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.