlasting peace for the people of Israel!
I am the writer, a worm and not a man.
Joseph Levy of Cleveland: The humble Joseph, son of the esteemed Rabbi
Note.—We have left out a small portion of Mr. Levy’s letter, which has no immediate bearing upon the question of the legality of the proceedings; and as it is more in the nature of a private reply than of public importance, we have deemed it advisable to suppress it for the present. In case Mr. Levy requires farther defence, he can incorporate it with the same hereafter. But we trust, that those who so harshly attacked what ought never to have been questioned, will see the propriety of preserving a profound silence hereafter; since they will to a certainty not display a great deal of learning, by contending against the self-evident principles and practices of Judaism, and its teachers at all times.