Hall of Fame: Even Unto the Fourth Generation

I’m a third generation American with roots in New York back to the 1900s, shomer Torah umitzvos straight down the line. I’m rather proud of that – I would like to think I’ve inherited some of the character and strength of conviction that kept my forbears religious 35 years before the shtetl transplanted itself to Brooklyn. But I wouldn’t bank on it. I wouldn’t bet on my inheriting much of anything non-genetic from my great grandparents, and even that’s been pretty well diluted.

Which is why I was tickled to hear that someone looking into my brother asked, among many other equally pertinent questions, “Why did his great grandparents come to the United States?”

I’m grateful they asked, because otherwise I would never have learned the answers. As you shall see, they are quite relevant, and you will be able to predict my own behavior based on their reasons:

Great grandfather #1: He was living in the spiritual oasis of the Russian army, when one day, while parading through St. Petersburg, he had enough. The parade of soldiers wheeled left at the corner, and he kept marching straight, and didn’t stop until he put a continent and an ocean between himself and a court martial.

Great grandfather #2: He was collecting money in the United States for Telz Yeshiva when Telz Yeshiva ceased to exist. Since the circumstances surrounding the abrupt non-existence of Telz weren’t exactly pleasant, he brought over his family and settled down.

Great grandfather #3: His father took a look around at what was happening to Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe under Cossack reign, and noted that the life expectancy was astoundingly short. Decided to follow the divine commandment of “vichai bahem” and took off for more salubrious parts.

Great grandfather #4: Ran to the United States from Jerusalem to escape the Turkish draft during WWI. He settled down, opened shop, and started sending money back to the yishuv in Yerushalayim. After the war, they told him not to come back because his checks were more valuable than his physical presence. Additionally, the haskala was thoroughly ravaging the Yerushalmi “shtetl,” and in terms of spirituality, the United States was probably better than the Old City.

I find these snapshots of history very interesting, but I’m not sure how much they say about me or my brother. (Especially since I didn’t even know them until yesterday.)

However, as scandalous as my great grandparents were, I know of at least one great, great grandparent who was far worse, so it’s a mercy that these shidduch researchers, like God, stopped at four generations. My Yerushalmi great, great grandfather got tired of watching his wife starve and his children go barefoot, so he took some spare change and lit out for the territories. He traded with the Northern Plains Indians for a year and returned to Yerushalayim with enough gold napoleons to last him six years, and that included some serious real estate investments; he bought back most of Har Hazeisim from the Arabs. After six years, he returned to the wild Midwest for a second go ‘round. He rode all day, and slept at night with his tallis and tefillin under his head. While I would like to think he never missed a minyan, I am forced to contemplate the possibility that he might have missed just a few. Which is why I think it’s best if we keep this relative under wraps. Who knows what people might think? It would be badforshidduchim.

Of course, if he’d left those gold napoleons for my dowry, they might, like Hashem, have counted the good for a thousand generations.

Or at least until the gold ran out.

46 thoughts on “Hall of Fame: Even Unto the Fourth Generation

  1. sounds like you’ve got a very fascinating background. but why did you wait so long to find it out? i think background and heritage is a really important thing. it’s a part of who you are. you never had those school projects that made you research and interview an old relative?

  2. I think it is ridiculous that people really do ask why your great-grandparents came to America. It just goes to show how crazy we all are when it comes to these minute things..

    But anyway- your family has an amazing story and is one you should definitely be proud of!

  3. you might want to check out:
    – Harriet Rochlin, Pioneer Jews – a book about jews in the wild west – maybe your greatgrandfather is mentioned there or there is bibliography you might use to find someone who does.
    – The Frisco Kid – polish rabbi (aka Gene Wilder) traveling through the west to lead a kehilah in san francisco, travelling with a bank robber (aka Harrison Ford). Hilarity ensues.(But do you see movies?)

  4. “Why did his great grandparents come to the United States?”

    That has to be, without a doubt, the worst question I have ever heard asked.

    It’s much worse than the usual “stupid” questions that are asked (plastic tablecloths type questions). At least with those, the question acts as a proxy.

    But why on earth does it matter why someone’s great-grandfather emigrated to the goldenei medina? What kernel of information are they trying to extract from the answer?

  5. LWY, it has to do with yichus. You (and I) have been brainwashed in goldene medina to think that all people are created equally and should be judged according to their actions, goals, etc., and not on their nationality, skin-color, or family. But, to be totally honest, Judaism doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Aharon’s kids were awarded the kehuna forever because of Aharon. The children of Eli were cursed because of Eli’s sons. Perhaps there are ways to get around the curse (see Abaye and Rava) but, apparently, it always holds.

    Of course, there is only One true judge who can decide who is good and who is evil, and we can point to many tzaddikim with closets full of questionable characters in their ancestry, and undoubtably everyone has some not-so-sterling relatives.

    But in the end family is very important in the charedi world (others may call it nepotism). It determines who gets to be rabbanim and roshei yeshiva, whether your kids will get into the ‘right’ schools (you know, the ones that are good for shidduchim), it can determine if you get other jobs. Look at what happens in the charedi community in Israel!

  6. The strange thing is how that “yichus” can work the opposite of how people expect it to work. Scratch my hubby’s and my family tree up by the grand parents and great grandparents and you have yichus up the wazoo, both “yeshivish” and chasidish. Yet we are really nothing like these ancestors. There is an assumption that what gives someone “yichus” is passed down unchanged, as if it were genetic. Would have loved to see the face on the Williamsburger who might have been redt to me when I was single, based on my great grandmother, when he walked in the door and found me instead.

  7. For the love of…GREAT grandparents!!

    Oy, I feel bad for this generation’s children’s children’s children:)

    –cool bio

  8. LWY, your are correct – according to the yeshivish world no gedolim lived in America before WWII. In fact, if you remember your B4S archives, a seminary rav told her that no one in America was shomer Shabbos before WWII so by definition they couldn’t be gedolim.

    The fact that this is all nonsense is entirely besides the point…

  9. Hey bad4…can u please email me…i just read something on yeshiva world that i think might make for an interesting post…not sure relevent to wat u are looking for in a guy but relevent to some of the rest of us…id post the whole thing as a comment but prob wont have the same effect…

  10. you had rabbi elchanon and rabbi ziskind for two, and I think the premere expert on ramban was a pre-war REITs trained rabbi who was a pulpit rabbi “out of town” (rabbi chavel) (his books on ramban is ten times better than artscroll’s apologetic garbage)

    you had plenty of giants who lived here, and plenty of orthodox jews. Heaven knows my little “out of town” community had like 5 kosher butcher shops and 3 large orthodox shuls of different traditions (one german, one russian, and one I don’t know what)

    Not to mention rav moshe came here pre world war 2 and was really important.

  11. …and the corollary to my earlier comment about men and women who came from undistinguished lineage, is that yichus didn’t amount to bubkes when it came to Yishmael and Esav, did it?

  12. sorry Ari but esav’s grandfather was lavan and yishmael’s grandfather was terach while his maternal lineage was egyptian. 3 generations of tzaddikim however, produced the shevatim.

  13. the shvatim, of whom ruven slept with his fathers wife (depending on the rabbi in question, most seemed to hold this way) yosef was a stuck up snot and his father knew it and chided him for it, and his brothers hated him for it, levi and shimon explicitly disobayed their fathers wishes and murdered the shechemites, and yehuda slept with a harlot.


    Yes they all made teshuva, and are great tzaddikim despite these flaws, and lived in egypt in harmony, but come on.

    Secondly, they had lavan for a grandfather (probably the worst of the lot)(on whose lap they were practicaly reared) and they lived in a pritzus dikke place. don’t TELL me that they’d get shidduchim very easily. (not to mention dad kissed rochel before he married her (which was muttar up until a takana, but whatever). Plus he didn’t get married with shidduchim, so from the cheredi perspective he’s a no good bum they would have beaten if they had the chance!

    And to further this evidence, take for instance shlomo’s sons. They had three generations of tzaddikim on all sides, and see what lousy human beings they were (and their progeny became).

    I’m not as conversant in nach as our hosts, so I’ll just let them bring out other examples. 🙂

  14. Ahem. While we’re on the topic, I presume you’re speaking of Yosef HATZADIK. While he may not have been perfect, I hardly think the term “stuck-up snot” can apply in this case.

    (That said, I’m with you in contradicting the previous commentator. Yaakov Avinu did have a full set of good children, but in no way did the “3 times charm” secure the future.)

  15. call it what you will but a spade is a spade…

    however, hashem loved him and therefore made good and sure that he’d loose that quality so he could find a good shidduch. 🙂

    He wouldn’t be the only tzaddik who had issues when he was a teenager. 🙂

  16. Yoni, thanks for the backup. You’re spot-on. I think we’ve pretty much proved that yichus is overrated, eh?

    Now, if we could only get shadchanim to be a little more like Eliezer, yes? His criteria was derech eretz and menschlechkeit. Was he impressed that Rivka used white tablecloths, was a size-two, or came from a distinguished family? Afraid not.

    It was whether Rivka had the compassion and sensitivity to attend to the camels needs before her own.

    So much for yichus.

  17. well, rivkah had a kind of yichus.

    and I’m afraid that, per rashi (and the medrash he relies on) if you were to put adult sized clothes on rivkah, she’d be like a octuple zero, unless she was really, really fat.


  18. True enough. Avraham sent Elizer to his hometown, as it were, because he knew that even among the thorns, a rose would grow. He knew that even the families such as his own, undistinguished and even a little rogue-ish, would produce someone as great as an Avraham or Rivka.

  19. Ari, that’s being blind on purpose.

    Avraham chose from within his own family at the exclusion of Eliezer’s, why?

    Yichus plain and simple. I’m not defending the extent to which people go today but don’t rewrite entire parts of the chumash.

  20. G: Correct — he wanted a wife for Yitzchak from his own family, even though his yichus was not considered particularly stellar. He knew that if someone like an Avraham could emerge from the family, then someone else of greatness could emerge as well. The raw traits were there, even though they were not the kind of yichus a modern-day shadchan would have gravitated to.

  21. …and yet he would not allow a wife from the family of his most trusted and honored servant/student…or from amongst those who had willingly turned their backs on most of the world and joined his belief in the One True God…All these options, guaranteed options (there was not ONE nice girl to be found?) and he sends his man off to come back with someone from his family. There was no gurantee that a Rivka existed, for all Avraham knew the person who came back could fall well short of being “worthy” of his son, and yet none of that mattered more than the fact that she be of his bloodline.

    facts are facts

  22. I was going to mention Dovid HaMelech who in fact was declared not Jewish by Doeg HaEdomi… but I think the examples provided are good enough…

  23. I have to be moiche the zilzul of the shivtei kah.
    Please try to refer to tzadikkim with a modicum of respect and deference.

  24. anon, I don’t think that yosef hatzadik would be very happy if we were to chas v’shalom hide his inadiquacies in his youth. Infact I think he’d be rather angry at us.

    his shame is recorded in the torah that we should learn lessons from it, and he’d be rather mad if we denied people the oppertunity to learn from him and avoid his mistakes.

    otherwise he would just be pointlessly humiliated, and I think he’d be even more dismayed if we pretended like they were merits, becuase then g-d forbid we might emulate the behavior he showed.

    Why do you think the torah has all these humiliating stories about the avos, the shvatim, david, moshe, the benei yisroel, or any of the other greats of our times? why do you think the neviim recorded these humiliations? so that we should learn from them.

    I am being respectfull. They are tzaddikim, but these things are recorded so that we can learn from them, and minimizing (or chas v’shalom hiding) their sins rather hampers that objective.

  25. I’m arguing terminology (and the outlook behind it) – did Yosef etc. make a mistake l’fi madreigasam? Yes, and judging from the mforshim a fairly minute one. But remember the context – we’re talking about Yosef Hatzadik, whose gadlus we can’t begin to fathom, not ch”v an “inadequate youth”.
    I’m sure that you know as well as I do how much ink has been spilled by *all* the meforshei hatorah to clarify each of the issues that you mentioned. Nobody is hiding or whitewashing them, just defining exactly what they mean.

    BTW, I’m not sure why you keep harping on *Yosef’s* shame, if anything it was the shvatim who were confounded in front of Yosef.

    And about your original shidduch point, IIRC, he found Osnas’s jewelry that identified her as belonging to Yaakov’s house and then found her and married her. Sounds like he cared abt. yichus 🙂

  26. anon, Yosef instigated most of what was happening, and compounded it far worse than it would have been otherwise.

    just how would you treat your brother if he had so little derech eretz and humility as to reply to your feelings of resentment about his getting treated extra special and getting more time with daddy by his telling you that “he was better than you and g-d ordained it”?

    Most people I know would beat the living daylights out of him quick.

    It takes an astonishing lack of empathy and derech eretz (not to mention his being quite the baal gaiva!) to say and do what yosef did to his brothers.

    every time I read it it jars me because of just what horrible middos he showed to them.

    It wasn’t ok that they sold him to slavery, but yosef did everything he could to excaserbate the situation.

  27. Um, what should he have done? According to many m’forshim, the dreams were a nevuah that he was obligated to say over.

    Let me reiterate, we’re dealing with the shivtei kah. The shvatim weren’t ch”v jealous in the colloquial sense, nor was Yosef a ba’al ga’ava. They were above and beyond that.
    If you have questions on their behavior, you’re in good company. Please invest in a mikraos g’dolos or speak to a Rav and try to find some answers.

  28. fisrtly most rishonim, achronim and tannaim would almost certainly call you a kofer for insinuating that g-d forbid they didn’t feel jealousy. In their oppinion she shvatim were human, fallable, and subject ot all normal human foibles.

    secondly, Yaakov tells yosef that he shouldn’t tell his brothers, and he directly dissobayed his father in that regard, which is a serious sin.

    But as I said, most rabbanim of the past would call you a kofer for insinuating that yosef couldn’t have been a baal gaiva.

    The Most people who insinuate otherwise are recent, appologetic, and revisionistic, not to mention quite ignorant about the subject, either through willfull refusal to understand what they were reading and impinging on the dignity of the authors by insinuating that they violated the principle of “do not say an ambiguous thing”, or they are ignorant becuase they have, hashem have mercy, neglected an important feild of torah study infavor of something ill equiped to replace it.

  29. *sigh* why am I getting sucked into this?

    Can I have an example of *one* rishon, acharon and tanna? Regardless, I said that they weren’t jealous “in the colloquial sense of the word,” the way that we feel jealous of someone who has more than us.

    Not in my Chumash it doesn’t. (“vayigar bo aviv” is after he told the shvatim)

    No clue what your last paragraph is talking about.

  30. take for instance the tannaic statement in midrash rabba, which expresses disbelief in the content of the chumash (and I would say possibly even a vague worry that it was in error) saying that “is it possible that one in the full passion of his youth could act thus?!”

    He said this about yosef, and he clearly considered yosef a normal human being, and expressed clear surprise that he didn’t sleep with potifar (or is it his wife, at the moment I’ve feeling fuzzy).

    is this good enough for you? I’m not at home and don’t have access to sefarim at the moment.

    and its probably one of the mefarshim, but it is clear that his father was not at all happy about it, if so, it means that his father did not wish him to do so. (which I think is explicitly stated by one of the midrashim, pirushim, or both.)

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  33. “….Oh, her grandparents grew up in the US. It’s really not for us. We wouldn’t fit in”

    HA HA HA

    Great post!

  34. Without reading the whole comment thread, I’d like to add (or repeat?) another question I’ve heard: Whether the grandparents (or great gp) were buried together. Whaaaaat??

    Yes, I agree, you have quite the yichus. 🙂

    LIke one guy I dated who talked about his yichus back to some gadol…and no, offense, that didn’t score him a second date. He was actually pretty jerky considering who he came from!

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  38. Interesting to hear another story about someone with lineage back to the Telz yeshiva. My great grandfather and two of his brothers left Telz when their father refused to stop learning and get a job to support his family. The other brothers and sisters later thank G-d made it to Israel. While in the United States my great grandfather journeyed around the West also, even working as a baker at a famous Denver hotel.

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